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The Walls Come Down

Two articles (1, 2) in today’s New York Times show just how quickly change is coming to higher education. A series of experimental Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offered by Stanford, MIT, Georgia Tech and others have proven to be quite popular and have spawned at least two start-ups, Udacity and Udemy. The professors seem to be enjoying the new medium even more than the students:

Mr. Thrun was enraptured by the scale of the course, and how it spawned its own culture, including a Facebook group, online discussions and an army of volunteer translators who made it available in 44 languages.

“Having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again,” he said at a digital conference in Germany in January. “I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill, and you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.”

There will be many more attempts like this before a workable system develops. There’s still much needed innovation ahead, not the least in the area of fraud prevention. But the fact that the MacArthur Foundation is getting involved in devising a system of accreditation is a sign that these experiments have legs.

The most forward-leaning universities, like Stanford and MIT, recognize that their future is at stake. Teachers and students are both breaking free of the framework of the traditional academy, recognizing that they often have better choices outside than inside it. In the end, the best professors will be available to any student who wants to sign up instead of being limited to the handful of students who get past the scrutiny of college admissions officers and can fork up huge tuitions.

The capacity for innovation is America’s secret weapon in the competition to shape the future. That the hidebound world of higher ed is changing so rapidly is a sign that America still has what it takes.

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  • Kelly Colgan Azar

    Hurrah! I feel I’ve taken the red pill myself, just reading the post, and I’m 62. Very exciting prospect for education in the U.S. and the world.

  • Luke Lea

    And of course good teaching professors can just do it on their own:

  • RedWell

    Forget pills, what is WRM smoking? Massive courses are fine for communicating information on many topics, but is that really “education”? And for young people, doesn’t important socialization occur on campus and in class, not with headphones in front of a screen? Certainly WRM has highlighted–and participated in–the value of in-depth liberal education, so I’m curious how that vision fits with the impersonal mass production we get from MIT.

    Though WRM warns that no silver bullet will help US higher ed adjust into the future, these posts (another, for example, about online lectures and STEM degrees feel an awful lot like magical thinking.

  • Kris

    Positive news, but: Udacity? Udemy? Ugh!

  • JKB

    “…including a Facebook group, online discussions and an army of volunteer translators…”

    That right there is the future of education. The real value of the university was the pooling of individuals in synch in pursuing some topic. The real learning takes place in their group work. Think they “study groups” which seem to be the center of every law school movie. Some schools promote this, others leave students to possibly find their own way. As we see, it is possible to have a study group online across the internet. In this method, the professor is more coach than oracle of knowledge. Rather than test memorization, their questions are to spark discussion. I could see a massive online class with online discussions with more knowledgeable moderators to keep things focused and a professor who coaches these groups not as the all-knowing expert but as the one who has a better handle on the larger picture.

    This isn’t new. A hundred years ago, the problem method of teaching was being promoted. It is still lingers but as it isn’t formally taught students get conditioned to lecture-memorization-exam. True, college tries to break this habit but it would be better if we stopped breaking kids in the first place. In three to five years of formal education, a good portion of the divergent thinking ability has been educated out of kids. By high school, very few have survived. Most are hard conditioned into “school helplessness”, the passive learning of the classroom lecture.

    There is a downside to this method. Developing freedom of thought, self-organization, and open discussion of topics in students, does not create good cattle for political manipulations but it does create good citizens for real democracy.

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