A Major Expansion of Online Courses

MIT and Harvard.jpgHarvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced yesterday that they will partner in a collaborative new higher-education venture, to be called EdX, that will offer a range of online courses to potentially tens of thousands of student worldwide, most of whom will not be enrolled at either Harvard or MIT. The EdX courses, funded with a $60 million joint contribution from the universities, scheduled to begin this fall and using a platform developed at MIT, will include “video lesson segments, embedded quizzes, online laboratories and immediate feedback,” according to a report in the Boston Herald. A nonprofit entity will oversee the operation of EdX and issue certificates of mastery to those who demonstrate that they have learned the course materials.

EdX represents the latest stage in an online higher-education revolution that began just a little over three months ago. In late January robotics-expert Sebastian Thrun resigned from his position as a tenured professor of computer science at Stanford to cofound a for-profit online university, Udacity, that is teaching Stanford-quality computer-science courses employing Stanford-quality professors (including Thrun himself), to tens of thousands of students free of charge. Last fall, Thrun taught a free online version of his introductory artificial-intelligence course at Stanford that attracted 160,000 registrants from 190 countries. About 20,000 completed the course.

A Full Roster of Courses

In March, two of Thrun’s colleagues on the Stanford engineering faculty, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, started another no-tuition online-education venture, Coursera, that, like Udacity, is designed to generate profits somewhere down the line. Whereas Udacity is currently offering just two online courses, one taught by Thrun and the other by University of Virginia computer-science professor David Evans, Coursera started out with eight courses in computer science, mathematics, economics, and linguistics taught by professors at Stanford and the University of California-Berkeley, all charging no tuition. And just recently, three more elite universities–Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan–joined Stanford and UC Berkeley to bring Coursera’s course roster up to 39, including six courses in the humanities and social sciences, all to be taught free of charge to anyone who signs up.

Coursera’s and Udacity’s business plans are somewhat different. Udacity, co-founded by Thrun and Peter Norvig, research director at Google (where Thrun also works designing self-driving cars), is a venture wholly independent of Stanford, although Thrun has retained ties with Stanford as a research professor. Coursera’s courses, by contrast will remain the property of the universities whose professors are teaching them, and their professors will remain on the faculties of their sponsoring universities.

In December, MIT announced the creation of its own online spinoff, MITx, the predecessor to EdX. (EdX will use MITx’s platform.) The plan was for MITx to teach MIT courses on the Internet free to non-MIT students. MITx started in March with a single online computer course, Circuits and Electronics, which drew 120,000 registrations. EdX is clearly an effort by MIT and Harvard to compete with Coursera and Udacity by expanding to a full roster of courses. Students who sign up for these courses–at Udacity, Coursera, MITx, and EdX, won’t receive credit for taking them from the involved universities, but they will receive the satisfaction of having passed a course that was as rigorous as its bricks-and-mortar equivalent at, say, Stanford or MIT. And at Udacity and EdX at any rate, they will also receive a certificate of completion–and it is hard to believe that Coursera won’t follow suit in offering its own certificates.

What all of this indicates is that elite universities are highly aware that the monopoly over higher education that traditional bricks-and-mortar institutions enjoy appears to be collapsing–and those elite schools are positioning themselves to take advantage of that. A glance at Coursera’s course list is a glimpse into what a free market for post-secondary education might look like if students themselves got to pick the courses they deemed most useful for their future job prospects and their own intellectual development. There is a plethora of basic classes, heavily weighted toward math and computer science (calculus, algorithms, Computer Science 101–the Princeton version–and computer architecture are among the offerings), but there are also introductory courses in logic, genome science, cryptology, pharmacology, and game theory.

udacity.jpgThe description of a Coursera health-policy course to be taught in June by Ezekiel Emanuel, former health adviser to the Obama administration and currently vice provost and chairman of the medical-ethics department at Penn, reads like cheerleading for the controversial “Obamacare” law of 2010, but it represents a rare incidence of politicization at Coursera. Other humanities and social-science Coursera courses, such as Greek and Roman Mythology, taught by Penn professor Peter Struck (starting in September), and A History of the World Since 1300, taught by Princeton professor Jeremy Adelman (also starting in September), seem clearly designed to appeal to potential registrants’ general interests and to give them a solid grounding for more advanced courses in history and literature. Intriguingly, Coursera seems to have followed the lead of the commercial for-profit higher-education chains such as the University of Phoenix and abandoned the conventional two-semester academic schedule for more intensive shorter-term courses spaced out over the calendar year.

Some Failed a Decade Ago

All of these new higher-education entities–Coursera, Udacity, MITx, and EdX–seem to have chosen a free-tuition model because earlier ventures by elite universities into online education over the last decade have come a cropper. Witness Fathom (spearheaded by Columbia University and also involving Michigan, the London School of Economics, and the University of Chicago) and AllLearn (a collaboration among Stanford, Princeton, Oxford, and Yale). These failures came about partly because the technology wasn’t good enough ten years ago, partly because those ventures’ course delivery involved heavy reliance on low-paid adjunct faculty instead of name professors (the situation with a disastrous online experiment at the University of Illinois), and partly because few potential students wanted to pay for a class that yielded no academic credit.

The new approach–“massively open online courses” (MOOCs for short) offered at no cost and using state-of-the-art interactive technology–is designed to avoid those pitfalls. (EdX, in addition, promises to release its platform as open-source software so that other universities can incorporate it into their other online courses. Not only are top-rated professors teaching MOOCs, but those professors have insisted that the web-based classes they teach are just as rigorous–with regular tests, large amounts of homework, and in some cases 24-hour-a-day feedback from teaching assistants–as their brick-and-mortar versions on the prestigious and expensive campuses where the professors teach.

Both Udacity and Coursera are being financed in part by venture capital, however, so the expectation is that they will eventually turn profits for their investors. One possible source, hinted at in an interview with Computerworld by Anant Agarwal, director of MIT’s computer science and artificial intelligence laboratory and slated to become president of EdX, might be charging for the letter-graded certificates of completion that EdX will issue to those who finish the courses successfully–or for a credential if the student completes a series of courses in a specific discipline. The idea is that those certificates and credentials might not come from, say, MIT or Harvard themselves, but they will definitely come from MIT and Harvard professors and an MIT-affiliated entity. Agarwal predicted to Computerworld that an A or B grade on such a certificate would be likely not only to impress prospective employers but to function as an alternative to advanced-placement courses for high-school students.

This is for-profit education, but for-profit education of the same quality as offered at top research universities, minus the sylvan campus, the sky-high tuition bill, and the crushing debt load. It seems clear that MIT, Stanford, Princeton, and other elite universities that have jumped onto the MOOC bandwagon aren’t worried about diluting their brands. Indeed, it could be argued that by attaching their cachet to online courses reaching tens of thousands of registrants, those universities are reinforcing the desirability and

Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

One thought on “A Major Expansion of Online Courses”

  1. I can answer a couple of your questions. Distance learning (and I think this includes courses through the mail, as well) are courses you can do from your home, where the teacher is a fair distance from where the student is. There are some situations, where, for instance, a whole class might meet in one location, and the teacher is in another, sometimes with another group, and there are video and computer links. People take these classes to fulfill all sorts of requirements and interests, especially when they can’t GET to another location every week or two or three times a week to take a class. For instance, I once took a whole degree where I had to drive, daily, three hours each way to classes, spend all day, then come home, because I didn’t want to relocate altogether. I would MUCH rather have done the whole degree long-distance, but that wasn’t an option at the time. I live in a rural area, and getting advanced courses is often difficult, and all we have here is a community college, so, if I want an advanced class, I have to do something else, and that can be done through distance and online courses. I can’t help you out with any specifics. There are some good online Universities, but I’d be willing to bet there are some scams out there as well. Do your research and make sure you actually can TALK to someone who has taken courses through whatever group you want to send money to good luck!

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