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BOLD EXPERIMENT - Universities face new competitionas elite schools offer course certificates to the online masses.  + By Beryl Lieff Benderly - Collage by Lung-I Lo. Photos - iStock.

On MAY 2, 2012,
some would argue, a new age in higher education officially dawned. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced they would each put $30 million into a new partnership, EdX, offering free online courses by some of their leading professors. More crucially, they would provide at low cost, to anyone who demonstrated a mastery of the course material, certificates of completion bearing one or another of the universities’ names.

The willingness of Harvard and MIT to put their lustrous imprimaturs on MOOCs — massive open online courses — suddenly gave these certificates inestimable value and raised the stakes for all institutions offering education over the Internet. The move validated an earlier decision by Stanford to certify courses offered by the start-up Udacity, founded by computer science Prof. Sebastian Thrun, and prompted the top tier of American universities to put their faculty stars on computer screens around the world. The University of California, Berkeley made EdX a threesome. Online course offerings by Coursera, a private company founded by Stanford computer scientists Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, grew to more than 200 from 33 universities, including Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, the Universities of Pennsylvania and Michigan, and Ohio State. Schools that held back felt the heat; the University of Virginia’s initial reluctance fueled its Board of Visitors’ short-lived attempt to fire President Teresa Sullivan.


Few contend that the prestigious new course certificates will diminish competition for a four-year degree from an Ivy League or comparable university, even one with an annual sticker price of $40,000 and up. Indeed, these schools’ added international exposure could increase demand, some say. Many educators stress that no MOOC, no matter how interactive the program or how active the online community surrounding the online course, can replace the benefits of in-person, on-campus education. Face-to-face teaching has “a vibrancy and a value and intense mentoring that these huge courses cannot provide,” says Ben Shneiderman, founding director of the University of Maryland’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab. “Those who proclaim the death of the university only reveal how shallow is their understanding of the educational process.”

But what the trend will mean for schools below the topmost rank – including many state and land-grant universities that educate a large proportion of American engineers — is far less obvious. Some observers see a threat to the cash flow of institutions that don’t get in on the trend quickly or don’t rank at the pinnacle of the academic world. Schools of lesser standing may well find themselves futilely competing with much lower-cost, MOOC-based credentials for increasingly cost-conscious students, undercutting the tuition-based system that has supported higher education for centuries.

Increased Competition

Autar Kaw, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of South Florida and a leader in developing online engineering curricula, predicts that “MOOCs will not affect the enrollment and popularity of top schools, as students would still like to get branded . . . but it surely challenges mid-tier schools,” and especially the for-profit sector. “Instructors and administrators at these schools will have to take their game up a notch to make the individual student’s experience worth it to pay thousands of dollars in tuition, room, and board.” Kaw is the author of several courses offered by the nonprofit Saylor Foundation, which, like Udacity, contracts individually with the instructors who present their courses.

A Moody’s Investors Service report cited by The Chronicle of Higher Education also says regional universities that chiefly attract students from surrounding areas could lose market share to stronger universities over the long term as a result of MOOCs. It predicts MOOCs will most hurt the bottom line of low-cost local colleges, primarily commuter campuses and for-profit colleges.

An accumulation of certificates from prestigious schools might serve job applicants better than a degree, Coursera’s Andrew Ng suggests. “If you graduate from a lesser engineering department and you send your résumé to Google,” he says, “it’s difficult to get your résumé noticed. If that student comes and takes a Penn computer course and does well, and takes a Stanford engineering course and does well, and takes a Princeton course and does well, that’s a real way for them to distinguish themselves.” People have already gotten jobs based on Udacity certificates, Thrun says. “We found some really amazing people…. There’s a lot of talent that doesn’t go to Stanford and MIT, talent in the developing world.” MOOCs, he believes, offer able individuals everywhere a revolutionary opportunity for top-flight education.

While the completion certificates won’t count as course credit toward a degree at the top schools, many observers suspect that at least some will end up being transformed into credit toward legitimate degrees at other, less prestigious institutions. Saylor, for example, has already devised, in conjunction with a company called StraighterLine, a system that lets students cheaply turn passing grades on exams in Saylor’s MOOCs into degree credit at a number of accredited, though non-elite, American colleges.

Giving away content free or cheaply on the Internet has already weakened the financial foundations of newspapers and magazines, postal mail, retail sales, bookstores, and movie distribution, and is now threatening book publishing. The university appears to be the next major institution that the Internet will transform. Institutions thus need to adopt MOOCs “with their eyes open,” warns Berkeley engineering dean Shankar Sastry. “If a university decided to put its entire curriculum for a bachelor’s online in a nondiscriminatory fashion, I think that they could put themselves in the situation that a lot of newspapers did by handing out everything free... If you do go to the university for the credentialing [or even] for the ‘ecosystem,’ is it worth whatever X thousand dollars it costs to do that?” The revolution currently involves instructional models, Sastry says, but it “could eventually be in business models.”

Thrun argues that this disruption need not be harmful. MOOCs provide universities “a mechanism by which they can reduce their costs and reach more students. How can that be bad?” he asks. “If distribution becomes so much more inexpensive, we should all celebrate this.”

No one has demonstrated a self-sustaining business model for MOOCs. Those operating outside universities not only are tapping highly paid instructors but also, Kaw notes, are employing “artists to develop presentation materials and software and learning science experts to develop state-of-the-art assessment techniques.” Both Ng and Thrun, whose enterprises are currently buoyed by venture capital, foresee the possibility of their companies acting as employment services, collecting fees from employers in exchange for introductions to high-achieving students who have expressed an interest in being connected with firms seeking their skills. As Ng explains: “If [students] ask us to introduce them to recruiters from Google, Facebook, or other companies, that would be great for the student and great for the companies.” Other funding possibilities, Kaw says, include support from foundations, selling course materials to both online and brick-and-mortar universities, online advertising sales using such vehicles as Google Adsense, and partnering with testing agencies such as Pearson to charge money for official certification.

While Coursera, Udacity, and EdX open up renowned institutions to the multitudes, an earlier entry in online education approaches elite schools from the opposite direction. That company, 2tor, has partnered with the University of Southern California, Georgetown, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Washington University in St. Louis to offer online graduate-degree programs for which students pay full tuition. Lately, it has sought to expand its offerings by courting engineering schools. Duke’s faculty turned it down, but negotiations are under way with Penn’s engineering school.

Engineering education provided a launch platform for MOOCs when Thrun’s fall 2011 artificial intelligence course at Stanford drew 160,000 online students from 190 countries. Ng says “engineering concepts”—and especially computer engineering — “lend themselves very well” to online instruction and machine grading. “In engineering, a lot of answers are either right or wrong, so for a lot of what we do [in MOOCs] we can test for the correctness of answers... For engineering courses, you can do sophisticated auto-grading. In my machine learning [MOOC], students are asked to write computer programs [and] implement machine-learning algorithms. Their software is then automatically tested to make sure that it generates the right output.”

Udacity and Coursera have been slow to provide a full spectrum of engineering disciplines, an online field where Lehigh, Drexel, and the Rochester Institute of Technology have a head start. But Coursera now has a growing catalogue of computer science and engineering courses, including Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering from Rice University. The website says the Rice course “can be summarized as ‘the hardest course I have ever taken, but I learned a lot.’” Ng suggests civil engineering would work with Coursera’s assessment software as well. “Imagine a student is asked to write a formula for stresses on a bridge,” he says. “We could test that automatically.” The Saylor Foundation offers 11 courses in mechanical engineering, along with associated math and science courses, and is preparing to add more.

MOOCs’ early months have exposed some problems. For instance, Coursera, in an effort to curb reported instances of student plagiarism, has begun requiring students to renew their commitment to its academic honor code each time they turn in an essay.

Certain labs can be done online, and certain cannot. For computers, you can do it online because you’re just moving key strokes up and down. Chemistry is much harder to do online. — Sebastian Thrun, Udacity founderVirtual Laboratories

A big hurdle for MOOCs in broadening engineering offerings is providing lab experiences comparable to what students would get on campus. “Certain labs can be done online, and certain cannot,” Thrun admits. “For computers, you can do it online because you’re just moving keystrokes up and down. Chemistry is much harder to do online. But we don’t have do to everything online,” he says. Anant Agarwal, president of EdX and director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, agrees that in certain engineering and science fields, providing experimental opportunities online is “certainly a challenge.” Yet he sounds determined to meet it. “Eventually we want to cover all courses in all areas — humanities, medicine, engineering, STEM — the whole thing,” he says.

“We are very interested in creating virtual laboratories in all the engineering disciplines... It will definitely not be the same experience, but it will be a good experience,” Agarwal says. For a prototype MOOC on circuits that he gave, “our team created an online circuits and electronics laboratory that is extremely compelling,” he says. “In a real circuits laboratory, things keep breaking. They’re expensive. Students don’t get a whole instrument all to themselves. In a virtual laboratory, everybody gets their own laboratory; they get instruments that don’t break.” Or, he adds with a laugh, to “make our simulations more realistic, it is easy to imagine an environment where we have instruments that break... With simulation we can do anything... One can imagine students using simulation in the virtual world, and then there’s some part of the curriculum where they do some real lab work.”

In fact, Agarwal sees virtual labs as one part of a transformation he calls “the gamification” of learning. “All of the learning experience can be made much more fun, just like a video game.” Thrun agrees that “we want to go beyond replication of the classroom online. We want to make it a completely new experience. If you just replicated the classroom experience online, you’d always be worse than the classroom.”

The Saylor Foundation also offers lab supplements to some of its science courses. The measurement and experimentation lab in its mechanical engineering program, for example, includes both hands-on and virtual exercises, according to the foundation’s website. “Although we cannot virtually replicate the lab experience,” it notes in a biology lab course, “this ‘lab’ will familiarize you with scientific thinking and techniques and will enable you to explore some key principles.”

Tom Katsouleas, dean of engineering at Duke, says online courses could enable more students to gain the international experience increasingly required of the 21st-century workforce. Currently, engineering students overwhelmingly stay on their home campuses because their programs are “so structured that if you miss a prerequisite you can be thrown off,” he says. Online courses could allow them to “take their technical engineering requirements while they’re on their semester abroad and not lose time toward the degree.” Overseas programs could then reach outside the classroom, involving students “in an internship or setting up a clinic in Rwanda or building a bridge in Honduras.”

Beyond providing high-level instruction to students not attending college — Ng cites “the poor kid in India, the 40-year-old single mother who cannot take time off” — MOOCs can enrich the on-campus experience, say those involved. “We are not only offering online learning to people around the world — and we want to educate a billion people around the world — but we are also working very hard to reinvent campus education,” says Agarwal. “We believe that we can dramatically change the way we do things on campus.” Berkeley’s Sastry adds that online courses provide “an experimental platform to try to figure out how computer technologies can be used to enhance learning... The ethos here is to develop materials for the people who are here.”

MOOCs also allow teachers to implement what Ng calls the flipped classroom. “Year after year I have walked into the same room and said exactly the same thing,” he explains. “Using the flipped classroom, lectures are put online” for the students to watch outside of class. During class hours, “we instead do small-group problem solving or supplementary materials. I now feel for the first time in many years that I am actually interacting with students instead of talking at them.” The technology also permits just-in-time teaching. “Students do quizzes on the website, and the professor looks at the results and sees where problems are.” says Ng. This way the professor focuses the time on what is confusing for the students,” rather than just giving a standard lecture.

It’s too early to predict whether MOOCs’ biggest impact will be in vastly expanding access to high-quality educational opportunities for people everywhere or in changing the economics of higher education. But it’s clear they are likely to have effects that no one can now even envision. “Technological revolution is always followed by social change,” Sastry says. “We live very differently now because of cellphones. We may have a different business model for our universities after another five or 10 years.”

Of course, technology has shaken up education before. History suggests resistance won’t work. Socrates discouraged students from taking notes, believing it would weaken the mind, Katsouleas reminds us. “Ironically, we know he said this, because his student, Plato, wrote it down.”

Beryl Benderly is a Washington-based freelance writer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Photo Collage by Lung-I Lo


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