Brace for the online education tsunami

Posted: May 6, 2012 at 6:13 am


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Originally published May 4, 2012 at 11:10 PM | Page modified May 4, 2012 at 6:01 PM

Online education is not new. The University of Phoenix started its online degree program in 1989. Four million college students took at least one online class during the fall of 2007.

But, over the past few months, something has changed. The elite, pace-setting universities have embraced the Internet. Not long ago, online courses were interesting experiments. Now online activity is at the core of how these schools envision their futures.

Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have committed $60 million to offer free online courses from both universities. Two Stanford professors, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, have formed a company, Coursera, which offers interactive courses in the humanities, social sciences, mathematics and engineering. Their partners include Stanford, Michigan, Penn and Princeton. Many other elite universities, including Yale and Carnegie Mellon, are moving aggressively online. President John Hennessy of Stanford summed up the emerging view in an article by Ken Auletta in The New Yorker, "There's a tsunami coming."

What happened to the newspaper and magazine business is about to happen to higher education: a rescrambling around the Web.

Many of us view the coming change with trepidation. Will online learning diminish the face-to-face community that is the heart of the college experience? Will it elevate functional courses in business and marginalize subjects that are harder to digest in an online format, like philosophy? Will fast online browsing replace deep reading?

If a few star professors can lecture to millions, what happens to the rest of the faculty? Will academic standards be as rigorous? What happens to the students who don't have enough intrinsic motivation to stay glued to their laptop hour after hour? How much communication is lost gesture, mood, eye contact when you are not actually in a room with a passionate teacher and students?

The doubts are justified, but there are more reasons to feel optimistic. In the first place, online learning will give millions of students access to the world's best teachers. Already, hundreds of thousands of students have taken accounting classes from Norman Nemrow of Brigham Young University, robotics classes from Sebastian Thrun of Stanford and physics from Walter Lewin of MIT.

Online learning could extend the influence of U.S. universities around the world. India alone hopes to build tens of thousands of colleges over the next decade. Curricula from U.S. schools could permeate those institutions.

Research into online learning suggests that it is roughly as effective as classroom learning. It's easier to tailor a learning experience to an individual student's pace and preferences. Online learning seems especially useful in language and remedial education.

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Brace for the online education tsunami

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May 6th, 2012 at 6:13 am

Posted in Online Education