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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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Coursera, a for-profit started by Dr. Ng and Stanford colleague Daphne Koller, reached 1 million users faster than Facebook and is now expanding to become a tool for credit-bearing courses: Ten state university systems recently joined Coursera in a move that could include credit, but is more clearly a bet on using the MOOC platform to increase their reach. EdX is smaller – 27 university partners, 50 courses, and 930,000 students – and has focused more on developing online tools. Udacity, the for-profit started by Dr. Thrun with David Stavens and Mike Sokolsky, has a reputation for strong teaching in math and technology.

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While MOOCs are still evolving, they have flourished because they are a mash-up of what many people love: engaging information in video form, gaming, and social networking. In less than a year, they have grown from a handful of courses by a few professors to hundreds of offerings from institutions around the world. Moving tales circulate of people in remote areas whose lives have been changed by free learning from top universities. On campuses, however, MOOCs are less a wondrous new thing than a force unraveling traditions and driving campus leaders to reexamine what it is they do and how they do it.

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On the Tuesday after Memorial Day 2012, Duke University Provost Peter Lange called Lynne O'Brien, director of the college's Center for Instructional Technology, with a simple question: Should Duke begin offering MOOCs? And by the way, he added, we have only about a week to decide.

The university quickly gathered faculty members. Professors wanted in. Duke announced in July that it would partner with Coursera and initially offer eight courses. The first, "Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach," began Sept. 24. The instructor, Roger Barr, who looks like Jimmy Carter in suspenders, had taught the same course on campus for 20 years to about 20 to 30 students a semester. Overnight, he was reaching 7,500 from 110 different countries. Dr. O'Brien tracked the MOOC and in February issued a report confirming what other universities have found: Lots of students enroll, but only a handful stick with it. About 300 ended up finishing the class.

This isn't necessarily a sign of failure. MOOCs have more value than the number of people who persevere through the last digital lesson. They offer students more efficient and cheaper ways to learn. The MOOCs track which people watch every video but never bother to take a quiz, helping administrators identify which students are ambitious, which are gifted, and which are merely curious. Even those who only watch a few lectures can glean information: In the Internet Age, after all, most people prefer to buy music by the song, not the album.

O'Brien, in fact, says the Coursera experience has spurred new thinking about campus learning. As professors sought her help, she noticed that no teachers made their MOOC the same length as the standard campus class. "Not a single course is 14 weeks," she says. That raised questions about how content should be broken up. What if a student needs four weeks of a course – but not the whole curriculum?

A more modular approach might help universities tailor courses to the varied backgrounds of their students. Brief online courses in specific areas could help them start on-campus classes at the same level of understanding. "We're going to have things that are not semester-long courses playing a critical role in the curriculum," predicts Dr. Koller of Coursera.

If you start thinking like this, college learning suddenly looks a lot less monolithic. New questions arise: What happens when students arrive having already taken MOOCs? Do they need to take a course with material they've already covered? O'Brien, who recently met with a student who had taken 10 online courses before coming to Duke, says there is now no way to put that on a transcript.

Yet, she says, it "ought to be taken into account. I'd be surprised if we don't have students in the next year saying, 'Well, I took the whole MIT electronics course, and I'd be happy to show you whatever you need to prove it.' "

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