In the world of higher education, “online” has become a buzzword like few others.
Everywhere you look, the country’s top universities are racing to put their courses on the Internet. Harvard, MIT, and UC Berkeley recently teamed up to launch edX, a nonprofit online education venture. Earlier this year, a Stanford professor founded Udacity, a for-profit site that currently hosts 14 computer science courses. A few months later, two Stanford professors unveiled Coursera, which already offers nearly 200 courses from 33 universities. Carnegie Mellon has the Open Learning Initiative, and Yale has Open Yale Courses. The list goes on.
Underlying the flurry of activity is a fundamental assumption—that online education is the inevitable outcome of advances in technology and the increasing inaccessibility of traditional higher education. As Teachers College professor Frank Moretti sees it, higher education needs to get cheaper—at least, if you “really want to have a democracy.”
“We should educate everybody we can, and change the methodologies to make things accessible,” says Moretti, who also serves as the executive director of the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning.
Columbia is just starting to dip its toes into the waters of open access education. Administrators announced last month that the University will offer its first two massive open online courses (MOOCs) next semester through Coursera—a move that Sree Sreenivasan, Columbia’s chief digital officer, characterized as an experiment. Columbia did not sign an exclusivity agreement with Coursera, and administrators have not decided whether they will stick with the organization past next semester.
“We’re not trying to rush into anything,” Sreenivasan says. “In the rest of academia, there seems to be some kind of panic—if we don’t immediately do something long-term, we’re going to be in trouble. We want to be very careful and strategic about what we do.”
Sreenivasan has more than enough reasons to urge restraint, because even as academic institutions dive into the online marketplace, many questions about online education remain unanswered. If you decide to put courses online, who are you trying to benefit—your current students, or the world at large? How do you create a financially viable business model for online classes? Can you really recreate a classroom experience in a virtual setting?
Sreenivasan compares the current moment in online education to the state of the Internet in 1996. Back then, Sreenivasan says, people thought “we knew the shape of the Web, we knew what direction it was going.” But the Internet, of course, has changed dramatically, and Sreenivasan believes that making important decisions about online education in 2012 would be “like making business decisions about the future of the Internet based on where the Web was in ’96.”
“We’re sort of there now,” he says. “We’re at the very beginning of the changes of online education.”
When Douglas Chalmers, the executive director of the Society of Senior Scholars, started teaching at Columbia in 1966, the University’s computing resources consisted of a handful of IBM machines squeezed into an underground “computer center” between Uris and Havemeyer halls. The first use of email on campus was a decade away, and the launch of the Columbia website was two decades away. Wireless Internet was a far-flung fantasy. Students took notes in paper notebooks and conducted their research in the stacks.
It’s difficult to count the number of ways in which technology has permeated education since then, from basics such as PowerPoint slides, to learning management systems like CourseWorks, to what Chalmers calls the “Noah-like flood of information available on the Internet.” Students use Wi-Fi during class, continue classroom discussions on course blogs, and read assignments on their personal computers and Kindles.
When it comes to technology outside of the classroom, a lot of the innovation at Columbia is happening at the Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, which helped create CourseWorks, Wikispaces, and EdBlogs. The center’s staff has also worked on hundreds of individual projects requested by professors, including a platform that the late Columbia professor Manning Marable used to aggregate research for his Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Malcolm X.
“Our commitment to the future is just to keep going in this direction,” Moretti says. “How can we exploit these technologies in ways that advance teaching and learning at Columbia?”
At the classroom level, Columbia University Information Technology and Barnard College Information Technology are working to enable all classrooms with basic technologies like audio, video, and Wi-Fi. Meanwhile, laptops, smartphones, and tablets are changing the way students and professors interact. Although their potential to distract students is well-known, these technological devices can also be used to benefit classroom discussions.
Chalmers has taken these changes in stride. He said that he reads almost exclusively on his computer, that he no longer accepts hard copies of papers, and that he “can’t imagine” why students wouldn’t bring their computers to class to take notes. “I take it as a challenge to keep them from disappearing into social networking or emails or whatever,” he says.
Chalmers adds that students using their laptops have made helpful contributions in his Contemporary Civilization classes, although he sees the need for a new technology—something more complex than Google searches—that allows students to “reach out and get information and bring it into the conversations” more fluidly.
“They should be able to represent themselves as a node in the flow of information that’s coming in from outside,” Chalmers says.
Others, of course, have had the opposite reaction to electronics in the classroom. Lisa Norberg, Barnard’s dean of library and academic information services, says that some professors and students have asked her to turn off Wi-Fi in their classrooms. And classics professor Gareth Williams believes that there is a “balance to be drawn” between the advantages and disadvantages of technology in the classroom.
“One of the things about the classroom is that it’s a chance to turn off electronics,” he says.
But as technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous, many professors have actually started to encourage its use in the classroom. Electrical engineering professor David Vallancourt sometimes sends his students Google Doc polls during class, encouraging them to give him real-time feedback about the material via their smartphones.
“It’s going to happen anyway,” Vallancourt says, referring to the increasing use of technology in the classroom. “So you might as well figure out how to use it.”
Laptops and smartphones have certainly changed education, but they start to sound relatively insignificant when compared to the revolutionary potential of free and open higher education, courtesy of the world’s top universities. For hundreds of years, elite institutions have been closed off to all but a lucky few, and the Internet has the potential to change that.
Columbia has already taken some steps to educate the public via the Web. The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the Columbia University Libraries, for instance, both passed open access policies last year, encouraging all of their professors, students, and staffers to make their research available to the public for free. A year and a half ago, the libraries’ Center for Digital Research and Scholarship relaunched Academic Commons, an online research repository that already hosts more than 7,500 items contributed by over 1,500 people affiliated with Columbia.
“We’re aligned with the mission of the University—to share the fruits of the scholarship that happens here with the world,” Academic Commons manager Robert Hilliker says. That same attitude has helped drive the creation of MOOCs at universities around the country. And while online education is still in its infancy, it’s already clear that MOOCs and similar programs could be an effective way to make a high-quality education affordable to millions, if not billions, of people around the world.
“I think the benefit is, you’re going to have more options,” says Len Peters, Yale’s chief information officer and a professor at Columbia’s School of Continuing Education. “You’re going to have availability to programs that you haven’t had before, and I think you could expect that they’d be much more affordable.”
It’s even possible that online students will be able to earn degrees that are indistinguishable from those received by traditional, on-campus students at universities like Columbia. But while that idea is still far from a reality, a few universities are already working hard to develop online tools that can make a virtual classroom more like a traditional one. MIT, for instance, publishes all of its course materials on MIT OpenCourseWare. It has also experimented with iLabs, which allows students to operate real laboratory equipment via the Internet.
“What does it mean to do great MIT education?” asks Vijay Kumar, the director of MIT’s Office of Educational Innovation and Technology. “And to answer that question, you have to look at these things online, because you want to address the needs of different kinds of learners and the new insights that online experiences bring.”
But when it comes to educating the general public, online education certainly has its potential pitfalls. Even if universities can replicate parts of the traditional classroom experience on the Internet, online courses could suffer from a lack of student-professor face-time, especially in virtual classrooms that could number hundreds of thousands of students.
“It begs the question of how much time a faculty member must have to devote to the individual needs of each student,” Peters says. “So it changes fundamentally the most important metric, which is student/faculty ratios.”
Columbia failed in its first attempt at online education, Fathom.com, a decade ago. History professor Richard Bulliet, who was paid to produce courses for Fathom, identifies what he sees as another problem with the online learning model. When he knew he was teaching for the general public, he found himself “dumbing it down.”
“We maintain this illusion that higher education is pretty much the same thing throughout the country,” Bulliet says. “We all know that’s bullshit.”
“The fact is, we have a very stratified system of education,” he adds. “And if you go for mass consumption, you’re going to have, if not a paradox, then a dilemma.”
Convincing professors to teach MOOCs could be another problem entirely. Vallancourt says that while he would have no problem with his courses being put online—“if it can be done unobtrusively,” that is—he feels a need to keep his focus on the tuition-paying students in his classroom.
“I’m not so interested myself in creating that stuff for the masses, to get my courses out there for the whole world,” he says. “Because that’s my role—my role is, as an instructor, right here.”
Columbia administrators, like Vallancourt, say that their focus is on Columbia students first.
Sreenivasan and Provost John Coatsworth are working on a report, which they plan to complete by the end of the semester, on what online education should look like at Columbia. And according to University President Lee Bollinger, the report’s first goal is to identify “how online can help improve what we do here already.”
“I like the idea of focusing internally first, before one says, ‘Let’s educate the world,’” Bollinger says.
Although the University is just getting started with MOOCs, several schools and departments at Columbia already use online education in an attempt to benefit their students. Quite a few classes, including Frontiers of Science, put many of their lectures online through venues such as YouTube and iTunes U. The School of Engineering and Applied Science offers several online degree programs via the Columbia Video Network, and the School of Continuing Education boasts an online business certificate program. Other SCE programs blend in-person and online education.
Asked if Columbia must strike a balance between educating its tuition-paying students and the general public, Sreenivasan counters that the two endeavors complement each other. He’ll be watching Coursera closely, in the hopes of developing better strategies for bringing online learning to Columbia students.
“I believe we’ll learn from anything we do for the outside world internally, and vice versa. So I’m not really worried about it,” he says. “But our priority is to help our resident students.”
Administrators at MIT have a similar attitude toward the potential benefits of online courses. Kumar says that while open online courses are a chance for universities to educate the general public, they’re also a great opportunity to learn how to educate traditional, on-campus students more effectively.
“We are really going to learn a lot about learning,” he says. “And what that means is that we’re going to learn a lot about what it means to do high-quality teaching and learning, on a scale basis, for different disciplines.”
Already, some professors see benefits in putting lecture courses online—giving students the ability to pause and re-watch complicated sections, for example, as well as giving professors the ability to correct their mistakes. Vallancourt took an online class offered by renowned MIT physicist Walter Lewin, and he was impressed by how the courseware handled it when Lewin accidentally wrote Ohm’s law as “v=ir,” rather than “v=i/r.”
“They do this really cool thing. He wrote it wrong, and then a few seconds after he wrote it, the video slows down,” Vallancourt says. “And then he pops up and he says, ‘Of course, that’s ridiculous.’”
As far as Chalmers is concerned, students would not lose much value if some of Columbia’s large lecture classes were offered exclusively online.
“A lecture class with 250 kids in it is not discussion, and it’s not anything more than that,” Chalmers says. “So why not have it online?”
“You could do it at 11:00 at night, instead of going out drinking or something,” he adds.
Small seminars, though, are another matter entirely. Virtually no one at Columbia thinks that the Internet can replace the discussion that takes place in a Core class—not least Chalmers, who believes, as many educators do, that “there’s something very important about being physically present with each other.”
Even Moretti, whose job is to create new media for the classroom, believes that the tech-free back-and-forth that takes place in a seminar might be what continues to draw students to Columbia—no matter what happens with online education.
“What will be unique about Columbia may come directly out of the fact that we’ve maintained small classes that are capable of producing kinds of discussions that you would not otherwise be able to have,” Moretti says. “The claim can no longer just be about the content. The content is going to be universally accessible everywhere.”
Columbia tried to get into the online education marketplace once before. In 2000, the University launched Fathom.com, a for-profit venture in which Columbia and other educational institutions sold online courses to the general public.
But Fathom lost millions of dollars, and Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin, who Bollinger brought to Columbia from the University of Michigan in 2002, decided to shut it down at the request of academic leadership.
“That was a different time, a different era. The technology wasn’t ready,” Sreenivasan says. “Also, people weren’t ready, society wasn’t ready … It wasn’t understood that you could learn much, that you could study, on the Internet. YouTube didn’t exist. Wikipedia didn’t exist.”
But the Internet has evolved since 2002, and if Fathom was ahead of its time, its possible that Columbia is now behind the times. Sreenivasan was named the University’s first chief digital officer in July, and a University Senate task force on online education met for the first time last month.
“We’re already behind most other universities,” says Kenny Durell, a Columbia College alumnus, who served two years on the University Senate’s IT Committee. “I think that’s the reason we’re scrambling to form this task force, and these courses are coming up” on Coursera.
And even as Columbia experiments with Coursera, it’s still not clear whether open online education is financially sustainable for elite universities. Harvard and MIT have each committed $30 million to edX, but administrators have said that they don’t yet know how this not-for-profit venture will sustain itself. Udacity, a for-profit company, is largely funded by venture capital, although it doesn’t have a clear business plan either. The same is true with Coursera—it’s supposed to be a for-profit business, but its founders haven’t said how they plan to make money off of it.
Meanwhile, a few non-university institutions have launched successful online education ventures. Most notably, the not-for-profit Khan Academy, which was founded in 2006, has survived on large grants from donors such as Google and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, allowing it to reach millions of people with its video tutorials.
Kasdin, who essentially runs the business side of Columbia, says that he’s not sure what business model for online education will work best here. But he does think it’s possible to do online education in an economically sustainable way.
“There are pockets across the University that have been able to sustain themselves economically with long-distance learning. The engineering school, Continuing Education in Arts and Sciences, and others, have identified important academic initiatives that also can be sustained economically,” Kasdin says. “I have confidence they will continue to be able to do that, even as the focuses of those initiatives evolve.”
Kumar isn’t too concerned with the business of online education. At least right now, he says, the right question is not “how to sustain these initiatives, but how to sustain high-quality education.”
“Most of the folks who have launched these initiatives have not thought deeply about business models, because everyone is aware that these are large-scale experiments,” Kumar says. “There’s a lot to be understood about this.”
At some institutions, at least, online education has already proven to be a money-maker—or at least a money-saver. For-profit schools, such as the University of Phoenix, have thrived due to income from online courses, and cash-starved state schools, including the University of California system, have turned to online education as a way to increase their tuition bases.
At elite universities, though, the profit motive has taken a backseat to academic considerations, at least so far. Bollinger says that while he’s “not oblivious” to the potential profitability of online education, making money should be secondary to serving educational ends.
“As we think about this, we should not make making money our primary, or even most significant goal. We’re actually not very good at doing things in that way when we set our minds to it,” Bollinger says. “And I think it’s likely to lead to some very unfortunate consequences for schools that set out to make a lot of money.”
It’s easy to make the assumption that the era of online education, like the era of globalization, is inevitable. Even Barnard—a much smaller school than Columbia, and one with considerably fewer resources—is working to do something in the “online space,” according to Barnard President Debora Spar. She recently created a Committee on Online and On-Campus Learning (COOL) to examine Barnard’s options.
“Barnard almost certainly is not going to want to do what Harvard and MIT are doing. We’re a very different player in a very different space,” she says. “But the job of this committee will be to figure out what we should be doing.”
“We’ve issued invitations to 15 faculty members,” Spar adds. “Everyone said yes, because everyone wants to be on the cool committee.”
But the online education movement could still grind to a halt—maybe because it proves to be financially unsustainable, or maybe because universities decide that it just doesn’t measure up to traditional classroom learning. Williams says that there’s a healthy tension among academics between “the go-ahead digital viewpoint, and the more concerned, slightly slower viewpoint.”
“I oft wonder if, in fact, the pace of change could be so rapid that it will create a counter-reaction of the classroom as a place to slow down,” he says.
It is hard to know what will happen next—we are still in the early days of online education, and history has shown that technology evolves quickly. In 1996, Sreenivasan noted, the Internet didn’t have video, and it was so slow that people jokingly called it the “World Wide Wait.”
“Rumination is all very well, but no one knows” where technology is headed, Williams says. “Who could possibly know?”