College Is Dead. Long Live College!

Can a new breed of online megacourses finally offer a college education to more people for less money?

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Computer-Generated Image by Richard Kolker for TIME

At the same time, the country that led the world in higher education is now leading its youngest generation into a deep hole. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Americans owe some $914 billion in student loans; other estimates say the total tops $1 trillion. That’s more than the nation’s entire credit-card debt. On average, a college degree still pays for itself (and then some) over the course of a career. But about 40% of students at four-year colleges do not manage to get that degree within six years. Regardless, student loans have to be repaid; unlike other kinds of debt, they generally cannot be shed in bankruptcy. The government can withhold tax refunds and garnish paychecks until it gets its money back — stifling young people’s options and their spending power.

For all that debt, Americans are increasingly unsure about what they are getting. Three semesters of college education have a “barely noticeable” impact on critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills, according to research published in the 2011 book Academically Adrift. In a new poll sponsored by TIME and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, 80% of the 1,000 U.S. adults surveyed said that at many colleges, the education students receive is not worth what they pay for it. And 41% of the 540 college presidents and senior administrators surveyed agreed with them.

(MORE: TIME/Carnegie’s Higher Education Poll)

Arriving at this perilous intersection of high demand, uneven supply and absurd prices are massive open online courses (endowed with the unfortunate acronym MOOCs), which became respectable this year thanks to investments from big-name brands like Harvard, Stanford and MIT. Venture capitalists have taken a keen interest too, and the business model is hard to resist: the physics class Niazi was taking cost only about $2 per student to produce.

Already, the hyperventilating has outpaced reality; desperate parents are praying that free online universities will finally pop the tuition bubble — and nervous college officials don’t want to miss out on a potential gold rush. The signs of change are everywhere, and so are the signs of panic. This spring, Harvard and MIT put $60 million into a nonprofit MOOC (rhymes with duke) venture called edX. A month later, the president of the University of Virginia abruptly stepped down — and was then quickly reinstated — after an anxious board member read about other universities’ MOOCs in the Wall Street Journal.

One way or another, it seems likely that more people will eventually learn more for less money. Finally. The next question might be, Which people

How the Brain Learns

This fall, to glimpse the future of higher education, I visited classes in brick-and-mortar colleges and enrolled in half a dozen MOOCs. I dropped most of the latter because they were not very good. Or rather, they would have been fine in person, nestled in a 19th century hall at Princeton University, but online, they could not compete with the other distractions on my computer.

I stuck with the one class that held my attention, the physics class offered by Udacity. I don’t particularly like physics, which is why I’d managed to avoid studying it for the previous 38 years. What surprised me was the way the class was taught. It was designed according to how the brain actually learns. In other words, it had almost nothing in common with most classes I’d taken before.

Minute 1: Physics 100 began with a whirling video montage of Italy, slow-motion fountains and boys playing soccer on the beach. It felt a little odd, like Rick Steves’ Physics, but it was a huge improvement over many other online classes I sampled, which started with a poorly lit professor staring creepily into a camera.

When the Udacity professor appeared, he looked as if he were about 12; in fact, he was all of 25. “I’m Andy Brown, the instructor for this course, and here we are, on location in Siracusa, Italy!” He had a crew cut and an undergraduate degree from MIT; he did not have a Ph.D. or tenure, which would turn out to be to his advantage.

“This course is really designed for anyone … In Unit 1, we’re going to begin with a question that fascinated the Greeks: How big is our planet?” To answer this question, Brown had gone to the birthplace of Archimedes, a mathematician who had tried to answer the same question over 2,000 years ago.

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