College Crackup and the Online Future

Posted: May 22, 2012 at 2:13 pm

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Illustration by Keith Shore

By Mark C. Taylor 2012-05-21T23:00:24Z

In the coming decade, emerging technologies will thoroughly transform higher education. Although distance learning and computer-assisted education have been around since the 1960s, financial pressures are forcing institutions to develop aggressive online programs.

When education goes online, how professors teach, what students learn and how institutions are structured will change significantly.

Some changes are well under way. In 2009, about 29 percent of college students took at least one course online; by 2014, that number is projected to increase to 50 percent. Much of this growth has been driven by for-profit schools, but in the past couple of years, traditional colleges and universities have designed their own programs in an effort to increase tuition income without expanding the physical plant. It remains to be seen whether this financial bet will pay off.

The most promising initiatives involve cooperation between and among schools. Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University recently announced a $60 million initiative to create edX, described as a transformational partnership in online education that will enhance campus-based teaching and learning and build a global community of online learners. Through video and immediate feedback, students will be able to take online versions of MIT and Harvard courses that include exams, papers and even laboratories.

Two Stanford University computer scientists secured $16 million in venture capital to create a new company named Coursera, which will distribute online interactive courses in the humanities, social sciences and engineering. They were inspired by the wildly popular Khan Academy, which offers more than 3,100 micro-lectures on a broad range of subjects, and by the extraordinary success of a class taught by their Stanford colleague Sebastian Thrun that attracted 160,000 students from 190 countries. The new venture will include Stanford, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University. Thrun himself cofounded the online university Udacity.

Many people within and beyond the academy are skeptical about distance learning and online education. The resistance of faculty members has been the greatest obstacle to the development of effective Web-based learning. While it is true that seminars and small discussion classes cant be taught online, they can be taught effectively using teleconferencing. Two of the most successful courses I have taught were teleseminars with the University of Helsinki in 1992 -- with incoming and outgoing images of the class and myself projected onto a small television screen -- and the University of Melbourne in 1996.

However effective face-to-face classes might be, the reality is that this traditional model is simply unaffordable for most students. In addition, more and more students are working and dont have time for place-based education. Only 15 percent to 18 percent of students in post-secondary education fit the profile of 18- to 22-year-olds residing on campus. For the 85 percent so-called nontraditional students, it is necessary to develop effective alternatives.

The move from the real to the virtual classroom involves fundamental changes. Education is shifting from a mass- production model to one based on what business calls mass customization. This transformation raises rarely asked questions: Why is college duration four years? Why is every course the same length? Why does graduation depend on the completion of a specified number of courses or credits?

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College Crackup and the Online Future

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May 22nd, 2012 at 2:13 pm

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