Free Online Classes: Unlocking the Ivory Tower

Colleges flock to offer courses for all, but questions abound

If you haven't heard of MOOCs yet, you will. In fact, if you haven't already taken a MOOC, seriously, what's wrong with you? MOOCs are taking the educational world by storm: The New York Times has already proclaimed 2012 the "Year of the MOOC"; Columbia University will offer its first MOOCs this spring, while the University of Virginia fired its president (temporarily, it turned out) for foot-dragging on MOOCs. Blogs and educational journals are awash with debates over whether MOOCs are the future, are overhyped, will save higher education or destroy it.

For the uninitiated, MOOCs are Massive Open Online Courses, and they are simple enough to envision, if a bit unsettling for those whose notion of college coursework invariably involves desks, whiteboards, and the physical presence of other living human beings. Drawing from the online courses that have become increasingly popular in recent years, MOOCs blast down the two main barriers to access to higher education—having to pay tuition and having to be admitted to college—by opening themselves up to all comers, for free. This leads to some eye-popping class sizes—100,000-student classes aren't unusual—and equally eye-popping claims about how the new format will revolutionize the world of higher education.

Courses in which students and professors never meet face to face aren't new, of course. Columbia chief digital officer Sree Sreenivasan notes that the university's engineering school began offering learn-by-VHS-tape courses way back in 1986. And the past several years have already seen many forays into online coursework, including Khan Academy and Apple's iTunes U, which provide college-level educational videos for download.

Krishna Chavda
Ng says he launched Coursera to bring college material to the masses.
Courtesy Coursera
Ng says he launched Coursera to bring college material to the masses.

The difference with MOOCs, says Andrew Ng, the soft-spoken Stanford computer-science professor who, along with his colleague Daphne Koller, launched the for-profit MOOC company Coursera in April, is "we're not just offering video; we're offering complete courses. We went through the student course experience and pervasively tried to figure out which are the components that could be provided at scale to 100,000 students."

The heart of the idea behind MOOCs is what's being called the "flipped classroom," already a hot trend in brick-and-mortar courses: Instead of having professors waste their time on canned lectures that students nap through, get them to put those talks online, for students to watch at their own leisure, opening up class time for actual discussion. "We know that students learn best not by passively listening but by practicing with the material," says Ng. "And I think the website does a better job providing that than does a large lecture class."

Ng's deeper goal, though, is more lofty: not just to bring college coursework into the Internet age, but also to bring it to the masses. "What I'd love to do is to give everyone in the world free access to the best professors from the best universities," says Ng. "I think the world would be a more interesting place if we could give a poor kid in Africa nearly the equality of opportunity as a kid born in the wealthy suburbs of D.C."

Throwing open the gates of academia and allowing knowledge to spill out certainly sounds great. But the reports from the ground are more complex: While super-massive classes have promise, say MOOC veterans, putting together the components of a successful classroom out of YouTube videos and a Web discussion board is far easier said than done.

The popularity of MOOCs, advocates say, speaks for itself. Coursera in particular has quickly piled up head count, registering more than 2 million students in its first nine months. ("We reached our first million users faster than Facebook," boasts Ng.) Those are impressive numbers, even if only a small fraction of students who sign up complete the courses—likely an unavoidable consequence of a system in which enrolling is as simple, and commitment-free, as clicking a single Web button.

And universities have proved equally enthusiastic, with MOOC offerings rising exponentially every semester: More than 21 major universities have signed up with Coursera, while others have affiliated with Udacity (also launched at Stanford) and edX (a joint start-up by Harvard and MIT). "They're all jostling for position, I think, not entirely sure where they're going to go," says Martin Haugh, who will teach one of the inaugural Columbia MOOCs, in financial engineering and risk management, via Coursera starting next month.

Haugh and his co-instructor, Garud Iyengar, have taught online courses before, but never one of this size. (As of early December, more than 30,000 students had already signed up, and the final count could be double that.) Haugh says they're still feeling their way about how to translate the coursework into a massive format, including Coursera's recommended system of taped mini-lectures of eight to 15 minutes, interspersed with quizzes.

Part of MOOCs' popularity with students, no doubt, is the first "O." By design, they're available for free to anyone with a Web browser. "I'm pretty broke right now, so I can't afford college classes," explains Christine Segarra of Yonkers, who was tipped off to Coursera by a friend after she'd dropped out of college for financial reasons. She signed up for a Michigan course on science fiction and fantasy and is now taking a Duke class in reasoning and argument. "I haven't been to school in six, seven years, so it's good to get my feet wet," she says.

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