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3 reasons why higher education should be online and free

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In her recent TED talk, Daphne Koller, Stanford professor and co-founder of Coursera, describes the challenges and opportunities presented with free, online courses from leading universities.

The disruption of higher education means the best professors teaching the best courses at the best universities is becoming a resource available to the entire world, not just a handful of students who can afford to pay soaring, mega-dollar tuition fees.

But there are some issues that needed to be ironed out with the delivery of these courses free and online. (Often referred to as massive open online courses, or MOOCs). In her recent TED talk, Dr. Daphne Koller, a Stanford professor and co-founder of Coursera, the online venue offering select free courses from 16 leading universities, explains the advantages of providing education this way, and how issues were overcome.

Koller provides three good reasons why this new model of higher education works:

Opportunities open to all: Until now, people living in impoverished parts of the world lacked access to any type of education, let alone a top university. Now, top university education is available to all corners of the globe. The next generation of world-changing innovators may come from small, remote villages in Africa or the Americas -- and online higher education will open doors for them. While attending these online courses do not lead to actual college credit or diplomas at participating universities, there are now many cases in which students have been able to advance in their careers, Koller relates.

Higher education learning based on actual data: Online mega-courses -- especially those reaching more than 100,000 students across the globe -- provide a range if opportunities. "It has the potential to give us a completely unprecedented look into human learning," says Koller. "You can collect every click, every homework submission, every forum post from tens of thousands of students. We transform from hypothesis-driven mode to data-driven mode. A transformation that has revolutionized biology."

For example, instructors can view patterns in wrong answers in tests. "If two students from a class of 100 give the wrong answer, you would never notice. When 2,000 students give the same wrong answer, it's kind of hard to miss. You can produce a targeted error message that would be provided to every student who fell into that bucket -- personalized feedback telling them how to fix their misperception."

Mastery of material through digital interaction: Today's online courses now enable much greater interactivity than on-site lectures or, for that matter, previous attempts at online delivery. "Students don’t learn by sitting and watching videos," Koller explains. Instead, the videos pause every few minutes to ask the students questions.

The level of personalization that interactive course presentations offer also move these settings close to the results seen in mastery situations -- in which lectures don't continue until the student understands what was taught in the given session.  "We cannot afford as a society to give each student their own tutor," Koller states. "Mastery is easier to achieve with a computer because it doesn’t get tired of showing you the same video five times. It doesn’t even get tired of grading the same work five times."

Of course, online delivery of free mega-courses pose new challenges as well, and Koller explained how Coursera and other online pioneers have been addressing them. Take, for example, grading the progress of 100,000-plus students. "How do you grade the work of 100,000 students if you do not have 10,000 [graduate assistants]?" she asks. "The answer is you need to use technology to do it for you. We can also grade math, mathematical expressions, we can grade models, whether its financial models in a business class, or physical models in a science or engineering class. And we can grade some pretty sophisticated programming."

For humanities courses, multiple-choice questions may not be appropriate, Koller says. For these types of courses, peer grading has shown to work best, Koller says. "It turns out that peer grading is a pretty effective strategy. What's even more surprising is that self grades, where the students grade their own work critically, where the students are properly incentivized, are actually even better correlated with teacher grades."

Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure