For a year or two there, free online classes seemed like they just might be the future of higher education. Why, some influential computer scientists wondered, should there be thousands of colleges and universities around the country all teaching the same classes to small groups of students, when you could get one brilliant professor to teach the material to the whole world at once via the Internet? In a March 2012 Wired cover story about the phenomenon, Udacity founder and Stanford artificial-intelligence whiz Sebastian Thrun predicted that within 50 years there would be only 10 institutions of higher learning left in the world. Udacity, he reckoned, might be one of them.
As of this month, that prediction is looking overblown. After a year in which almost every big-name university in the United States rushed to get in on massive open online courses, or MOOCs, the backlash is in full force. And no wonder: The idea of free online video lectures replacing traditional classrooms not only offends many educators’ core values, but it threatens their jobs. Worse, the early evidence suggests the model may not work very well: A partnership between San Jose State and Udacity this spring ended with more than half the students failing. In the same spaces where advocates not long ago trumpeted the MOOC revolution, critics now warn of the “MOOC delusion.”
As much as everyone wants to see college costs reined in, replacing thousands of professors and classrooms with a handful of websites populated by remote talking heads cannot be the answer. But before we throw the whole idea out the window, it’s worth asking: Mightn’t there be a way that online lectures could complement the traditional higher-education experience rather than replace it?
Anant Agarwal, president of EdX, believes there is. Like Coursera and Udacity, EdX began by offering full-service online classes for free, taught by professors at Harvard and MIT, the initial partners in the venture. Unlike Coursera and Udacity, though, EdX is a nonprofit, which frees it from the expectations of venture capitalists bent on reaping millions from the concept. As a result, EdX has appeared less focused on getting big quickly and more open to experimentation in terms of how it can best serve professors and students. One of those experiments is what UC–Berkeley professor Armando Fox calls SPOCs—“small private online classes,” as opposed to massive open ones. The approach is also known, less acronymically, as “hybrid” or “blended learning.”