Pure Genius

The future of education? Byte-sized, and free

Posting in Education

With support from the world's most prestigious universities, free online courses open to the masses are changing the meaning of "higher education."

Two decades ago, taking a course from a leading expert in a field would have required you to sneak onto a college campus, sport an oversized sweatshirt and slip into a chair in the back row of the lecture hall.

Sure, there were always career-focused options available in the continuing education school: Perfecting Your Resume; Crisis Management; The Business of Sports. But if you desired to dive headfirst into a philosophy course on metaphysical grounding with the zeal (apathy?) of a 20-something student -- without rearranging your life, that is -- tough luck.

That's no longer the case, of course. Thanks to the Internet, you need not practice your hangover scowl to sit in on a class. (Though we won't judge you if you do.) Simply sign on and join a college course from anywhere in the world. But it will still cost you.

This fall, you'll be able to do it for free.

The next step in online education, part of a roughly 15-year evolution, seeks to bring the star performers of American higher education to the masses -- without the hefty bill. In May, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced edX, a not-for-profit, open-source educational platform and partnership that will offer free university courses online for any student with access to a computer and broadband connection. Each institution has committed $30 million to the effort.

They're not alone. In July, Coursera, a for-profit online education company founded by two Stanford University professors, announced partnerships with 12 universities -- the University of Pennsylvania, Duke University and the University of Michigan among them, as well as France's Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne and the University of Toronto in Canada -- to offer classes online, for free.

As the world's most prominent universities move to offer their wares to a wider audience, it's clear that online learning is entering an exciting new stage. Few will argue that increased access to high-quality education is harmful. But has the technology reached a level of maturity to effectively teach students? Will it really help broaden educational access across the globe? And will an online degree or certificate ever match the prestige and influence of a traditional, campus-centered college degree?

Prime-time programming

In its earliest form, online classes simply replicated the classroom experience as best they could. Students watched recorded videos and completed assignments posted online or sent by e-mail. As I learned while taking an online class at Harvard's Extension School in 1999, the approach held all the excitement of late-night programming on C-SPAN.

Things have changed, to say the least. Rather than replicate the classroom, online learning has moved to a much more interactive and effective mode of teaching, practitioners say. They also say we are in the early stages of using data to inform the teaching process -- the dawn of the type of personalized, “differentiated” instruction that has been the education industry's holy grail.

EdX grew from MITx, a pilot program the university launched in the spring. MIT developed the open-source online learning platform by integrating educational research and best practices from existing platforms. Given the scale of its ambitions, the school relied on Amazon’s cloud-based computing infrastructure to ensure that it could deliver the class to thousands of students.

MIT’s first massively open online course, or MOOC for short, was called Circuits and Electronics. It attracted 155,000 students, though not all of them successfully completed the course. With Harvard now on-board, the newly formed edX expects to offer six or seven courses in the fall.

Anant Aggarwal, edX’s new chief and one of the professors who taught the Circuits class, said the platform is meant to engage students in a way that's impossible in a traditional classroom. Upon logging in, students are presented with a series of tabs that provide access to course materials, administrative information and the class "wiki," where students and professors can share knowledge as the course proceeds.

The heart of the experience lies with the courseware. Here, students find the entire course mapped out in a series of drop-down panels that contain each week's lectures, tutorials and lab assignments. The lectures and tutorials, a mix of taped video and slides with voiceovers, are accompanied by a scrolling transcript. Click on any line in the transcript and the video jumps to the corresponding point in the lecture. It's a simple but extraordinarily powerful tool to help students easily review content while listening to a lecture or during a lab session.

Laboratory sessions are interactive. Problems are often presented with an integrated toolkit: in one sequence in Circuits, students were able to test an amplifier's output by using "sliders" to modify things like frequencies and voltage.

Among the most important aspects of the platform, Aggarwal said, is its ability to give students instant feedback. When they completed answer sets, the system evaluated it immediately. And the technology goes well beyond simple multiple choice; it’s also capable of handling equations and symbolic expressions.

Instant gratification

Instant feedback systems are of particular importance with a class numbering in the hundreds of thousands, where grading papers by hand is out of the question. And while no technology will ever overcome the impact of a bad teacher, it can help any teacher reach a broad audience while still maintaining a sense of educational intimacy.

“There’s a big difference between self-study and instructor-led,” said Cathy Sandeen, dean of UCLA’s online education program, which served 50,000 students last year. Online courses need not mean self-study, and it can be easier to engage students than traditional lectures. “Here I am at a large public research university," she said. "Sometimes, there are 300 students in a classroom. There’s not going to be a lot of interaction."

Sandeen added: “The great thing emerging now [online] is the interactive platform, which use things like Web cams to connect students and faculty and discussion boards where students are required to participate and check in regularly.”

Discussion boards don’t necessarily bring to mind the cutting edge, but many educators cited them as the most effective way to build community among online students, whether they live five or 5,000 miles from the institution.

The edX platform encourages active participation on discussion boards and provides a mechanism to identify students who are particularly adept at helping others. Responses to posted questions can be “upvoted” by others on the site, giving the student who offered the response a "karma point." It's a rough measure of influence and expertise: with enough karma points, the student gains some privileges that an instructor enjoys, such as ending a discussion. The board proved so popular that MIT kept it alive, at the students' request, after the course ended.

Along with providing a professor with a means to monitor and mandate class participation, online discussion forums enhance the discourse thanks to their relative anonymity, several educators said. “In psychology, at one point we talk about sexuality and sexual orientation,” said Frank Loschiavo, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Ohio-Zanesville. “In class, I’ve never had a kid say, ‘I’m gay and I think this.’ Online, it happens every quarter.”

Several educators said that much of the student interaction flows organically from the boards to other sites and, in some cases, the real world. Students in the Circuits class started Facebook groups to continue discussion and work on problems. Ray Schroeder, who heads the online learning program at The University of Illinois-Springfield, said that students in Christ Church, New Zealand, who took one of the university’s online courses met in a McDonald’s to do their work over the restaurant's free Wi-Fi.

The Holy Grail

Like any industry that transitions from analog to digital, the greatest enthusiasm for online education centers on the opportunities presented by the vast amounts of data generated by courses.

Whether for a college-level course or kindergarten, teaching that is customized to an individual’s learning style and level of proficiency has long been a theoretical ideal. Aggarwal and others said they hope they can refine the online platforms to quantify and meet that need, something that has proven difficult to achieve in the traditional classroom, where teachers use qualitative cues to moderate progress.

A robust online system could evaluate a student’s performance as he or she goes through problem sets and diagnose potential problems and remedies. It could be as simple as presenting slightly easier questions and building back up to the hard ones; a more robust approach would temporarily take the student out of the problem set to review material in a way that matches their learning style -- say, a visual review for those students who retain information better through graphics and not text.

In its first incarnation, MITx simply gave students multiple attempts to answer questions.

“For homework we had an infinite number of ‘tries’; on midterms, just three,” Aggarwal said. “In a regular classroom ... they get one shot. They make a stupid mistake, and if the instructor is kind, they will give them partial credit.”

The data also can give an instructor the ability to evaluate their own performance and to experiment with different types of instructional methods.

“If my assignment is due on Sunday, I can do a quick correlation of who accessed the reading on Monday and whether they did better or worse than others or if those who visited a specific link did better," Schroeder said. "Or those who went to the discussion board. It’s [about] being able to pinpoint what is working.”

The experts suggest that the lessons of online learning will leak back into the classroom, something that Aggarwal said doesn’t happen often, even at MIT. They envision a world of “blended” learning or “flipped classrooms” -- where, for instance, lectures would be viewed online and in-person classroom time is dedicated to problem solving and further discussion. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently granted edX $1 million to create an online computer science course and to partner with a post-secondary institution to offer a flipped classroom experience to low-income students.

Back to the future

The technology may be ready, but is the world? One factor that vexes proponents of online education is its relative lack of prestige compared to on-campus education. When it comes to a job, does a digital course pass muster?

“To this day, degrees are still the hoop you have to jump through to qualify for certain education jobs,” said Sandeen, the UCLA dean. “Then they look at the brand. If it’s an online degree from Harvard, that still may trump a traditional degree from a ‘lesser’ school.”

In the case of edX, certificates will be in the name of edX, not Harvard or MIT. Sandeen said the bias against online education will change over time as the quality of the institutions offering online courses and credentials improves and the number of people looking for flexible, lower-cost training grows.

“There are 76 million baby boomers,” she said. “The lucky ones are retiring. The others have an economic necessity to change careers. Yet we still have big issues with social justice and access to education.”

Matthew Malone

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Matthew Malone is the editor-at-large of Aspen Magazine. Formerly, he was a staff reporter at Conde Nast Portfolio. He has written for The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Smartmoney.com, Fortune.com and Forbes.com. He holds degrees from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. He is based in Connecticut. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure