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

The class felt like a luxury car: exquisitely wrought and expensive. Fittingly, it met in a brand-new, state-of-the-art $100 million science center that included 12 teaching labs, six student lounges and a café. It was like going to a science spa.

Elite universities like Georgetown are unlikely to go away in the near future, as even Udacity’s co-founder (and Stanford alum) David Stavens concedes. “I think the top 50 schools are probably safe,” he says. “There’s a magic that goes on inside a university campus that, if you can afford to live inside that bubble, is wonderful.”

Where does that leave the rest of the country’s 4,400 degree-granting colleges? After all, only a fifth of freshmen actually live on a residential campus. Nearly half attend community colleges. Many never experience dorm life, let alone science spas. To return to reality, I visited the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) — a school that, like many other colleges, is not ranked by U.S. News & World Report.

When I arrived at the UDC life-sciences building, I met Professor Daryao Khatri, who has been teaching for 37 years and yet seemed genuinely excited to get to his first day of class in a new semester.

“They hate physics,” he said about his students, smiling. “You will see. They are terrified.” He led me to his classroom, a lab with fluorescent lights and a dull yellow linoleum floor. His 20 students were mostly young adults with day jobs, which is why they were going to school at night. Many hoped to go to medical school one day, and they needed to take physics to get there.

Khatri started the class by asking the students to introduce themselves. “I took physics in high school,” said one woman, a biology major, “and it was the hardest class I ever had.”

“I’m about to change that!” Khatri shouted. Another young woman said, “I took calculus online, and it was just awful.” It felt more like a support group than a college course. Then Khatri detailed his rules for the class. “Please turn the cell phones off,” he said in a friendly voice. “Not on vibrate. I will know. I will take it away. Cell phones are a big disaster for the science classes.”

Khatri had less than one-half of 1% of the students that Professor Brown had on Udacity, but he was helping them with many skills beyond physics. He was cultivating discipline and focus, rebuilding confidence and nurturing motivation. “Please complain if you aren’t learning,” he said more than once.

After a full hour of introductions and expectations, Khatri started reviewing geometry and trigonometry so that the students would have enough basic math to begin. He did this in far more detail than Brown had on Udacity, and it was clear from their questions that many of the students needed this help. As with most other Americans, their math and science background was spotty, with big holes in important places. For the next hour, Khatri called on every student to answer questions and solve problems; just as on Udacity, they couldn’t zone out for long.

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