Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Udacity, Coursera, MITx: Education for the Future

History of Internet Education

Education on the Internet is not a new concept. Even if we filter out all of the content websites that seek to inform audiences (e.g. Wikipedia, Quora, HowStuffWorks), the Internet was seen as an opportunity for extending traditional education beyond the walls of universities as early as 1993, when the Jones International University was founded as the first online-only institute of higher education1. Many universities followed suit (DeVry, University of Phoenix, and ITT Tech Online, to name some of the more popular ones), enabling Internet users to gain degrees from home. These programs were not without drawbacks. In general, they failed to have the prestige of their brick-and-mortar counterparts, and they were often just as expensive In addition, they did not tend to expose students to the same collaborative environments as traditional universities.

In an attempt to knock down the cost barriers to education by using the power of the Internet, the University of Tübingen in Germany started a program in 2000 in which lectures were recorded and published online, free for all to access2. It was a daring move, since there were some fears that losing the exclusivity of the university would devalue the degree program and drive students away. No such effect was observed, however, and just two years later, MIT followed suit with a similar program of their own3. This program, now known as OpenCourseWare (OCW), offered not just lectures, but homework assignments, lecture notes, and even exams in some cases. It has enjoyed considerable popularity, with hundreds of universities and education centers contributing their own content to the OpenCourseWareConsortium4. Still, the OCW programs fall short in a couple ways. There is no reliable way to gain any form of certification for completing work (important for people attempting to self-teach in order to move to better careers), and there is no synchronous "course offering" that drives students to collaborate and complete work in a timely manner.


Recently, a series of efforts coming from various places have been tackling the problems with OCW in a convincing manner. Last October, an effort from Stanford led by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig brought a complete course on artificial intelligence to the Internet. The idea was not fundamentally different from OCW, but the manner in which the course was offered--following a schedule just like a traditional class, with lectures and homeworks posted gradually over a span of two months--proved to be hugely successful, attracting an astounding 160,000 people to enroll5. The course acted as a proof of concept, showing that the model of bringing traditional courses to the Internet for free had potential. After this success, Thrun co-founded a new company, Udacity, to continue the push towards free, approachable education.

Udacity is not alone in this push towards popularizing massive open online courses. A second company (also coming from Stanford) called Coursera has teamed up with University of Michigan, Stanford, and UC Berkeley to offer a handful of courses in a similar fashion6. MIT has also thrown its hat into the ring with MITx, offering an introductory course on electronics7. All three of these efforts share the same major features: a synchronized learning environment with high-quality course material, free for any person who can find access to the Internet.

There is still a long way to go before these programs can reasonably hope to compete with traditional universities as the new standard of education. Course offerings from all of these efforts tend to have a somewhat narrow skew towards computer science and technology, and it is unlikely that typical prospective employers would be eager to hire self-taught students in favor of those who have a degree from a known university on their resumes. Still, the trio of Udacity, Coursera, and MITx offer hope that we are making progress towards a society where higher education is just as accessible for any eager learners as the traditional K-12 system, and it is only possible due to the power of collaboration on the Internet.

(Is it sad that I hope to live to see a day where my Caltech degree becomes meaningless? :) )

  2. (in German)

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