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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Paul Horak, who graduated from Duke last month, was an economics major with a passion for Japanese. He wanted to study abroad during his college years but felt he wouldn't be able to satisfy all his major requirements if he did. How ideal it would be, he says, if one could spend a year in Tokyo and take the required courses at the same time online. "Kids who come after me will be really plugged in," says Mr. Horak, who is taking a MOOC to prepare for medical school. "They will want to have more flexible lives."Skip to next paragraph
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College administrators know this is a different generation. They know the students of tomorrow – and even today – may not have the patience to sit through a long lecture on atoms or anatomy the way earlier students did.
"Forcing students to try to learn at a particular time when class is scheduled," or to focus for a full lecture, may be outmoded, says Ellen Junn, provost of San Jose State University in San Jose, Calif., which has been experimenting with online courses since last fall. "Many people cannot sustain a continued high level of attention for a 50-minute period of time."
In their tinkering with online learning, schools are finding approaches that work. San Jose State, for instance, offers a conventional in-class course on circuits and electronics required for engineering majors. It has suffered from a high failure rate – 40 percent. So last fall the school tried teaching the same course through a hybrid MOOC. The school assigned students randomly to the online course or a traditional one. The failure rate for the MOOC ended up at 9 percent, while students failed the other classes at similar high rates as in the past.
But the online students did a lot more work, spending 10 hours, on average, watching course videos and doing quizzes before coming to class. "That is a very high level of investment," acknowledges Dr. Junn.
Online courses in the future will require adjustments by schools as well as students. San Jose State is offering another class online, entry-level statistics, created by Udacity and two university professors, Ronald Rogers and Sean Laraway. Yet the presenter is 24-year-old Katie Kormanik, a Udacity employee. How will roles change and who will teach tomorrow's classes – traditional professors or a new generation of video-savvy instructors?
Schools will confront innumerable challenges beyond this as they brave the new world of online learning – whether to make classes open to everyone or "closed" like Semester Online; how to award credits; whether to charge for courses and, if so, how much. Many people will be reluctant to pay platinum prices to attend college when they can get the same material on their laptops free of charge.
Others worry that online learning could lead to a two-tiered educational system, with elite schools like Harvard providing content and less selective ones consuming it. In a written statement, some San Jose State faculty objected to increasing the use of MOOCs and online courses, fearing a cheapened educational experience. "Does SJSU really want to be known as Wal-Mart U?" they asked.
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Back in Singleton Auditorium at MIT, it seems fitting that Lander's lecture on this day is about Mendelian genetics – about how dominant and recessive traits are passed from parents to offspring. When Gregor Mendel, a European monk, was conducting his experiments in the 1860s, studying 34 varieties of peas, it was not immediately obvious what it meant that he produced two-thirds smooth peas and one-third wrinkled ones.
Similarly, it's not precisely clear where online learning will take American higher education. Will the technology be evolutionary or revolutionary? Will it be lucrative for colleges or bankrupting? Will it be freeing or frustrating for students? For teachers?
"We have so much to learn about this," says Thrun of Udacity, whose MOOC started the revolution.
In other words, no one knows quite yet what to expect – smooth peas or wrinkled.