More universities sign on to free online course initiative

A slew of new online course offerings from some of America’s most prestigious universities could change the higher education landscape. Elite institutions like Harvard and Stanford have rolled out multimillion-dollar initiatives that allow anyone in the world to access their courses, free of charge.

At Stanford, two computer science professors have created an online learning platform called Coursera, which offers courses from top universities in the US and Canada. Launched in April, the classes are available for free to anyone in the world with internet access.

In a similar fashion, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has teamed up with Harvard to launch edX, a US$60 million online education hub that will include video lessons, online laboratories and opportunities for immediate feedback from professors.

The initiative, which will launch in the autumn, aims to build a global community of learners and provide high quality education to everyone.

“edX gives Harvard and MIT an unprecedented opportunity to dramatically extend our collective reach by conducting groundbreaking research into effective education and by extending online access to quality higher education,” said Harvard President Drew Faust in a statement.

Both initiatives represent a significant shift away from the traditional classroom learning model and a new embracing of online education.

In the past, online learning was met with scepticism thanks to the proliferation of low quality online offerings. Slowly, however, prestigious universities like Stanford cottoned on to the benefits of online learning and started offering high quality content that followed the same rigorous standards as their classroom courses.

This has led to a shift in how online education is perceived, said Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera.

“Now when you talk to an institution of higher education, even the best ones aren’t asking themselves whether they should engage [in online education], but rather how they should do it and how quickly they can get into it,” Koller told University World News.

This week, 12 universities signed agreements with Coursera, bringing the total to 16 participating institutions, including Duke University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Toronto in Canada.

The platform currently offers 45 courses online, with 680,000 students enrolled from more than 190 countries. More than 30,000 students sign up per week.

Koller said that having high quality online content does not threaten traditional classroom learning but it can teach it something.

“I think there is a tremendous value of people coming together in a single place, the serendipity of interaction, the ability to brainstorm; there is huge value in that.” Koller added that it’s also a transition point away from childhood into adult life.

What does need to change in the traditional classroom, she said, is the form of instruction, and it needs to reflect the use of technology. This means, for example, doing away with the traditional lecture format entirely, which favours a generally one-sided approach.

Technology, with its more interactive process, gives students the chance to learn at their own pace, pausing a lecture or seminar and taking notes. In a traditional setting, sometimes the professor might be speaking too fast and a student misses something.

Despite technology’s obvious perks, brick-and-mortar institutions are likely here to stay, said MIT President Susan Hockfield.

“The campus environment offers opportunities and experiences that cannot be replicated online,” said Hockfield in a statement. “edX is designed to improve, not replace, the campus experience.”

Unlike students attending universities, online users of either platform are not guaranteed a certificate upon completion of a course. Students learning via edX will receive certification if they are able to demonstrate mastery of the course material. At Coursera, certificates are handed out at the discretion of the university offering the course.

So, is higher education ready for this kind of technological change, and what will it mean for its future?

“Technology has revolutionised most markets, and now it’s about to enact a similar revolution [in education],” Daphne Koller said. “It will likely change the face of how we see education today.