The Campus Tsunami

Online education is not new. The University of Phoenix started its online degree program in 1989. Four million college students took at least one online class during the fall of 2007. 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. (source: by David Brooks – NYTimes – 04/05/2012)

This week, Harvard and 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 humanities, social sciences, mathematics and engineering. Their partners include Stanford, Michigan, Penn and Princeton. Many 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. Many of us view the coming change with trepidation. Will online learning diminish the face-to-face community that is the heart of college experience? Will it elevate functional courses in business and marginalize subjects that are harder to digest in an online format, like philosophy? Will fast online browsing replace deep reading?

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? The doubts are justified, but there are more reasons to feel optimistic. In the first place, online learning will give millions of students access to the world’s best teachers. Already, hundreds of thousands of students have taken accounting classes from Norman Nemrow of Brigham Young University, robotics classes from Sebastian Thrun of Stanford and physics from Walter Lewin of M.I.T. Online learning could extend the influence of American universities around the world. India alone hopes to build tens of thousands of colleges over the next decade. Curricula from American schools could permeate those institutions. 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. The most important and paradoxical fact shaping the future of online learning is this: A brain is not a computer. We are not blank hard drives waiting to be filled with data. People learn from people they love and remember the things that arouse emotion. If you think about how learning actually happens, you can discern many different processes. There is absorbing information. There is reflecting upon information as you reread it and think about it. There is scrambling information as you test it in discussion or try to mesh it with contradictory information. Finally there is synthesis, as you try to organize what you have learned into an argument or a paper.

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 leads to vibrant learning communities? Online education could potentially push colleges up value chain, away from information transmission and up to higher things. In a blended online world, a local professor could select not only the reading material, but do so from an array of different lecturers, who would provide different perspectives from around the world. The local professor would do more tutoring and conversing and less lecturing. Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School notes it will be easier to break academic silos, combining calculus and chemistry lectures or literature and history presentations in a single course. 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. My guess is it will be easier to be a terrible university on the wide-open Web, but it will also be possible for the most committed schools and students to be better than ever. 

Acerca de ignaciocovelo
Consultor Internacional

5 Responses to The Campus Tsunami

  1. (GOLD NYT PICK) Professor Uziel Nogueira says: Top US universities going online is part of a wider trend. Following the path of manufacturing companies in the past, US high education is becoming multinational. This endeavor will be highly successful for a simple reason. High education is one area in which the US is highly competitive. Among the top 100 universities in the world, the majority are American. BRICS -particularly China- are eager to send their brightest students to be trained in an American institution. Brazil is sending 100,000 of their top students to obtain science and engineer degrees at top Ivy League schools. The internationalization of the US high education system is a win win situation for the US and the world. First, it brings much needed cash to the educational system and generate thousands of jobs for highly qualified teachers and related services associated with it. Second, US soft power is greatly amplified as universities create new overseas campuses. As Tom Friedman argued recently, the US (for the first time) can send books and teachers instead of soldiers and guns. A very welcome trend from a world tired of wars. Third, Universities all over the world will face (real) competition for the first time ever. Either they improve their teaching standards or lose the best students to the US led system. A dual educational system will be created. The most important conclusion: students all over the world will be the winners. Let the game begin!

  2. Professor Uziel Nogueira says: Don, see my comments above. I have a question on an unrelated topic. Why does the US was the only British colony to get independence in the 18th century? What made Americans – in the 18th century – the only mo%&x* fu$*% s in the block?

  3. Don Reid: Last things first, colonialization. In no small part, the US owes it’s independence to France. This is not just because of the military aid France provided, but because France was a constant thorn in England’s side tying up resources that could not be sent to the ‘colonies’. The second reason is that the US colonies were surrounded by wilderness. Forces could always withdraw into the Allegheny mountains too spread out for the British to follow. The British could take any town they wanted, but could not suppress the ‘Minute Men’ (militia soldiers who could be ready in a minute, and slip away not as a huge unified force, but as individuals). Today, we would call these soldiers terrorist or insurgents. In the final analysis, although the British lost several battles, they did not lose the war any more than the US was defeated in Viet Nam. It just became too costly and unpopular at home to continue. Keep in mind that 40 years after the Declaration of Independence, the British burned Washington to the ground in the War of 1812. Our independence was not really secure until that war was won. 50 years later, we were in a civil war that might well have ended with a split country. Although the fighting stopped after 4 years, the animosity continued for another 100. The more people a nation has in it, the less stable it is. I am pondering whether to respond about universities. Your comments about US schools are flattering, but misleading. I would tell a different tale, but it is lengthy, and many say I am too critical. I believe they are too complacent.

  4. Professor Uziel Nogueira says: Don, there must be a X factor that made early Americans too hard to be chewed and for the Brits to give up. I like the parallel with Vietnam.

  5. Don Reid: Just imagine people not just from England but from other countries of Europe who are asked to choose between uncertainty and insecurity but with freedom and opportunity versus rule by King George and his onerous taxes for very little in return. It took brave and stout people to choose to come to America, and the trip had its own perils. Once here, to have their efforts threatened by a monarch from a land far away was more than most people could bear. They were the wrong type of people to try to intimidate. These are the same people who set off across the wilderness of a country 3000 miles wide inhabited by hostiles and all the dangers of being away from civilization for the chance to carve out a piece of life for themselves against all comers. Now, all this having been said, approximately one-half of the settlers wanted to remain with the crown, and there was much debate over the Declaration of Independence. It was nowhere near a unanimous decision. The same was true in the American Civil War. Almost half of the southern voters did not want to secede from the union. It was mainly the southern legislatures that decided. As I said, as societies grow, common causes diminish. We are 100 times as large today.


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