College Is Dead. Long Live College!

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

  • Share
  • Read Later
Computer-Generated Image by Richard Kolker for TIME

Minute 4: Professor Brown asked me a question. “What did the Greeks know?” The video stopped, patiently waiting for me to choose one of the answers, a task that actually required some thought. This happened every three minutes or so, making it difficult for me to check my e-mail or otherwise disengage — even for a minute.

“You got it right!” The satisfaction of correctly answering these questions was surprising. (One MOOC student I met called it “gold-star methadone.”) The questions weren’t easy, either. I got many of them wrong, but I was allowed to keep trying until I got the gold-star fix.

(GRAPHIC: Degrees of Difficulty)

Humans like immediate feedback, which is one reason we like games. Researchers know a lot about how the brain learns, and it’s shocking how rarely that knowledge influences our education system. Studies of physics classes in particular have shown that after completing a traditional class, students can recite Newton’s laws and maybe even do some calculations, but they cannot apply the laws to problems they haven’t seen before. They’ve memorized the information, but they haven’t learned it — much to their teachers’ surprise.

In a study published in the journal Science in 2011, a group of researchers conducted an experiment on a large undergraduate physics class at the University of British Columbia. For a week, one section of the class received its normal lecture from a veteran, highly rated professor; another section was taught by inexperienced graduate students using strategies developed from research into human cognition. Those strategies mirrored those in Udacity’s class. The students worked in small groups to solve problems with occasional guidance from the instructor. They got frequent feedback. In the experimental group with novice instructors, attendance increased 20% and students did twice as well on an end-of-week test.

Minute 8: Professor Brown explained that Plato had also tried (and failed) to estimate the earth’s circumference. Brown did this by jotting notes on a simple white screen. Like all the other videos in the course, this clip lasted only a few minutes. This too reflects how the brain learns. Studies of college students have shown that they can focus for only 10 to 18 minutes before their minds begin to drift; that’s when their brains need to do something with new information — make a connection or use it to solve a problem.

At this point in the Udacity class, three video clips into the experience, about 15,000 students were still paying attention, according to the company’s metrics. But that’s actually high for a MOOC. (Since it requires little effort and no cost to enroll, lots of people dip in and out of these classes out of curiosity. Only 1 in 10 of those enrolled in a Udacity class typically makes it all the way to a course’s last video.) Like most other online classes, it was asynchronous, so I could rewind or leave and come back whenever I wanted. This also accords with how the brain works: humans like autonomy. If they learn best late at night, they like to learn at night, on their own terms.

Minute 57: After 47 fast-paced videos spliced with pop quizzes, I did actually know how big the earth was. Brown had reviewed geometry and trigonometry with examples from actual life. And when it came time to put it all together, I got to see him measure a shadow that formed a right triangle, setting up a mathematical proportion to calculate the circumference of the earth, just like an ancient mathematician.

“Congratulations!” he said. “This is really incredible, what you can do now.” Then he asked the class to send in videos of themselves measuring shadows. I was skeptical. Would people actually do this?

Yes, they would. The first video was from a young woman in Tampere, Finland — a drummer who wanted to change her career. There she was, with yellow dreadlocks, measuring a shadow in a parking lot. Another woman submitted photos of herself completing the experiment in Texas, plus a poem. A poem! “We solve for C, and long at last/ stalk a route into our own past.”

The Finn cheered. “Super artistic!” Brown showed the poem around the Udacity office. One student did the experiment at 0 degrees latitude in Ecuador. Many more people posted questions; within minutes, they got detailed, helpful answers from other students. It was as if a whole pop-up learning community had materialized overnight, and it was strangely alive.

Turning Down Professors

When he was a tenured professor at Stanford, Sebastian Thrun, the CEO and co-founder of Udacity, did not teach according to how the brain learns. He is not proud of this fact. “I followed established wisdom,” he says. His students, who were used to traditional lectures, gave him high marks on his course evaluations. They didn’t know what they were missing.

In 2011 Thrun and fellow professor Peter Norvig decided to put their Artificial Intelligence class online. But when they sampled other online courses, they realized that most of them were mediocre. To captivate students from afar, they would need to do something different. So they started planning lessons that would put the student at the center of everything. They created a series of problems for students to solve so that they had to learn by doing, not by listening.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
67 comments
Ronan_Mc_Guire
Ronan_Mc_Guire

The democratization of education has arrived in the form of these moocs. The new mooc wave is a boon for education. For too long too many institutions have been charging too much! 


However, there is a distinct lack of coverage on what is going on in the mooc scene across the pond. iversity, for example, are exploding ( https://iversity.org/courses ). They have 3 courses where you can get ECTS credits-credits that are interchangeable between in european universities. exciting times.

hypnotoad72
hypnotoad72

They say we  need more people with STEM skills.


Yet college costs are through the room, while competing countries get very low cost education and even Microsoft has given out source code and opportunities (e.g. training H1Bs, "How Microsoft Conquered China" (article from 2007) and plenty of others.

They say it is a "choice" - well, no degree = no job.  Why do the people who say "choice" clam up when asked for details, since a minimum wage job will NEVER allow the time needed to get the money to pay for college with cash. 


Even teachers, who pay through the teeth, see starting salaries that do not allow them to live or pay back debt.


They say government needs to get out of the way, except private industry demands people with degrees relevant to the field.  Colleges see this and know that people have no alternative.  The result is grossly inflated prices.  That, not government involvement, is the 'free market'.  Now look up how much taxpayer-funded subsidy is given to colleges, private industry, etc, and let's really talk about government interference, corporate welfare, why students who want to improve their lives in good faith get the short stick while everyone else can get forgiveness.


The system is broken.  Let's fix it here and now.

DarioPopovic
DarioPopovic

Not just college; many high schools in Florida use online training to avoid hiring teachers, or even when they don't have sufficient certified kids for the AP courses to justify contracting an AP teacher. Single girl in my personal son's graduating class took almost all of her Senior year classes online (only it was thru FL virtual school which is an unqualified catastrophe! Terrible system, confusing, inferior materials, not user-friendly or even well prepared). -Dario from http://www.primeblog.us

ReachScale
ReachScale

See three recent tweets %s Why? %s survey says 80%% think %s is not worth the cost & debt incurred. %sHNY

ReachScale
ReachScale

Page 2 top full of problem data %s Why? %s survey says 80%% think %s not worth cost & debt incurred. %sHNY

RogerGrant
RogerGrant

"The purported reason was to block the anti-Muslim film trailer that was inciting protests around the world." see more... Isn't it amazing how in 2013 these countries still want to control their people through the means of religion... I don't see where in the Qu'ran it mentions thou shalt have the power to veto watching films. ;)



KooDooZ
KooDooZ

@ReachScale YES! Spoke about Niazi in my recent #TEDx Talk a few weeks back: http://t.co/5meX5o7UGe But disagree that #college is dead.

Naseem_Baloch
Naseem_Baloch

@samramuslim @YusraSAskari ,,,,samra ji h r u?

usmansm
usmansm

@samramuslim @YusraSAskari Send this article to Rehman Malik or any government official. Make them realise how useful this medium is.

zchodhury
zchodhury

@samramuslim This is what we need to project actulay.

ZarrarKhuhro
ZarrarKhuhro

@needroos @YusraSAskari @mehreenrana well I suppose I could still do a profile

muneeb90
muneeb90

@salmajafri weren't they using hotspot shield.

pbwistanbul
pbwistanbul

@brianbarela great read on @udacity! surprised didn't it didn't even mention @khanacademy. Excited about what such dev means for our kids!

Baihnygirl
Baihnygirl

@louisebturnbull very thought provoking article; thanks for sharing.

readyforthenet
readyforthenet

The undergraduate learning experience is not just about pure academics. The growth of a student as a positive and productive member of society during the undergraduate experience is equally important to the growth of their intellect. For most students, the undergraduate experience exposes them to all the challenges of life in a safe environment. They will interact with people who are vastly different from different cultures and discover that we aren’t all that different.

However, I am positive about the evolution of online education. It is certainly not a complete replacement for the traditional higher education experience. For the undergraduate student, the optimal model will need to have the right balance of an online and in classroom experience. That model does not exist, but I believe it will be developed over the next 5 to 10 years and become the new tradition.

See more at http://blog.thomsonreuters.com/index.php/evolving-higher-education/.

hypnotoad72
hypnotoad72

@readyforthenet - and at the sheer cost involved, which has gone up between 439 and 520% since 1982 (depending on source), students can never find themselves, contribute, or do anything else in the end.

The system is broken. 

ReachScale
ReachScale

If you interviewed only the ones who have to pay the whole bill themselves--might be surprized? @BarbaraKimmel @Calestous @TIME

ReachScale
ReachScale

RT @Calestous @ReachScale: @TIME survey says 80% of population thinks #College is not worth the cost and debt incurred http://t.co/UFqfT7BH

nbelomy
nbelomy

Bah, just learn to use a proxy or to doing some basic hacking and no sites will ever be restricted. Those trying to make the net all licensed are in for a big hurt soon. 

mgozaydin
mgozaydin

Amanda

MIT declared first online in December 2011, first course started in March 2012. Harvard joined them to set EDX in  April or May 2012.

harvk5
harvk5

Before addressing the article I decided to look up the word college.  What does college mean, I asked?  It seems that there is no meaning other than a place one goes to learn something after one has completed other education.  But, a college is more than that. It is a place where like minded people - professors work. They in turn teach people who want to know what the teacher knows about that which the student wants to know. That at least seems to me to be what a college is. 

There have been correspondence or what are now called on-line courses for years.  Learning in a solitary environment is great for some, but not for most. A college  provides motivation to students. It does so by providing an environment where learning is held in high regard and then again there is the threat of a failing grade and being asked to leave - a motivation in its own right.  Now we all know that some students do not take all this high regard stuff seriously, but that in no way diminishes the environment fostered by a college. 

It seems to me, that if one is highly motivated and well trained in basic academic skills, then on-line is fine. In fact, just send that person to a good library and turn him/her loose.  The person will walk out well versed in that which interests them, but for most - me included - the rich environment where learning is held in high regard was and is the stimulus that propelled me to gain the little knowledge that I have. 

Additionally, a college fosters a sense of curiosity. The professor challenges and the nuances conveyed in verbal presentations, queries, and give and take occurs in a good class. Does the same occur when taking an on-line course?  Does an on-line course foster that sense of grasping a concept or bit of knowledge? Do students in on-line courses say to the computer as a student can say to the professor: Oh, I get it!

pshea99
pshea99

This article, like almost all coverage of online learning, misses the timeline of the revolution in online education. MOOCs are the latest rage and get lots of press because of the connection to elite institutions.  The quote "3 in 10 college students report taking at least one online course, up from 1 in 10 in 2003 — but afterward, most are no better off than they would have been at their local community college." is indicative of the pervasive, shallow understanding of the history.  Right now more than 6 million college students are enrolled in fully online, credit-bearing online courses.  That is more than one in three of every college student in the country.  And these students ARE getting college credit, unlike the students enrolled in MOOCs.  Tell me, why is it that the author believes that real college credit is inferior to a MOOC certificate that, despite the hoopla, is unrecognized by the elite institution that provided it when it comes to offering college credit?  This is the persistent story of online education.  The revolution already happened - online learning has already become part of the mainstream of higher education.  But until the Ivies get involved (and suddenly "invent" what has already been successfully invented) the work of the last 20 years goes unnoticed. Its a shame.  see http://sloanconsortium.org/publications/survey/index.asp for some actual insight into online education. 

ReachScale
ReachScale

Wisdom @MikeBeardshall I shouldn't be flippant. It's easy 2forget how valuable #education is until its not there http://t.co/WzKzVKvc

ReachScale
ReachScale

Mike you'll have to read it! And the other 20% @MikeBeardshall 80% of population thinks #College is not worth cost. http://t.co/WzKzVKvc

indigobutterfly
indigobutterfly

Where can I find more information about this 2011 Science journal study or a detailed list of the practices utilized in these MOOC courses that seems to be so effective?

Also, what is the point of the universities partnering with and investing in MOOCs if they're not giving college credit? It seems one-sided in that the MOOC gets the prestige of being "involved" with these universities, but is being mocked as not deserving of the credits. So, I'm left confused.

barkway
barkway

Not just college; many high schools in Florida use online courses to avoid hiring teachers, or when they don't have enough qualified kids for AP classes to justify hiring an AP teacher. One girl in my son's graduating class took almost all of her Senior year classes online (only it was thru FL virtual school which is an unqualified disaster! Terrible system, confusing, poor materials, not user-friendly or well organized).

JonLenrow
JonLenrow

Any advancement that allows more students to access education should be applauded. MOOCs can provide learning opportunities to those who might not be able to pursue a traditional college degree program.

However, there are key differences between MOOCs and online degree programs offered by colleges and universities that any student considering these options should know. The biggest difference is that most MOOCs do not result in college credit. While some institutions offer certificates upon MOOC completion, most cannot be applied toward a college degree program. 

Also, many colleges and universities foster faculty engagement, provide small class sizes, offer student support services, and have 24-hour tech support. These advantages are often crucial to meeting student needs and improving student success. You can’t find these factors in MOOCs today. For now, the benefits of MOOCs lie in their accessibility and low cost. It’s important to note this distinction as buzz continues to build around MOOCs and they’re compared to online degree programs.

Jon LenrowAssociate Dean at Peirce College

AndrewCseter
AndrewCseter

A $30,000 investment in college education is still a better-cost benefit than $30,000 in a car

ignaciocases
ignaciocases

@SebastianThrun this story is heart breaking. And it shows the importance of what you are doing.

impandelicious
impandelicious

I would've gone to college, but the perils of being in my country has prevented me to do so. I write about it here at www.epicpotato.com

qui_oui
qui_oui

@jillscott68 I think it's b/c higher ed is the fantasy remedy for all society's ills, so to make it free and accessible is panacea.

klbz
klbz

@kathiiberens Interesting to consider role of relationships w/in a dry course structure. Cld ideas/info among peers b analogous to ‘making’?

danlemayPI
danlemayPI

First off, great article! Kudos to you: when an author gets a reaction out of me and gets me thinking I always grow out of the experience.

You said about the MOOCs you started but did not finish:

but online, they could not compete with the other distractions on my computer

----------------------------------------

I think this is what a lot of people run into learning online. 

I know I'd like to teach a very engaging online course that causes people to want be involved for more than it being a required course for their major. I do have many students who engage in the course material a lot more than they need to be. But I have many more who do the minimum or drop by the wayside, prey to the other distractions in their life and on their computer. The question is: How do I engage them in the online environment. I can't travel to Italy. I don't have the time nor the tech support to develop video lessons which have formative assessment questions embedded at intervals.

Should I give up offering more or less local online courses and let the schools with more resources take over educating the students of our state?

I don't know. What is the answer? I need to ask the administrators at my cc what they are thinking about this all.

kathiiberens
kathiiberens

@esquetee Great to meet you at #THATCamphp, Sara. Looking forward to continued conversation.

Jessifer
Jessifer

@kathiiberens Thanks for the link. Worth a discussion at some point. Have you done any writing about your own virtual/hybrid teaching?

EmilyLehman
EmilyLehman

I was disappointed to read the disparaging remarks made about community colleges in this article:  "Many students nevertheless pay hundreds of dollars for these classes — 3 in 10 college students report taking at least one online course, up from 1 in 10 in2003 — but afterward, most are no better off than they would have been at their local community college."   Ms. Ripley provided no support for this comment and chose not to include in her classroom experiences a course at her local community college.  Community colleges provide diverse and rigorous course offerings taught by well-trained, experienced faculty often in small classes that offer individualized attention.  President Obama finds community colleges worthy of his vocal support, perhaps Ms. Ripley should take a closer look.

TimMoran
TimMoran

As a GTA, I'd give your "report" a check-minus grade. Your evidence (which is largely about a free online course developed outside of college bounds) does not support your argument that college itself is being re-thought. Your supporting data is largely based on a survey of the uninvolved - the category of "college senior administrators" is ill-defined and unexplained. While it is true that college is extremely expensive, the debt load for graduates is roughly equivalent to buying a new fully-loaded Chevy Cruze. That is inconvenient, but it is not a "crisis." Nor, judging by demand, is there a "crisis" on the nation's campuses when it comes to curriculum. What your special report seems to have defined is an approach to delivery method for text materials -- more an indictment of textbooks and a book-based style of learning than of college itself. College has plenty of problems, including a mystifying idea that those with advanced degrees in esoteric subjects make the best business administrators, but your report fails to fulfill its stated objective. In the future, please state your argument, support it with direct evidence, give footnotes so that others can access your sources, and please make your conclusion match your argument. 

AnjuliDasika
AnjuliDasika

@uckrishnab Interesting article... and to think that so many people in this country take education for granted. Thanks for the read!

wolfie53
wolfie53

Fine and dandy, but most online classes are simply electronic correspondence classes.  Instead of the old three-ring binder with weekly lessons and homework, now you have the Internet and your laptop. They still require a great deal of motivation and self-discipline.  Some students and some types of subjects are better suited for online classes. But try teaching design or English online.  If they are high quality, they are expensive and if they are inexpensive, they are lousy.  And what arrogance by the guy who said that the top 50 universities will probably "be OK."  In fact, I  think most of the public, four-year campuses will "be OK" for the foreseeable future. In the long run, it may be different. But as Lord Keynes said, in the long run we're all dead.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,126 other followers