An Earthquake in Online Education?

Online education was one of the big topics of the 2011 Global Perspectives Program. It was omnipresent in our discussions about access to and within information. Our claim that access to higher education can significantly be improved echoed a lot in the discussions at the GPP Conference in Washington. Today, a development in the world of online education took place that was considered to be  “part of a seismic shift” (New York Times) or “the tsunami” (Richard A. DeMillo, Director of the 21st Centuries Universities, Georgia Tech). What happened? Coursera, a one year old company founded by two  Standford University computer scientists, offering free massive open online courses, announced that a dozen universities are joining the venture. Amongst them are University of Virginia, Georgia Tech, John Hopkins, Duke and EPF Lausanne.

Improving access is part of the mission of Coursera, as can be read on their website.

“We envision a future where the top universities are educating not only thousands of students, but millions. Our technology enables the best professors to teach tens or hundreds of thousands of students.

Through this, we hope to give everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few. We want to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.”

By including EPF Lausanne, Coursera addresses another access issue we have identified in the GPP: languages. EPFL offers courses in French, thus opening up access to students in half Africa.

Interestingly, the University of Washington plans to offer credits for their Coursera courses already this fall. Of course, there are still a lot of unanswered questions, especially in relation to taking exams and grading. Who should be grading and how? Where are tests taken? How to address the cheating problem? Are exams offered for free?

Another interesting point is the relation between online education and traditional on-campus education. The prevailing perception seems not to be that online education is  a rival or a threat to universities, but that the online materials can help to improve in-class education. If students watch the lecture before attending the class, then the time in class can be used to apply the new knowledge, to go deeper and to approach more difficult questions. (More on how online materials can improve in-class teaching in one of my next blog posts.)

Coursera’s announcement was accompanied by very big words. As always, it will take some time to see whether they were justified. However there are strong signs that online education is more than just a hype. Coursera is not the only player in the field. Only to mention two, there are also edX, a joint venture of Harvard and the MIT and Udacity, founded by Sebastian Thrun of Stanford. As these examples show, what was developed in community colleges, now is supported by some of the most renowned universities. In any case, the education landscape is in motion. And I am happy to see that the Global Perspectives Program makes a small contribution thereto.