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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As more students arrive with online learning in their knapsacks, it could change the direction and duration of their college experience. Students might pivot into research sooner or pursue more advanced courses that enhance their education. Ultimately, it raises the question of whether college needs to last four years. "Why not two or five?" asks Dr. Agarwal of edX. And he wonders: "Is the degree the right currency? I'm not sure."Skip to next paragraph
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Such talk ultimately gets down to the most basic question of all: What is college even for – earning a credential, learning skills, networking, growing up? As important as dispensing knowledge is, O'Brien and others also highlight the value of mentors, peers, and personal growth that an on-campus education provides.
Michael Roth agrees. From where he sits – in the Wesleyan University president's office, a spacious chandeliered room of bookcases, fine English furniture, and arched windows peeking out on a grassy quad – he doesn't believe a campus's tightly knit intellectual environment can be replicated online.
"What we do here doesn't scale up," says Dr. Roth, the Brooklyn-born son of a furrier and the first in his family to attend college. That said, in February Roth began offering his popular campus course, a survey of philosophy, literature, and art, as a MOOC on Coursera. The class size – 27,000 students – "scares the heck out of me," he says, noting the entire Wesleyan campus in Middletown, Conn., has only 3,100 students.
"I'm doing this to find out what the differences are and how we might prepare."
Roth expects more students to arrive ready for advanced work and can imagine "the large lecture going away." He is adamant, however, that students have time to develop intellectually and personally. "I don't want technology to speed up their lives," he says.
Roth is not alone in wanting to preserve the personal feel of college, which is why several top schools formed a network to offer online classes only to students who enroll and are accepted by them. The students will earn credit and pay tuition for the courses. Semester Online will debut this fall, but software engineers at the education platform company 2U are building the features of the virtual classrooms now.
At their offices overlooking the Hudson River in Manhattan, banners adorn cubicles from colleges involved in the electronic venture, including Washington University in St. Louis, Emory University in Atlanta, and Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. The emphasis will be on small classes – no more than 20 students – and live student-professor interaction.
Students will watch lectures in advance and then "meet" online for classroom discussions. They will stare at screens that look like something from "Hollywood Squares," with each student getting a square. Class members can raise their hands virtually, and no one will be able to do anything without the instructor seeing it.
"You will know all the people in your course," says Chip Paucek, chief executive officer of 2U, dressed in jeans, sweater, and a flowing fringed scarf. "[You] can't go to the bathroom during class without them knowing [you're] gone."
The Semester Online model appealed to Provost Lange because the small classes "convey what is distinctive about institutions like ours" (82 percent of regular Duke classes have no more than 30 students). But months after Duke signed an initial agreement, the Arts and Sciences Faculty Council voted 16 to 14 in April to halt involvement. Lange, surprised by the vote, insists this is a pause, not an end. "I don't see it as a major setback," he says. Advocates like Lange see new online forms as a chance to experiment and learn. But online forays carry costs and payback is uncertain. Will courses become signature offerings and moneymakers with classes offered in multiple time slots to meet demand – or attract only a few?