A Fresh Twist on Online Learning

By Gwynne, Peter | Research-Technology Management, January-February 2013 | Go to article overview

A Fresh Twist on Online Learning


Gwynne, Peter, Research-Technology Management


In recent years, college-level online learning has emerged as a useful adjunct to on-site training without presenting any threat to traditional brick-and-mortar universities. But fall 2012 saw the arrival of a new approach to remote higher education--pioneered, ironically, by traditional centers of higher education. Over I00,000 students started half a dozen free courses offered on an open source platform by edX, a nonprofit organization founded by Harvard University and MIT and recently joined by the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Texas system. At the same time, more than 1,750,000 individuals began online lessons presented by Coursera, a for-profit company founded by two Stanford University professors.

The two groups offer similar approaches to their massive open online courses (MOOCs). The courses are open to any student anywhere in the world with access to an Internet connection. Both organizations offer certificates of completion to students who can prove their understanding of the subject matter in any course. For the present, those certificates come without charge. However, that might change as the courses become more established Also in the works: the possibility that online students can obtain academic credit from some of the universities involved in the projects and the chance to take proctored examinations at brick-and-mortar testing centers.

The impact of these new approaches on traditional higher education remains to be seen. But the prestige of the universities offering the online courses and students' initial response indicate that would-be employers, particularly in industry, should prepare to deal with a new channel for potential recruits.

Improved Understanding of the Learning Process In addition to possible future revenue, the two groups see their courses as sources for improved understanding of the process of learning. It's possible, officials say, that they can apply insights from their experiments in online learning to traditional academic teaching. "Long term," says Harvard provost Alan Garber, "the payoff is going to come from a better understanding about how people learn."

The surge of MOOCs stems in large measure from technical improvements in the platforms that deliver the courses. Coursera, edX, and smaller start-ups deliver their pedagogic material in multimedia fashion that enables personalized instruction. According to the edX website, its platform's features "will include self-paced learning, online discussion groups, wiki-based collaborative learning, assessment of learning as a student progresses through a course, and online laboratories and other interactive learning tools.... Because it is open source, the platform will be continuously improved by a worldwide community of collaborators, with new features added as needs arise."

Coursera emphasizes that its process enables "mastery learning" by giving students immediate feedback on homework assignments and allowing them to rework assignments. Coursera executives estimate that this process can increase the percentage of students who reach a median level of performance from 50 percent to over 80 percent.

Two Business Models

While they both target the same broad spectrum of potential students and seek fresh academic partners, Coursera and edX have different business models. Stanford computer scientists Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller founded Coursera soon after another Stanford professor, Sebastian Thrum, formed Audacity, a smaller online-education firm. Shortly after its foundation, Coursera received $16 million in venture capital. Having started operations with Stanford, Princeton, and the Universities of Pennsylvania and Michigan as its academic partners, the company moved fast to bring in additional elite universities to host classes on the company's online platforms and eventually receive percentages of Coursera's revenue and profits. An initial effort increased the number of participants to 17, including Caltech, Duke University, Georgia Tech, Johns Hopkins and Rice Universities, the University of California, San Francisco, the Universities of Washington and Virginia, and such overseas institutions as the University of Toronto, Scotland's Edinburgh University, and the Federal Technical Institute of Lausanne, Switzerland. …

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