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How online learning is reinventing college

The online learning movement, spreading more by the week, will change how tomorrow's students go to school, who teaches them, and what they learn. 

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Challenges remain on the road to an electronic "edutopia," of course. Traditional universities haven't quite figured out how – or whether – to charge for online courses, or if they should give people credit for taking them. Professors on some campuses are rebelling, concerned that MOOCs devalue in-person teaching. Skeptics argue that digital learning can't provide the intimacy of the classroom or the social experience of the campus.

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But some barriers are falling. California is considering a law to require state schools to accept credit for approved MOOCs, in response to more than a half million public college students shut out of oversubscribed basic classes. More broadly, the American Council on Education has recommended five MOOCs as worthy of college credit, which could make it easier to get and transfer courses. The move may lead to putting standardized introductory classes online. Might Lander's course one day be accepted for basic science credit at hundreds of colleges?

Schools are wrestling with more fundamental questions as well. Why would students pay $50,000 a year to trudge through slush for Lander's class when they can get it on their computer screen free of charge? What really is the value of learning on campus? Will the ivy-framed quad even exist tomorrow?

"Disruption is happening," says Anant Agarwal, president of edX, which provides a platform for schools to deliver online courses. "The university, the college, the school as we know it will never be the same again."

* * *

The MOOC is the catalyst behind all the change. It brought the sleepy world of online learning, once perceived as a second-rate alternative, smack into the center of campus.

New online learning models are now surfacing, such as hybrid courses, which combine Internet lectures with in-class teaching. Universities are also forming "closed" networks to offer online courses for credit exclusively to students on participating campuses. The most notable of these, Semester Online, will be launched this fall by a consortium of seven universities on 2U, an educational platform.

While online learning is hardly new, people began seeing it differently after MOOCs went viral in the fall of 2011. Sebastian Thrun, a computer science professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., offered his artificial intelligence course free of charge online – and 150,000 people signed up. Soon after, one of his colleagues, Andrew Ng, did the same with his Stanford machine learning course, and 105,000 enrolled. More courses followed. Suddenly, MOOCs were finding audiences worldwide.

Unlike more traditional open courseware – hour-long lectures videotaped from the back of the room and posted on the Internet – MOOCs have caught on in part because they are made for online learning. You can sign up for Lander's course, for example, in just a matter of minutes (the hardest part is devising a clever username). The whole course pops up on the landing page and is easy to explore with the click of a mouse: schedule, syllabus, brief lecture videos, assignments, video "deep dives" explaining topics only touched on in class, discussion forums, and a progress page to track how you're doing.

And you can attend lectures when you want: Watch a lesson now or download it and watch it later. If you missed something, listen to a lecture again. It's all as friendly as a basset hound.

"Welcome back for Week 2," Lander says in a genial tone. Dressed in a blue button-down shirt, he praises everyone for hard work and says the course will only get better. You feel as if he's talking to you, even though he's addressing thousands out in the electronic ether.

"We're done with atoms and bonds, and we're going to move to looking at cool proteins!" he says.

Lander may not be as animated as Bill Nye the Science Guy, but he's close. There is, in other words, nothing scary about this MIT course. In fact, Lander has a special video message urging high school teachers to have their students take it.

The welcoming vibe is classic MOOC, even though online courses exhibit clear differences in style. Some of this stems from the companies that produce them. While more of these educational firms are surfacing every day, three – Coursera, edX, and Udacity – have earned the most attention.

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