Online courses revolutionizing education options

By Thomas Friedman  /  NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

Wed, Jan 30, 2013 - Page 9

Lord knows there is a lot of bad news in the world today to get you down, but there is one big thing happening that leaves me incredibly hopeful about the future, and that is the budding revolution in global online higher education. Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty — by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems, and nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course (MOOC) platforms that are being developed by the likes of Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and companies like Coursera and Udacity.

In May last year, I wrote about Coursera — co-founded by the Stanford computer scientists Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng — just after it opened. Two weeks ago, I went back to Palo Alto, California, to check in on them. When I visited in May, about 300,000 people were taking 38 courses taught by Stanford professors and a few other elite universities. Today, they have 2.4 million students taking 214 courses from 33 universities, including eight international ones.

Anant Agarwal, the former director of MIT’s artificial intelligence lab, is now president of edX, a nonprofit MOOC that MIT and Harvard are jointly building. Agarwal told me that since May last year, about 155,000 students from around the world have taken edX’s first course: an MIT intro class on circuits.

“That is greater than the total number of MIT alumni in its 150-year history,” he said.

Yes, only a small percentage complete all the work and even they still tend to be from the middle and upper classes of their societies, but I am convinced that within five years these platforms will reach a much broader demographic.

Imagine how this might change US foreign aid. For relatively little money, the US could rent space in an Egyptian village, install two dozen computers and high-speed satellite Internet access, hire a local teacher as a facilitator and invite any Egyptian who wanted to to take online courses with the best professors in the world, subtitled in Arabic.


You just have to hear the stories told by the pioneers in this industry to appreciate its revolutionary potential.

One of Koller’s favorites is about “Daniel,” a 17-year-old with autism who communicates mainly by computer. He took an online modern poetry class from Pennsylvania State University. He and his parents wrote that the combination of rigorous academic curriculum, which requires Daniel to stay on task, and the online learning system that does not strain his social skills, attention deficits or force him to look anyone in the eye, enable him to better manage his autism.

Koller shared a letter from Daniel, in which he wrote: “Please tell Coursera and Penn my story. I am a 17-year-old boy emerging from autism. I can’t yet sit still in a classroom so your course was my first real course ever. During the course, I had to keep pace with the class, which is unheard of in special ed[ucation]. Now I know I can benefit from having to work hard and enjoy being in sync with the world.”

One member of the Coursera team who recently took a Coursera course on sustainability told me that it was so much more interesting than a similar course he had taken as an undergraduate student.

The online course included students from all over the world, from different climates, incomes levels and geographies, and as a result, “the discussions that happened in that course were so much more valuable and interesting than with people of similar geography and income level” in a typical US college.

Mitch Duneier, a Princeton University sociology professor, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education in the fall last year about his experience teaching a class through Coursera.

“A few months ago, just as the campus of Princeton University had grown nearly silent after commencement, 40,000 students from 113 countries arrived here via the Internet to take a free course in introductory sociology ... My opening discussion of C. Wright Mills’ classic 1959 book, The Sociological Imagination, was a close reading of the text in which I reviewed a key chapter line by line. I asked students to follow along in their own copies, as I do in the lecture hall. When I give this lecture on the Princeton campus, I usually receive a few penetrating questions. In this case, however, within a few hours of posting the online version, the course forums came alive with hundreds of comments and questions. Several days later there were thousands ... Within three weeks, I had received more feedback on my sociological ideas than I had in a career of teaching, which significantly influenced each of my subsequent lectures and seminars,” Duneier wrote.

Agarwal tells of a student in Cairo who was taking the circuits course and was having difficulty. In the class’s online forum where students help each other with homework, he posted that he was dropping out. In response, other students in Cairo in the same class invited him to meet at a teahouse, where they offered to help him stay on in the course.


Agarwal added that a 15-year-old student in Mongolia, who took the same class as part of a blended course and received a perfect score on the final exam, is now applying to MIT and the University of California, Berkeley.

MIT president L. Rafael Reif said that as we look to the future of higher education, something that we now call a “degree” will be a concept “connected with bricks and mortar” — and traditional on-campus experiences that will increasingly leverage technology and the Internet to enhance classroom and laboratory work.

However, alongside that, many universities will offer online courses to students anywhere in the world, in which they will earn “credentials” — certificates that testify that they have done the work and passed all the exams, Reif added.

The process of developing credible credentials that verify that the student has adequately mastered the subject and did not cheat, and can be counted on by employers is still being perfected by all the MOOCs. However, once it is, this phenomenon will really scale.

I can see a day soon where you will create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world — some computing from Stanford, some entrepreneurship from Wharton, some ethics from Brandeis, some literature from Edinburgh — paying only the nominal fee for the certificates of completion. It will change teaching, learning and the pathway to employment.

“There is a new world unfolding, and everyone will have to adapt,” Reif said.