20 July 2012


In the NYTimes earlier this week, Richard Perez-Pena wrote ~ "In a major development on Tuesday, a dozen highly ranked universities said they had signed on with Coursera, a new ventuere offering free classes online.  They still must overcome some skepticism about the quality of online education and the prospects for having the courses cover the costs of producing them, but their enthusiasm is undimmed.

" .... Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, let colleges reach vast audiences at relatively low cost, but they have not yet made money from them.  And if it becomes possible in years to come to get a complete college education from an elite institution online, free or at relatively low cost, experts wonder whether some colleges will find it harder to attract students willing to pay $20,000, $40,000 or even $60,000 a year for the traditional on-campus experience.

"Online classes have been around for years, with technology evolving to include multimedia features and interaction among students and faculty.  What is new is the way top colleges are jumping in with free courses ~ in effect, throwing open the doors digitally.

"So far, most people signing up live in foreign countries.  But MOOCs will become more appealing to domestic students when they give course credits toward a degree, something the elite universities have not yet done.  The University of Washington says it plans to do so, and it may be just a matter of time before earning credits becomes standard.

" .... Residential colleges already attract far less than half of the higher education market.  Most enrollment and nearly all growth in higher education is in less costly options that let students balance classes with work and family ~ commuter colleges, night schools, online universities.

"Most experts say there will always be students who want to live on campus, interacting with professors and fellow students, particularly at prestigious universities.  But as a share of the college market, that is likely to be a shrinking niche."

Coincidentally, my Chicago friend Bill sent me an email with a link to Coursera, echoing the news that a number of heavy-hitter universities are now offering free online courses at the website.  You can click on the link to view the list of 16 schools (see image above, click to enlarge), and the list of 111 courses in 16 academic categories.  The numbers of schools, courses and categories seems likely to expand if this method of taking classes proves popular ~ and it surely will, particularly if classes are offered for degree credit.

I've traveled down most avenues of traditional higher education ~ two residential universities, a community college, and adult evening classes.  I've never taken an online course, so I cannot offer an opinion on whether the experience measures up to the give-and-take of being physically in a classroom with other students and a professor ~ especially when the class involves labs or field trips, as most of my Ecology & Evolutionary Biology classes did, at the University of Arizona.  But perhaps it would be a false comparison.  It's likely that each method has its pros and cons.  I do anticipate taking one or more Coursera classes, and will report back when I have a definitive impression.  

I must admit, there is definite cachet to being able to say, "Oh yes, I studied at Duke University (or Princeton, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, the University of Edinburgh, or any of the other schools now associated with Coursera)."

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