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  (Curtis Lantinga)


(Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Online university for the masses! Add to ...

How would you like to take the best courses from the best professors at the best universities in the world – basically for free? How would you like to interact online with fellow students, have your online questions answered within minutes and take quizzes for real marks?

You can now. And the revolution is just beginning. This week, the University of Toronto joined Stanford, Princeton, Michigan and a dozen other major universities offering free online courses to anyone anywhere in the world with a computer. They are partners in Coursera, an online venture launched a year ago by two Stanford University computer scientists. No pesky entrance exams or prerequisites required. No $40,000 tuition, either.

Coursera is just one of many new initiatives in online learning. Harvard and MIT are pouring millions into edX, a joint venture that will offer their own online courses. This spring, MIT launched an experimental online version of a course called Circuits and Electronics. Almost 155,000 people signed up. More than 7,000 passed.

Online education has been around in various forms for a while, but the response to these courses has been massive. Last fall, Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun launched an online version of his graduate-level course on artificial intelligence. He thought 500 people might sign up. He drew 137,000, two-thirds of them from outside the United States. The course (which requires a grasp of Bayesian probability) is so hard that only a few thousand people stuck it out and passed. But Prof. Thrun was so struck by the demand that he quit his job and launched his own online company, Udacity. He predicts that in 50 years, only 10 institutions in the world will be offering higher education.

“Essentially, this is the Internet happening to education,” says George Siemens, a Canadian researcher at Athabasca University who helped create the very first mass-education online course in 2008. And it’s happening as a generation of students has grown up online. Mr. Siemens thinks the biggest initial impact will be on students in China, India and other parts of the world with limited access to good-quality higher education. Mass online courses could bring higher education to hundreds of millions of people. There will also be plenty of appeal for older learners, curious retirees and people who don’t need or want the kind of immersive university experience that’s so important when you’re 20.

The new wave of innovation is being driven by the soaring cost of higher education in the United States, where tuition fees are five to 10 times higher than in Canada. But even in Canada, public universities are being brutally squeezed. Mass online courses – especially for standard introductory material – could offer big efficiencies, Mr. Siemens says. “Coursera will at least raise the bar for them to look at what they’re doing and why they’re doing it that way.”

Mass online education faces plenty of hurdles. Among the biggest is the value of these courses in the marketplace. A certificate of completion from Coursera or edX (available for a small fee) is not the same as a degree from MIT. But the online entrepreneurs are tackling that, too. They’re already figuring out ways to connect students with job opportunities that are appropriate for their skills. And they’re figuring out how to monitor and administer real exams (also for a small fee).

Lots of people, especially in the education establishment, argue that there’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction and collaboration. But it turns out that students who take these courses self-organize into small groups to work together. “It opened our eyes to the natural creativity that students have,” Mr. Siemens says. “How can you teach 3,000 or 100,000 students? Actually, you don’t. Students end up teaching each other.”

New technologies won’t simply deliver old material electronically. They will transform the education model. And for every professor who resists the whole idea, there’s another who’s thrilled by the chance to reach more students online than they could in a lifetime of teaching the old-fashioned way.

We’re in the very early days of a vast experiment. No one knows how it will evolve. But higher education is in for a dramatic change – and that’s a good thing.

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