Internet Class: Welcome to the Future of Higher Education

How MOOCs bring a university twist to home-schooling.

Two days a week, I grab my notebook, hop on my bike and head off to my global history class at the University of Virginia; the rest of the week, I’m at Yale studying the Old Testament. And later this month, I’m registered to sit in on Michael Sandel’s famous lectures on justice—which he has presented for the past two decades at Harvard and are attended by more students than any other class the college offers.

I know what you’re thinking: That’s an awful lot of pedaling. Maybe so; but I should probably mention that the bike is stationary, and the lectures and weekly quizzes are all delivered at my leisure via the Internet.

Welcome to the future of higher education.

At least that’s the future we can expect according to a resounding chorus of commentators, one of the loudest being the columnist Thomas Friedman, who wrote in yesterday’s New York Times that widespread access to information is turning higher learning on its head, and replacing the traditional “sage on a stage” model of professorial omnipotence with a less rigid class structure designed to give students more of a say in how they learn.

On Monday, Friedman joined a group of academics—including the presidents and provosts of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard—at MIT’s Media Lab to discuss the benefits and potential pitfalls of this evolution. The conference, “Online Learning and the Future of Residential Education” brought together the leading innovators of a new way of teaching: massive open online courses, or MOOCs, that stream the best classes from the worlds’s top universities to millions of students for free.

The idea of putting popular college courses online is not exactly a new one. Ivy Leagues schools such as Yale and Princeton have offered “open coursework” free on the Internet for several years. But MOOCs are quite different. They require students to register and are presented in real time, as the course is actually being taught, with tests, quizzes and homework. A certificate of completion is available to students who make it through with an acceptable GPA.

The concept was born in 2012, when two Stanford computer science professors, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, launched Courseera (home of my U of Va. history class) in partnership with the University of Michigan, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania. Other models soon followed, including edX, Udacity, and Peer 2 Peer University (a “grassroots open education project” that dispenses with instructors altogether).

Courseera offered more than 100 courses in fall 2012, and it now has 62 university partners providing free classes through its site. In January, the American Council on Education approved five Courseera classes for college credit. Exams will be proctored via webcam by a company called ProctorU.

While MOOCs would be nowhere without the Internet, these are not simply traditional classes delivered in a new way to a wider audience. Instead, colleges are using the power of interactive communications to change the way schools teach and how students learn. For matriculated students attending class for credit, MOOCs are advancing a concept known as “flipping the classroom,” in which lectures are designed for home viewing and class time is reserved for analysis, labs and group exercises.

Instead of the standard 50-minute lectures most of us remember from undergraduate school, my history professor, Philip Zelikow, follows the Coursera standard of breaking up talks into easily digestible 10-15 minute expositions. According to Koller, this break from the “one-size fits all model of education” gives students the option of spending more time on topics they know little about, and less time on topics they’ve mastered. (This concept is being mirrored in some “brick and mortar” schools that now allow students to test out of classes once they’ve mastered the subject, instead of forcing them to stick around for an entire semester.) The inverted classroom was named one of the top education-technology trends of 2012 by Inside Higher Ed magazine, and is being modeled in elementary and high schools through platforms like the popular Khan Academy.

But as much as I am a fan of MOOCs, I am not convinced they are right for everyone. For self-motivated post-graduates like me who are looking to expand their knowledge while they work out, MOOCs are like intellectual candy. I can’t get enough. But I’m not sure I would want to replace my traditional college experience with them. MOOCs can also be beneficial to continuing education students who need to bone up on long-forgotten skills; but first- and second-year undergrads risk falling behind if they are given too much flexibility (which may explain why MOOC course completion rates are only about 10 percent according to one estimate).

On the other hand, since the 1980s, the cost of a quality college education has grown more than five-fold, and online learning will no doubt play a vital equalizing role, ensuring that knowledge is not reserved for the highest bidder. And that’s something we should all be excited about.

Now if you’ll excuse me, we’re delving into the “rise of capitalism” this week in global history, and I definitely don’t want to miss that!