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Elite Schools Enter Online Education

More and more of the nation’s top universities bring their course work to the masses at no cost

by Amanda Yarnell
June 11, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 24

Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN
A keyboard, mouse, and flat-screen monitor against a white background. The monitor has ivy trailing down it from the top.
Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN

This spring, more than 120,000 students enrolled in a Massachusetts Institute of Technology class on circuits and electronics—a figure just shy of the sum of all of MIT’s living alumni.

But unlike most of those alumni, the students who registered for MIT’s experiment in online teaching didn’t pay a dime for their MIT education.

Many more students will get the same chance under a new $60 million online education initiative announced last month by MIT and Harvard University. Beginning this fall, any student with an Internet connection will be able to take a wide range of graded MIT and Harvard classes through the universities’ edX initiative. And they’ll all be free.

MIT and Harvard are not the only top universities looking to experiment with free online education. Stanford University, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan are working with start-up Coursera to offer more than 40 free online courses. Another outfit started by a couple of former Stanford engineering professors, Udacity, has similar goals.

For-profit online universities such as the University of Phoenix have been offering fee-based courses online for decades. But the recent influx of free offerings from elite universities suggests online education is set for a dramatic change.

“There is a revolution growing in Boston and beyond,” said MIT computer scientist and edX President Anant Agarwal at a May 2 press conference announcing the initiative. “Online education is disruptive and will completely change the world.”

Increasingly, elite universities see massively open online courses as an opportunity to increase access to education worldwide and to improve teaching and learning on their campuses. With the opportunity to collect data on student learning on a scale previously unheard of, “this is an unprecedented opportunity to examine fundamental questions about how we learn,” said Harvard Provost Alan M. Garber.

New initiatives bring elite universities' classes to the masses.
A table describing three online university initiatives
New initiatives bring elite universities' classes to the masses.

These online education projects could one day be a financial opportunity, too. Venture capitalists betting on that possibility sank $16 million into Coursera in April. The firm says it’s currently focused on building and proving its online platform but intends to experiment with various revenue-generating strategies in the future. One possibility is offering a limited number of for-credit courses for a fee, says Stanford computer science professor Andrew Ng, one of the company’s cofounders. Like edX, Coursera does not currently offer college credit.

Making money is not the driving force for the nonprofit edX, noted electrical engineer and MIT Provost L. Rafael Reif. “Having said that, we are looking for ways to be self-supportive,” added Reif, who will become MIT’s next president on July 2. For example, for a fee edX will offer “credentials”—but not credit—to students who demonstrate they’ve mastered the material by the end of the course.

MIT has had a long history of experimenting in online education. Its OpenCourseWare site has been making lecture notes, exams, and videos from MIT courses freely available on the Internet since 2002. Its more recent platform for digital education, MITx, served as a prototype for edX.

Students taking edX courses will learn at their own pace, drawing not only on video lectures but also embedded quizzes with instant feedback and online discussion forums for students to ask questions of their peers and instructors. Agarwal, who designed and taught MIT’s online circuits and electronics class this spring, tells C&EN that students also completed a lab in which they manipulated a virtual circuit board with their mouse. “It was almost like a gaming experience,” he says.

During the course, Agarwal’s team collected a huge amount of data about how students learned, including what concepts they struggled with and what material they viewed before grasping a concept. With this information, he says, “we hope to dramatically improve the on-campus experience.”

Eventually, Agarwal says, “we want to offer courses in every discipline, including chemistry.” His team has already begun to think of what it might take to put chemistry courses online. Agarwal says he’s particularly interested in finding an appropriate open-source chemical drawing program to incorporate into the edX platform. “We’re also excited to think about what it might take to create an online chemistry lab experience in edX.”

MIT’s chemistry department “already has a big footprint in the use of electronic teaching technology through our offerings on OpenCourseWare,” says John M. Essigmann, the associate head of the department. In collaboration with Dow Chemical and other MIT initiatives, the department will soon launch additional online chemical education experiments. One of these new ventures is an online freshman chemistry lab experience filmed last winter and currently in the editing stage, he says. “We are excited to interact with MITx and edX in order to optimize the value of our existing programs, and to work with them to find state-of-the-art ways to achieve the goals of chemistry education in the 21st century.”

“As we continue to expand the breadth of offerings on Coursera, we’d certainly like to include the chemical sciences,” Ng says. “It is of course a challenge to replicate the experience of some chemical science courses, particularly those that rely on lab work, but there is still an opportunity to teach courses in this discipline online.”

Both Coursera and edX aim to eventually recruit other top universities to put courses of all kinds on their sites. The recent flurry of investments in online education is a sign of widespread upheaval in higher education, they say.

“You can choose to view this era as one of threatening change and unsettling volatility,” said biologist and current MIT President Susan Hockfield at the press conference announcing edX. “Or you can choose to see it as a moment charged with the most exciting possibilities presented to educators in our lifetimes.”


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