College Is Dead. Long Live College! | Oct. 18, 2012 | Amanda Ripley |

Educating students, particularly ones who aren’t natural learners in the subject, is an art. Instructors can be effective when delivery is centered on students, either through pedagogical development for in-person instruction, or programmed through distance learning.

… online classes … most are dry, uninspired affairs, consisting of a patchwork of online readings, written Q&As and low-budget lecture videos. Many students nevertheless pay hundreds of dollars for these classes — 3 in 10 college students report taking at least one online course, up from 1 in 10 in 2003 — but afterward, most are no better off than they would have been at their local community college.

[…]  New technology, from cloud computing to social media, has dramatically lowered the costs and increased the odds of creating a decent online education platform. In the past year alone, start-ups like Udacity, Coursera and edX — each with an elite-university imprimatur — have put 219 college-level courses online, free of charge. Many traditional colleges are offering classes and even entire degree programs online. Demand for new skills has reached an all-time high. People on every continent have realized that to thrive in the modern economy, they need to be able to think, reason, code and calculate at higher levels than before.

Ivy League for the Masses: Free MOOCs (massive open online courses) come with cachet

When the Udacity professor appeared, he looked as if he were about 12; in fact, he was all of 25. “I’m Andy Brown, the instructor for this course, and here we are, on location in Siracusa, Italy!” He had a crew cut and an undergraduate degree from MIT; he did not have a Ph.D. or tenure, which would turn out to be to his advantage. [….]

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. [….]

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.


Right now, most MOOC providers do not make a profit. That can’t continue forever. Udacity will probably charge for its classes one day, Thrun says, but he claims the price will stay very low; if not, he predicts, a competitor will come along and steal away his students.

Udacity does not offer a degree, since it’s not an accredited university. Students get a ceremonial certificate in the form of a PDF. Grades are based on the final exam. Students who choose to take the final for Udacity’s computer-science course at an independent testing center (for $89) can get transfer credits from Colorado State University–Global Campus, an online-only school.

Getting more colleges to accept transfer credits would be nice, but in the longer term, Udacity aims to cut out the middleman and go straight to employers. This week, Udacity announced that six companies, including Google and Microsoft, are sponsoring classes in skills that are in short supply, from programming 3-D graphics to building apps for Android phones. [….]
Elite universities like Georgetown are unlikely to go away in the near future, as even Udacity’s co-founder (and Stanford alum) David Stavens concedes. “I think the top 50 schools are probably safe,” he says. “There’s a magic that goes on inside a university campus that, if you can afford to live inside that bubble, is wonderful.” [….]

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College Is Dead. Long Live College! |