What do Harvard, MIT, Coursera, and Udacity Have in Common?

Answer: ambitions for offering massively open online courses.


That’s what they’re calling them.

This is really great news, and certainly puts on display the Internet’s power for good [New York Times]:

Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Wednesday announced a new nonprofit partnership, known as edX, to offer free online courses from both universities. […]

Harvard and M.I.T. […] are not the only elite universities planning to offer free massively open online courses, or MOOCs, as they are known. This month, Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan announced their partnership with a new commercial company, Coursera, with $16 million in venture capital.

Meanwhile, Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford professor who made headlines last fall when 160,000 students signed up for his Artificial Intelligence course, has attracted more than 200,000 students to the six courses offered at his new company, Udacity.

If you’re in the field of education, these new ventures ought to be a wake-up call, for they open up, not just new fields of possibility, but redundancies:

“Projects like this can impact lives around the world, for the next billion students from China and India,” said George Siemens, a MOOC pioneer who teaches at Athabasca University, a publicly supported online Canadian university. “But if I were president of a mid-tier university, I would be looking over my shoulder very nervously right now, because if a leading university offers a free circuits course, it becomes a real question whether other universities need to develop a circuits course.”

The edX project will include not only engineering courses, in which computer grading is relatively simple, but also humanities courses, in which essays might be graded through crowd-sourcing, or assessed with natural-language software. Coursera will also offer free humanities courses in which grading will be done by peers.

The next billion students? Natural-language software and crowd-sourced essay grading? This is a brave new world, indeed.

And these ventures aren’t just seeking to deliver lectures (a video camara on a tripod in the back of a classroom). Apparently, these classes are going to be increasingly engaging:

The technology for online education, with video lesson segments, embedded quizzes, immediate feedback and student-paced learning, is evolving so quickly that those in the new ventures say the offerings are still experimental.

“My guess is that what we end up doing five years from now will look very different from what we do now,” said Provost Alan M. Garber of Harvard, who will be in charge of the university’s involvement. […]

“Online education is here to stay, and it’s only going to get better,” said Lawrence S. Bacow, a past president of Tufts who is a member of the Harvard Corporation. Dr. Bacow, co-author of a new report on online learning, said it remained unclear how traditional universities would integrate the new technologies.

Well, traditional colleges and universities better get clear on this pronto. The ground is shifting underneath their feet.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to What do Harvard, MIT, Coursera, and Udacity Have in Common?

  1. Personally, I’m a big fan of the Kahn academy. He helped me get through a statistics course a prof I had didn’t want to teach.

    There is something very exciting about the ‘democratization’ of information and education. That said, while online education may help someone learn, you still need the piece of paper from institution x.

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