The Really Free Schools
Marsden, Rhodri, The Independent (London, England)
Technology An Ivy League degree is worth a fortune, so why is one top US college giving away a course online at no cost? And they're not the only ones, discovers Rhodri Marsden
The internet is often scorned for its wealth of mild amusement and inconsequential distraction, but it's still an incredible source of knowledge.
But can a quality education be delivered online? And, more to the point, how much would it cost? In just over a month's time (10 October), Stanford University is launching three free online courses - Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, Introduction to Databases and Machine Learning - that are open to all, taught by eminent scientists, involve study, homework and exams, and are rewarded with a "statement of accomplishment", should you complete them. It's been described as a "bold experiment in distributed education", and so far more than 135,000 people have signed up to take the Artificial Intelligence class alone.
Professor Sebastian Thrun, one of its teachers, has expressed delight at the prospect of addressing more students in a few short weeks that in his entire career, but what is Stanford's "statement of accomplishment" worth? And does it signal a new direction in the provision of education? Universities began putting course material online using software such as Moodle, while organisations such as the Coventry -based Resource Development International (RDI) extended that by working in partnership with educational institutions to offer complete courses and degree qualifications via the internet. "The internet has been an absolute godsend for our students," says Niall Sclater, director of learning, teaching and quality at the Open University. "There's information instantly at their fingertips, there's the ability to connect with other students and huge administrative benefits in terms of assessment. If the Open University had been founded today, the whole thing would have been formed around the internet."
Stanford's experiment sits midway between two online educational strands. Firstly, the provision of courses (or parts of courses) that are paid for, supported by tutors and from which you emerge with a recognised qualification. Secondly, the archiving of huge quantities of educational resources that the public can consume for free, such as lessons on YouTube or iTunes, The Khan Academy's extensive collection of maths and science lectures, or Yale's Open Courses; no traditional support or qualifications, just world-class teaching material absorbed in your own time. Stanford's project combines that wide dissemination with a marking and support system that's designed to cope with many thousands of students.
"It's almost as easy to deliver an online course to 10,000 people as it is to deliver it to one person," says Stanford's Andrew Ng, associate professor of computer science. But Niall Sclater isn't convinced. "It's an excellent idea, but it's going to be difficult to assure quality." he says. "There'll be any number of opportunities for copying and impersonation. It's a kind of self- certification and to an employer it's worthless." Stanford certainly couldn't be criticised for the quality of its material, however. This is no single camera pointing at a mumbling lecturer. It's interactive, engaging multimedia material, broken up into 15-minute chunks. And while detractors may scorn the way this seems to pander to the supposed decreased attention spans of the internet age, it's widely acknowledged that we simply absorb information better this way.
"Traditional lectures aren't regarded as great ways to impart knowledge to students," says Sclater. "If you test them some time after the lecture, there's very little that they retain." Dr Lynne Harrison, director of teaching and learning at Cambridge University's Institute of Continuing Education (ICE), agrees. "A good lecturer will change the tempo after 15 minutes and the internet allows that to happen more naturally. …