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.