Friday, May 4, 2012
NYTimes > The Campus Tsunami
David Brooks / May 3, 2012
But, over the past few months, something has changed. The elite, pace-setting universities have embraced the Internet. Not long ago, online courses were interesting experiments. Now online activity is at the core of how these schools envision their futures.
This week, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology committed $60 million to offer free online courses from both universities. Two Stanford professors, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, have formed a company, Coursera, which offers interactive courses in the humanities, social sciences, mathematics and engineering. Their partners include Stanford, Michigan, Penn and Princeton. Many other elite universities, including Yale and Carnegie Mellon, are moving aggressively online. President John Hennessy of Stanford summed up the emerging view in an article by Ken Auletta in The New Yorker, “There’s a tsunami coming.”
What happened to the newspaper and magazine business is about to happen to higher education: a rescrambling around the Web.
If a few star professors can lecture to millions, what happens to the rest of the faculty? Will academic standards be as rigorous? What happens to the students who don’t have enough intrinsic motivation to stay glued to their laptop hour after hour? How much communication is lost — gesture, mood, eye contact — when you are not actually in a room with a passionate teacher and students?
Research into online learning suggests that it is roughly as effective as classroom learning. It’s easier to tailor a learning experience to an individual student’s pace and preferences. Online learning seems especially useful in language and remedial education.
Online education mostly helps students with Step 1. As Richard A. DeMillo of Georgia Tech has argued, it turns transmitting knowledge into a commodity that is cheap and globally available. But it also compels colleges to focus on the rest of the learning process, which is where the real value lies. In an online world, colleges have to think hard about how they are going to take communication, which comes over the Web, and turn it into learning, which is a complex social and emotional process.
How are they going to blend online information with face-to-face discussion, tutoring, debate, coaching, writing and projects? How are they going to build the social capital that leads to vibrant learning communities? Online education could potentially push colleges up the value chain — away from information transmission and up to higher things.
The early Web radically democratized culture, but now in the media and elsewhere you’re seeing a flight to quality. The best American colleges should be able to establish a magnetic authoritative presence online.
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on May 4, 2012, on page A29 of the New York edition with the headline: The Campus Tsunami.
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