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How online learning is reinventing college

Jun 3, 2013 by

The online learning movement, spreading more by the week, will change how tomorrow’s students go to school, who teaches them, and what they learn.

By Laura Pappano

Students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are not automatically required to go to class. So you notice when, on a lousy midwinter evening in a driving 45-degree rain, 98 show up at Room 46-3002 in Singleton Auditorium. They come not for the free Thai takeout (though it’s appreciated), but because everyone in Eric Lander’s introductory biology course is needed. In person.

Ilana Porter, an ebullient first-year student from New Jersey, doesn’t mind, and even dumps her plate of noodles to be on time. “We want good seats,” she says, and secures a spot in the front row.

Dr. Lander, a MacArthur “genius” and a leader of the Human Genome Project, is the sort of iconic professor you expect to find at the front of a lecture hall at an eminent university. In Ms. Porter’s pared down parlance, he is “legit.” So much else here, though, is experimental. That’s because “Introduction to Biology: The Secret of Life” is also a Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, offered by edX, the MIT-Harvard University nonprofit, free of charge to anyone in the world with an Internet connection.

Producers film the course with three cameras “like a sporting event,” says videographer James Donald. Professional stage lights illuminate the room. Techies with headsets hover at the perimeter. Before Lander, with rain-dampened hair, starts his lecture, he looks to Mr. Donald for the “we’re rolling” sign. Then, during more than half the class, he gazes into a teleprompter, addressing a person whose expressive face has been projected onto the screen to make Lander respond to his remote pupils more naturally. Porter and her peers in the auditorium are just the brainy studio audience.

One might ask, exactly whose class is this, anyway?

It’s a question arising with increasing frequency from Cambridge to California. Online learning, once considered the Yugo of higher education, is now sweeping through American academia faster than anyone thought conceivable just five years ago. Almost every week, some elite private college or public university announces plans to put professors on camera and beam lectures to students half a mile or half a world away. For the schools, the technology is a way to reach people they might not otherwise engage and to experiment with a tool that could transform how they dispense knowledge in the future.

For those tuning in – often thousands, ranging in age from 9 to 90 – it is a way to brush up on a subject, prepare for a course they may one day take on campus, or just learn from a professor they otherwise would never have access to, like a godfather of the Human Genome Project.

The candid question behind the camera is where this is all leading. Some people, like Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, predict that in as little as 15 years half of the colleges in the United States will be in bankruptcy, upended by online learning and the move to hybrid models in which only select classes are taught in person on campus. Others see more incremental shifts, with virtual learning remaining a tool rather than a transformative technology in higher education.

Yet few doubt that college is ripe for change. Under the current system, students face serious problems getting into and through school, universities struggle to make money, and everyone grapples with fairness issues – why did she get accepted and I didn’t? This is to say nothing of the rising cost of a degree that may, or may not, prepare students for a job. Mix in the advent of new technologies such as cloud computing, which makes information, videos, and course work accessible at any time from anywhere, and old-style bricks-and-mortar colleges look ready for reinvention.

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