Published on 2012/08/03
Online learning is allowing colleges and universities to provide access to higher education for typically under-represented and disadvantaged students at home and across the globe. Image by Digital Genetics.

Something extraordinary is taking place in higher education. Not a week goes by without a national headline about the latest “it” initiative in the online learning world.

This summer a dozen highly ranked universities announced signing up with Coursera, a private start-up that will offer free online classes. They join forces with founding institutions Stanford, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania and University of Michigan.

A few months earlier, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced a joint $60 million venture, dubbed edX, to “enhance campus-based teaching and learning and build a global community of online learners.” A few days ago, University of California, Berkeley, announced it was joining edX.

We have been bombarded about the oddly named MOOCs (massive open online courses) enrolling tens of thousands of students from around the globe. An early innovator from Stanford, a professor whose artificial intelligence MOOC grabbed the nation’s attention with an astounding 160,000 students from 90 countries, left his prestigious post and founded Udacity, a company offering free online courses in partnership with universities.

There have been many other ventures just as worthy of notice. The creation of MITx, which prior to the edX collaboration brought into the forefront the issue of credentialing with free online learning; the Mozilla Open Badges Project; Minerva, which seeks to provide elite quality education at a reduced cost online, and well-known projects like the popular Khan Academy, TED-Ed and iTunes U. The list of innovators is long and impressive, and the only thing certain is that there will be many more in the months and years to come.

But where is all of this taking higher education? “This is the tsunami,” said one breathless enthusiast. Others are warning colleges and universities—with their high tuition and lack-luster job placement records—that these changes pose an existential threat to their institutions.

Talking to educational leaders, what many of them will tell you is that they have no idea where all of this is heading. Elite universities, many with no history of online learning, are suddenly joining up with new open-source start-ups so they are not left behind. They freely admit they don’t know what it all means but they don’t want to be left behind. Talk about playing tennis without a net.

Still, those who think this is all a passing fad remind me of those staid educators at the great German universities of the 18thand 19th centuries who thought the preeminence of their institutions would always remain unchallenged. And who today first thinks of Heidelberg, Berlin, Leipzig or Goettingen for their great universities?

What is certain is that the walls of the most exclusive universities are coming down—but not in a bad way. Many of our great universities have prided themselves on creating the highest-quality learning communities with the world’s best faculty, premiere research facilities and most beautiful campuses, but they have also defined their greatness by not how many students they educate but by how few they allow within their hallowed walls.

That is changing for the better thanks to free online learning; the “disruption” caused by new technologies is opening the door to access. Millions of students from around the globe, often desperately in need of knowledge as much as a university credential, will now have access to some of the greatest thought leaders in the world. The day is here where students in the third world, not to mention disadvantaged students from our own cities and remote locations far from urban centers, can get a Harvard, MIT, Stanford “education” —perhaps not a degree (yet) but a learning experience—by turning on their computer and visiting a website.

There will be attempts to build successful business models behind the online open-source movement, and, in time, some will most likely succeed, just as innovators like Google and Facebook discovered their business models after going live. Regardless, the social good being created by free open-source learning is nothing less than historic. Our greatest universities and their leaders are rightly not threatened by the movement. They have embraced it and, what many of us hope, the democratization of higher education. They may not know what exactly is coming but they know it’s big and clearly want to be part of the sweeping change taking hold of higher education.

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Readers Comments

Shaul Kuper 2012/08/07 at 4:06 pm

Tom, very well thought out article. The one point I would like to better understand is your comment about students receiving an educational experience from the likes of Harvard, Stanford and MIT. While these students will certainly have an experience, will attending an online class with tens or potentially hundreds of thousands of people be the same or similar experience as attending a regular class with these institutions?

    Tom Gibbons 2012/08/10 at 2:36 pm

    I believe it will be a meaningful learning experience but dissimilar in some ways to the in-class experience. We will see assessment but not the kind of personal feedback seen in smaller onground or online classes. However, automated feedback is already being built in many traditional online classes and I don’t see why that would not be built into MOOCS. Is that experience the same as the traditional “Harvard experience?” No, not today and I suspect not tomorrow. But access to the great professors and institutions of higher learning is the first step. Like the early computers built in the garages of Gates and Jobs, these early innovations will improve in time especially since the deep pockets of venture capitalists and great research universities are pushing this forward.

Yvonne Laperriere 2012/08/09 at 2:13 pm

Another issue that I think still needs to be addressed with this disruptive approach is how universities can generate revenue from them.

We’re in a stage where higher education institutions need to bring in revenue to make up for the significant lack of funding from government sources… how is offering free education going to help that goal?

Karen Sibley 2013/03/15 at 3:49 pm

Excellent snapshot of the rapids higher education is navigating these days. I agree that there will be more to come, both new developments outside higher ed and within. I expect we will see failures and drop-aways as well, just as we did a decade ago when the names you might have listed included All-Learn and Fathom as well as the fresh approach of OLI at Carnegie and MIT open courses. We learn from all of this action.

Let’s hope the surge of available content and the fact that learning seems “hot” now will spark our citizens to seek knowledge, prepare to contribute and turn economies positive in the near future.

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