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

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.

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