Stage Set for Rise of Free Online Education

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July 17, 2012; Source: New York Times

The stage is set for the rapid ascent of “MOOCs”—massive open online courses—the latest no-cost Web phenomenon, which may fundamentally alter the fabric of university education. In May, NPQ noted the recent founding of three such free online university ventures: edX (a joint project of M.I.T. and Harvard University), Udacity (co-founded by Stanford Professor Sebastian Thrun and David Stavens) and Coursera, with founding participants Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan and Stanford.

On Tuesday, Coursera leaped forward, announcing that twelve big name universities have signed on to offer MOOCs on Coursera, including the California Institute of Technology, Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and three foreign schools, the University of Toronto, Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and Scotland’s University of Edinburgh. The stampede to join the MOOC bandwagon is at such a fever pitch that the University of Virginia fired President Teresa A. Sullivan (before reinstating her 16 days later), in part, because of concerns among the university’s board that U-Va. wasn’t keeping up with peers in developing online opportunities.

At this embryonic moment, there is no money for universities in MOOCs and no credits for students. However, the University of Washington recently announced plans to offer credits for their online courses and more are likely to follow. Foreign students currently outnumber U.S. students in MOOC programs but it is possible that if course credits toward a degree are routinely offered, more Americans may participate. Elite universities with valuable brand names probably won’t be impacted greatly for some time; however, private universities with less cache might suffer as MOOCs develop and flourish. “The people who should be worried about this are the large tier of American universities—especially the expensive private schools—that are not elite and don’t have the same reputation” as the vanguard schools establishing and joining the new MOOC systems, said Anya Kamenetz, a frequent commentator on the future of higher education.

There is much that is still unknown about traditional education and free online education models supporting each other, and the standard model is likely to evolve in the hybrid fashion that some schools are testing now. Technology is likely to lower costs and enhance the robust quality of online programs, and may provide much needed competition for brick and mortar academia, particularly given the latter’s perpetual escalating costs. –Louis Altman