Professionals will pay for credential programs, workshops, and continuing education courses to stay up-to-date in their field, but what if you could get the same benefits and knowledge for free?
Online education is not a new concept. Remote degree programs, webinars, and filmed lectures have been around for years but two new start-ups might completely change the way we think about online courses. While most online programs offering credible certificates or degrees require enrollment in a university or membership in a professional society, both of which can be quite costly, Udacity and Coursera offer university-quality courses completely free of charge. Their courses offer many of the same benefits of a classroom experience including lectures, assignments, student interaction and participation, and exams but do they truly have the potential to replace undergraduate or graduate degrees?
Stanford professor and creator of Udacity Sebastian Thrun certainly believes so. According to the April issue of Wired, Thrun believes that in “50 years. . . there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them issue.” Udacity was created after Thrun offered free enrollment in his artifical intelligence course to anyone in the entire world last fall. Within a few weeks 160,000 students enrolled, two-thirds of whom live outside of the United States. (Wired magazine describes the phenomena in detail here.) Although the enrollment itself was a shock, the most astounding aspect came after the course started and extracurricular student participation began. Students took their own steps to make videos available in countries where YouTube is blocked and participated extensively in message boards that offered help and suggestions. One student even created a platform with puzzles that allowed students to test and practice theories presented in the class. It’s difficult to imagine undergraduates devoting an analogous level of collaborative effort for an on-campus course with graded assignments but these students were acting of their own free will with only a certificate of participation on the line.
While Thrun and Norvig developed Udacity, fellow Stanford faculty member Daphne Koller launched her own online system called Coursera. Her version of free online education offers over 119 courses from nineteen universities in sixteen different categories ranging from business and management, to medicine, to humanities and social sciences. Participating universities include colleges from around the world such as the University of Edinburgh École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, and the Indian Institute of Technology in Dehli, which brings a whole new aspect to the idea of “studying abroad.” Students in America might have the opportunity to study at two universities through a study abroad program, but few can access anywhere close to nineteen. The fact that anyone in the world can participate means student body make-up reaches a level of diversity nearly impossible on a geographically based campus.
Free from university obligations and bureaucracy, both programs can create their own version of learning. Udacity approaches education with problem solving projects and an emphasis on creativity. Students can even opt to send their resume to one of twenty partner companies after completing a course. Coursera students can watch lectures and complete interactive assignments. Koller states, “In many of our [online] courses, the median response time for a question on the question and answer forum was 22 minutes — which is not a level of service I have ever offered to my Stanford students.” Students taking classes with assignments that cannot easily be auto-graded by a machine, like poetry and business, learn a process of peer evaluation that can be a valuable skill in a managerial position.
Although the idea of free education seems to offer many benefits, their future in changing education remains unclear. Will free online classes be able to make a university education available to anyone, regardless of location and economic background? Will classrooms eventually dissolve altogether? Do students lose an important aspect of learning when they collaborate online rather than in person? Would programs like MEM function in an online format? Both programs are quite new and still developing and only time will tell, but the range of participation across universities and the fact that others (such as MIT) are set on creating their own similar systems suggests the implications could be quite important in the future of education. Tell us what us your thoughts on the future of education and the role online courses will play.
Daphne Koller delivers a Ted Talk entitled “What We’re Learning from Online Education”