Online Education: Here Comes the Tsunami

Online education is a tsunami and it’s about to inundate us. It is changing education and how we think about – and maybe also what we’re willing to pay for it.

Giant waves crash on Lumahai Beach on the Hawaiian island of Kauai

A couple of months ago, MIT and Harvard announced the formation of edX, a joint venture that will offer top quality online learning to millions of students throughout the world. Can’t get into MIT? Can’t afford Harvard? Not to worry. You can “take” MIT and Harvard classes online for free.

Not to be outdone, a coalition of major universities just unveiled a plan to offer hundreds of MOOCs beginning this fall. Oh, don’t know what a MOOC is? Soon this abbreviation will be common. But let me be the first to decode it for you: Massive Open Online Course. It’s open in that it is available to anyone across the globe. And, for now, the MOOCs offered by this consortium of universities will be free.

The universities that have banded together include:

California Institute of Technology;
Duke University;
Georgia Institute of Technology;
Johns Hopkins University;
Rice University;
University of California, San Francisco;
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign;
University of Washington;
University of Virginia;
University of Edinburgh in Scotland;
University of Toronto;
EPF Lausanne, a technical university in Switzerland.

This impressive collection of schools teamed up with Coursera, a year-old company founded by two Stanford professors.

What do the leaders of these universities think about their new endeavor?

“This is the tsunami,” said Richard A. DeMillo, the director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Tech. “It’s all so new that everyone’s feeling their way around, but the potential upside for this experiment is so big that it’s hard for me to imagine any large research university that wouldn’t want to be involved.”

According to the times, MOOCs will have a profound impact on higher education, and therefore on the world:

Because of technological advances — among them, the greatly improved quality of online delivery platforms, the ability to personalize material and the capacity to analyze huge numbers of student experiences to see which approach works best — MOOCs are likely to be a game-changer, opening higher education to hundreds of millions of people.

Is this good news? Bad news? Mixed news? There’s no question in my mind that it is news, big news. But I’m unsure about the goodness/badness quotient. On the one hand, it seems wonderful to make high quality lectures available to people who might never before have been able to experience them. (This must be sending shock waves through The Teaching Company, which has made a substantial chunk of money selling “great courses” online. Why should we pay them when we can get a similar product for free?)

On the other hand, I worry about the impact of online education on smaller and local colleges. If I can learn American history from one of the top lecturer/scholars in the world, why take a course at the community college? And if I’m an administrator of the community college, trying desperately to save money, perhaps I’ll hire an inexpensive discussion leader/grader for the American history course and have students “take” the online course from Duke.

Yet, I have even more serious concerns about online education. I’ll share some of these soon.

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  • How people gather information, in general, has completely changed. “Google” is a verb. People go online for information, and will continue to do so at a greater rate. In March, the Encyclopedia Britannica ended print production. Why pay $1400 for only 65,000 articles, when you can go to Wikipedia for free, and have 4,000,000 articles at your fingertips? As it relates to your article, I think smaller and local colleges will have to adapt, or they will slowly die. Doesn’t matter if it’s “good” or “bad.” It’s just the way it is. Arguments can be made for both sides.

  • Stacy

    This is a very thoughtful examination of online education. I’d be interested to hear what you think of the work my company is doing:

  • andrew

    James KA Smith’s newest book on Christian education (‘Desiring the Kingdom’) would suggest that ‘virtual’ education is disembodied and thus not capable of touching our imaginations (and thus not capable of forming us morally). He argues that imagination is only engaged when our bodies are (hence the Pentateuch has a ritual heart – Leviticus).

    This evasion of the imagination is, of course, no worry for the secular institutions you mentioned (most wouldn’t see moral formation as within their remit) – but it is a worry for any school that thinks that thinking (and imagining) is to happen under the Lordship of Christ.

    Christ taught by moving into the neighborhood, and the church teaches in the same way (satellite ‘churches’ would be the exception here). It seems to be worth pondering why Christ left His people a book and a community – and not just the former. This whole issue of virtual education seems to be another instance where the culture would do better adapting to the church, rather than the other way around.

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