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Major Expansion in Online Learning

In the past few years, higher education has moved online with breathtaking speed. Harvard and MIT’s EdX have led the way, but Stanford’s Coursera is quickly emerging as a rival. It announced today that it has added 12 more universities to its list of participating institutions, among them Johns Hopkins, Duke, UC-San Francisco and the École Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne.

The University of Virginia, however, is perhaps the most interesting of the group. Last month’s leadership controversy at UVA made national headlines when the university’s Board of Visitors forced President Theresa Sullivan’s ouster under less-than-clear circumstances. As the rationale for the move slowly coalesced, it became clear that the dustup was over certain board members’ beliefs that UVA was falling behind competitors, especially in the fast-growing online learning movement. As it turns out, Sullivan had been making plans to boost the school’s online presence all along, according to reporting by the Washington Post:

 U-Va. Rector Helen Dragas, who leads the governing Board of Visitors, thought university leaders had ignored the Internet at their peril, like the music industry and media companies before them. In the months preceding her attempt to oust Sullivan, Dragas had read various articles about a coming online “tsunami” that would upend higher education, e-mailing one to a board colleague under the heading “why we can’t afford to wait.”

As it turns out, university leaders weren’t waiting.

Officials from U-Va.’s Darden School of Business first contacted Coursera in April, after learning that the Silicon Valley start-up had attracted venture capital and was expanding from Stanford to other top-tier universities, according to Milton Adams, the university’s vice provost for academic programs. A Darden delegation visited Coursera in early June, a few days before Sullivan resigned.

As most observers note, there are still a number of kinks to be worked out. Most glaringly, neither Coursera nor EdX has found a way to monetize the system. Classes are currently offered free of charge, and students receive certificates, but not course credit. Some doubt that such programs will ever be revenue-positive for the universities that host them.

Of course, universities aren’t the only organizations that have trouble “monetizing” their presence on the web. Newspapers and magazines continue to reel from the consequences of the shift to online. University structures are going to change and the cumbersome administrative bureaucracies are going to be hollowed out.

Many administrators probably think that getting online is a way to avoid the necessity for a major reconfiguration of American higher ed. When they talk about “monetizing” their presence online, they are talking about raking in enough money for cheap online courses that they can subsidize the creaking status quo.

No dice. Online ed will accelerate rather than retard the transformation of American higher ed. Education needs to be cheaper and higher quality than most of it now is; there is no way universities can meet that demand without fundamental change.


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  • Gerald

    I would suspect that premier universities such as the ones who have signed on to Coursera have multiple objectives. They have probably perceived that a “hybrid” model of on-line and classroom education is evolving, and want to be sure that they understand the evolving model and will be positioned to gain influence and “market share” as the changes occur. There is also an advantage to being associated with other institutions of excellence. In the case of Georgia Tech, it is already a relative bargain among highly rated universities and this is one more way to maintain and enhance that standing.

  • TheRadicalModerate

    Monetizing online courseware is very similar to monetizing open source software: The core content is free, but the services surrounding it don’t have to be. Here are just some of the services that could spring up around genuinely open, best-of-breed courseware:

    1) Teachers leading discussion/recitation groups.

    2) Tutoring.

    3) Hard facilities: labs, athletic facilities, shops, and test-taking venues.

    4) Grading services.

    5) Proctoring services. (No way that online test-taking is **ever** going to work–even the suspicion, to say nothing of the reality, of fraud will be enough to require hard-proctoring.)

    6) Registration and (secure!) record-keeping services.

    7) Per-course teacher training and qualification (i.e. open courseware for the open courseware).

    8) Curriculum bundling–picking courses or pieces of courses to satisfy specific requirements. Closely related to this will be creation of certificate programs for industry.

    I expect the de-verticalization and productivity increases of online courseware to have the same consequences as they did in other industries: Overall cost to the consumer will plummet, the very best workers will be paid many times more than they make now, the average workers will make somewhat less, and the below-average will be unemployed.

    Sounds good to me.

  • Jack Straw

    Radical Moderate,
    I agree with all your points except #5. While I agree that online test taking won’t work in the privacy of your own home, if you have ever taken a Series 7 or Insurance Licensing or any other licensing exam, you know there are decentralized for-profit test centers available in every suburban neighborhood that will gladly accept new sources of test takers. They are test agnostic, they simply provide controlled, secure environments for decentralized testing.

    I also question your last paragraph. The high average income of the American worker shows that a wealthy economy lifts all boats. Whether it is in real wages or higher standard of living, or a combination, the decentralization of learning and shift to education (results) rather than simply accreditation (process) will have a great impact for our economy.

    Don’t let the current clouds get you down – the future is bright.


  • Marcus V

    First, I am unaware of anyone outside of MIT or Harvard who consider EdX to be leading the way to anything at all. MIT’s OpenCourseware was grounbreaking in the previous decade, but that merely made course materials available. EdX, to be blunt, is vaporware.

    The actual leaders are CourseRA (as you note) and Udacity (as you don’t.)

    Second, speaking as someone who has taken advantage of MIT’s Opencourseware extensively in the past, and is taking advantage of CourseRA extensively right now, let me make two statements about them:

    First, I adore them. They, and the easy access to a new pedagogical package somewhere between a multi-thousand dollar structured university class, and just hitting the textbooks, is a wonderful wonderful thing.

    Second, the revolutionary impact on education is, thus far, highly overrated. I take those classes for fun, or to fill in what I consider gaps in my educational resume. But at present, I would never bother to put them on an actual resume or curriculum vita. I’d be laughed out of the room. The content in the technical classes is not sufficiently advanced, nor is it is sufficiently rigorous, to be worth mentioning– this is what happens when you teach a class on, say, artificial intelligence to an audience of 100,000 people. The technical details are watered down. Moreover, the prospects for extra-curricular collusion are rampant.

    The missing piece of the puzzle is not monetization, it’s accreditation. And accreditation isn’t just a technical process but a social process; my guess is that ABET, for instance, won’t touch these things with a ten foot pole because it would damage ABET’s reputation to do so. At the very least, I won’t take a job candidate seriously if he lists these courses on his resume, no matter what any accreditation board says about them, because my personal experience tells me that the classes aren’t good enough to worry about.

    These are not insurmountable problems, but they are problems that will prevent the revolution for a good long time.

  • Marcus V

    (Also, when people tell me that I’m wrong, it would be useful to mention any of the following salient points:

    1) Have you ever taken an online course from Udacity or CourseRA?

    2a) Are you in a hiring manager position in industry, or an equivalent position in a university faculty, e.g., passing judgement on transfer credits or waiving prerequisites?

    2b) What would you say to a job prospect or transfer student listing these courses on his resume or transcripts?

    You, too, WRM– ever taken one? Anyone on your staff taken one?

  • Ajay

    As more top-tier schools enter into this system, I anticipate a general outcry from their alumni. Specifically, those who shelled out >100k to attend the University in person who know may SEEM to have the same credentials as someone who merely took courses on-line.

    I’m not sure how employers will add scrutiny to their hiring process but they will probably need a more rigorous way of finding out who received an actual degree and who merely took courses on-line

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Ajay: If the students score as well is there any real difference from an employer’s point of view?

  • TheRadicalModerate


    Point taken that online is fine, as long as it’s online in a closed room with a big honking firewall and some watchful eyes. Other than that, I think we’re in violent agreement about test proctoring. The fact that it already exists doesn’t detract from it being a profitable member of the open courseware ecosystem.

    As for my gloomy conclusion, this is what horizontal productivity improvements look like, and there’s a fairly simple explanation. Productivity revolutions pretty much turn any activity into reputation-based piecework, and the most productive practitioners can do a lot more piecework, and demand a higher price based on their reputation. Ordinary mortals can get work, but they can’t scale as well as the top performers. And the mediocre-to-incompetent aren’t even given a chance.

    For education, I suspect that this means that teachers charge a premium per student as their reputation increases, and they can take on more and more students until their quality (and therefore reputation) starts to suffer. I have a (completely unproven) hunch that high-productivity environments produce incomes that more closely resemble a power-series distribution than a normal distribution.

  • TheRadicalModerate


    I think that there’s a way for the accreditation cookie to crumble. All you need are industry consortia to start specifying a list of courses and scores that will get you an interview. This is likely to start at the trade/tech school level first, then migrate slowly up the food chain. A degree from an accredited school is a lousy proxy for competence, but it’s the only one an HR department has today. Given them an easy way to specify exactly what they want and they’ll fall all over themselves to do so.

  • Darden =/= All of UVA

    WRM, your facts are in need of some organizing.

    You had previously reported on how Darden’s dean was the only UVA dean not to sign a petition demanding the board of rectors reinstate Sullivan after her dismissal (a dismissal partly driven by slowness in responding to new education models).

    The fact that UVA was in talks to join Coursera before Sullivan’s dismissal in no way exonerates her as someone slow to get onboard the Internet-education bandwagon.

    Indeed, could it not be the case that although Darden was trying to move with the times, Sullivan was not helping or even hindering their efforts before her dismissal? And that this is why the Darden dean was so loath to sign the petition to reinstate her?

    Put differently, just because a top business school is in line with something does not mean a left-wing academic administrator at the same institution is also in line with it …

  • Marcus V


    It may be possible, but it’ll be a little more difficult than you describe. Corporate recruiters grade on a curve, so to speak– a ‘B’ at MIT means more than an ‘A’ at Unknown State Polytech… but this is tractable because under the current regime, MIT and USP are signing off on the whole GPA and the majority of the classes.

    In addition to the generally bland quality of the online classes (again, useful for self-study, but not as qualifications for anything formal) the system lends itself to a breakdown in the way accredited universities sign off on the quality of a graduate. If your engineering degree takes (say) 16 courses, but 10 of the low level pre-requisite types are from 6 different institutions, how good is that higher level certification from the degree-granting university?

  • Walter Sobchak

    Another reason for Universities to participate in these ventures is for them and their faculty to learn how to teach using online resources. All kinds of things are possible. Online physics and chemistry lab simulations. Anatomical models that students can dissect with their computer pointers. Morphing maps and timelines to accompany history lectures. The possibilities are endless. But the colleges need to start to explore them now.

  • Kris

    [Veering off topic.]

    Marcus@11: “a ‘B’ at MIT means more than an ‘A’ at Unknown State Polytech”

    An example of things done differently:

    But now there is a problem for those liberal arts majors. Why, going back to the WSJ article, do they gravitate to the easiest majors that provide the fewest skills? Because they understand that in many cases, in today’s world no liberal arts major – apart from economics – will be taken very seriously to gain entry level to management, corporate consulting, etc. You will eventually be looking at professional school – business school or law school. And those schools care only about the GPA/LSAT-GMAT. That’s because those two figure so heavily in the USNWR rankings. So the GPA matters fantastically much – and, perhaps surprisingly to outsiders, the difficulty of the major is not taken into account.
    These professional schools have traditionally accepted any major, and do not differentiate. So, a friend here in DC asked me about two recent interns of his who had gone on to law school – he was astonished and troubled to find that the MIT grad with the B average in STEM had fared far less well than the NYU English major. As in: the NYU lit grad went to Harvard and the MIT grad was wait-listed at American. That might seem surprising, but in addition, USNWR takes a generally hands off attitude toward the ranking of the undergraduate institutions. Meaning (and if someone in admissions processes wants to correct me on this regarding how USNWR treats the undergraduate institutions in law or b-school rankings, I would be very interested to know about it): a law school taking a bunch of B+ students from Harvard undergrad will be worse off than taking A students from University of Arizona. The law or b-school admissions offices might want to have some number of Ivy graduates, but so far as I know, that does not count in USNWR rankings of the professional schools.

    (The above was not meant to dispute any of Marcus’ arguments.)

  • Joe

    Wisconsin’s College of Engineering is beginning to put out feelers in this direction, but in a more traditional manner. Online classes are offered during the summer for already-enrolled students, who pay the normal rate per-credit-hour for the class. So it’s still somewhat expensive, and restricted to enrolled students only, but you get credits that actually count for something and a class that stands up to the rigor of a regular semester session. For many (such as myself) that’s the difference between graduating in 4 1/2 years compared to the regular 4 years.

    I second the opinion Marcus has on Open Courseware–it’s excellent, but really more for fun or informative purposes than for actual certification. The amount of material actually available per class varies wildly, as well. Some include only the lecture slides, which are all but useless by themselves; some include online texts or video lectures; and some come with homework and project assignments. Usually it’s only the earlier, introductory courses that are fully featured. Excellent resource, but not quite what I’d consider an “online class.”

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