Professor Perspective: Free Online Education

Barry L. Nelson is the Walter P. Murphy Professor and Chair of the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences at Northwestern and a former director of the MEM program. In this post Professor Nelson offers his perspective on our report about free online education published earlier this month. 

In 1974 I couldn’t fit typing into my high school schedule, so I got a book titled Smith-Corona Ten-Day Touch Typing (still available on Amazon, amazingly) and taught myself to type. In college at DePauw University in 1977 there was not enough student interest to offer the numerical analysis class that I wanted to take, so a professor told me what book to buy, which chapters to read, and which exercises I should complete. I met with him every other week to ask questions and show him my work and got course credit for the class.

I tell these stories to make the point that it has been possible pretty much since the invention of the book for a motivated student to learn easy or difficult subjects outside of the traditional classroom setting. And doing it electronically is not new: interactive Computer Aided Instruction (CAI) tools have been prevalent for decades. Sometime around 2001 I taught the MEM course IEMS 415 simultaneously in Evanston and Schaumburg via a live two-way video hookup. The enthusiasm of people like Sebastian Thrun is exactly what you want and need to push a new concept forward, but a little historical perspective indicates that just how radically this instructional paradigm will change the college experience is far from certain.

My best guess is this: The top colleges and universities will eventually offer a seamlessly integrated educational experience that may include live instruction, individual tutoring, online material, experience-based learning, and entirely independent work. Educational curricula will become more personalized, but the role of the university in assembling, vetting, and integrating a rigorous program is what will make the elite universities stand out. Where, exactly, the on-campus experience will fit into all of this is hard to say, but I suspect that as long as there is beer it will be an important rite of passage, at least for many undergraduates.

One thing I can say with certainty is that the faculty and administration of every college and university in the U.S. is thinking long and hard about how to react to innovations like Coursera and Udacity. I am also sure that lots of money will be wasted until the right models emerge. I am currently on a committee thinking about just such things for McCormick Northwestern Engineering.


  1. Excellent post professor Nelson. It’s really nice to see your perspective about teaching & learning environment + the internet effect as a close partner.

    Right now in my life I really want to learn as much as possible…that’s why I traveled from Chile (my country) to US, I am MEM full-time student and also I am a coursera student. I agree with your post and I just want to add some still open questions about this educational model, and maybe it will be open for many years:

    1.- what will happen with local education (outside US)…is this the beginning of a educational monopoly?? How a local university from a developing country can compete with universities like Harvard, MIT or Northwestern?? (it is good or bad this point??). If this is a possible scenario what is the right content?? The need of a poor country are quite different from US, how this kind of educational programs can deal with this issue?

    2.- on the other side…an not just thinking in an academic perspective…is it possible to teach useful content to workers (not only professionals) in order to improve many economies around the world?…maybe with this business model many emerging economies can dramatically improve their performance at a reasonable cost.

    3.- reading and watching Sir Ken Robinson, one of the problems of education is the over standardization…he compare education with a mass production factory…maybe this model is the climax of this educational model and we potentially can lose the richness of different cultures and with that innovation in many areas where different perspectives can help a lot.

  2. This definitively one of the most important topics that are turning around education. I am also very impressed of experiencing Coursera as a Student, taking advantage of the methodological resources that the e-learning allows. For example there are two features that, in my opinion, are very well done. The first is the possibility to follow the class at your own pace. Sometimes you would like to skip a part, and in other you would like to replay or pause the class to find additional resources to clarify any point. The second is the feature in which the professor stops the class until you answer a question that ensures that you are following the idea that’s being taught.

    An important open issue is that neither Cousera nor Audacity have yet defined their business models. One of the most attractive, in opinion, is to include companies to cover part of the costs of operation of those systems, since they can receive better information to met their increasing requirements of professionals that universities are not supplying.

    I am also visualizing a progressive integration of traditional teaching with these nice features, that would broaden the access to education since they would become more and more easily accessible. As a Latin american student, i see that this tendency would produce a radical change in the education systems making education highly more available, and thus helping to fill the unsatisfied demand of qualifies work force.

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