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

By last fall, 160,000 people had enrolled. But the class was not particularly inspiring — at first. One student complained that the software allowed students to try each problem only once. “I realized, ‘Wow, I’m setting students up for failure in my obsession to grade them,’ ” says Thrun. So he changed the software to let students try and try until they got it right. He also paid attention to the data, and he had a lot of it. When tens of thousands of students all got the same quiz problem wrong, he realized that the question was not clear, and he changed it. And the students themselves transformed other parts of the class, building online playgrounds to practice what they were learning and even translating the class into 44 languages.

Meanwhile, Thrun had told his Stanford students they could take the class online if they didn’t want to attend lectures. More than three-quarters of them did so, viewing the videos from their dorms and participating as if they were thousands of miles away. Then something remarkable happened. On the midterm, the Stanford students scored a full letter grade higher on average than students had in previous years. They seemed to be learning more when they learned online. The same bump happened after they took the final.

(MORE: Reinventing College)

Still, the Stanford students were not the stars of the class. At the end of the semester, not one of the course’s 400 top performers had a Stanford address.

The experience forced Thrun to rethink everything he knew about teaching, and he built Udacity upon this reordering of the universe. Unlike Coursera, another for-profit MOOC provider — which has partnered with dozens of schools, including Stanford, Princeton and, more recently, the University of Virginia — Udacity selects, trains and films the professors who teach its courses. Since it launched in January, Udacity has turned down about 500 professors who have volunteered to teach, and it has canceled one course (a math class that had already enrolled 20,000 students) because of subpar quality.

Right now, most MOOC providers do not make a profit. That can’t continue forever. Udacity will probably charge for its classes one day, Thrun says, but he claims the price will stay very low; if not, he predicts, a competitor will come along and steal away his students.

Udacity does not offer a degree, since it’s not an accredited university. Students get a ceremonial certificate in the form of a PDF. Grades are based on the final exam. Students who choose to take the final for Udacity’s computer-science course at an independent testing center (for $89) can get transfer credits from Colorado State University–Global Campus, an online-only school.

Getting more colleges to accept transfer credits would be nice, but in the longer term, Udacity aims to cut out the middleman and go straight to employers. This week, Udacity announced that six companies, including Google and Microsoft, are sponsoring classes in skills that are in short supply, from programming 3-D graphics to building apps for Android phones.

Meanwhile, about 3,000 students have signed up for Udacity’s employer-connection program, allowing their CVs to be shared with 350 companies. Employers pay Udacity a fee for any hires made through this service. So far, about 20 students have found work partly through Udacity’s help, Thrun says. Tamir Duberstein, 24, who studied mechanical engineering in Ontario, recently got two job offers after completing six Udacity courses. He took one of the offers and now works at a software company in San Francisco.

Still, it will be a long time before companies besides high-tech start-ups trust anything other than a traditional degree. That’s why hundreds of thousands of people a year enroll in the University of Phoenix, which most students attend online. Says University of Phoenix spokesman Ryan Rauzon: “They need a degree, and that isn’t going to change anytime soon.”

MOOCs vs. the College Campus

To compare my online experience with a traditional class, I dropped into a physics course at Georgetown University, the opposite of a MOOC. Georgetown admitted only 17% of applicants last fall and, with annual tuition of $42,360, charges the equivalent of about $4,200 per class.

The university’s large lecture course for introductory physics accommodates 150 to 200 students, who receive a relatively traditional classroom experience — which is to say, one not designed according to how the brain learns. The professor, who is new to the course, declined to let me visit.

But Georgetown did allow me to observe Physics 151, an introductory class for science majors, and I soon understood why. This class was impressively nontraditional. Three times a week, the professor delivered a lecture, but she paused every 15 minutes to ask a question, which her 34 students contemplated, discussed and then answered using handheld clickers that let her assess their understanding. There was a weekly lab — an important component missing from the Udacity class. The students also met once a week with a teaching assistant who gave them problems designed to trip them up and had them work in small groups to grapple with the concepts.

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