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.