As someone who offers practically all of his client services virtually (phone-based consulting/coaching), recent announcements in online education technology are exciting in their potential for how we reach clients.The evolution of technology is of course a continuum that has no imaginable end point- and it’s a pretty safe bet that there’s not much chance of us turning back. As with the evolution of the neighborhood café to the online meeting place, the wax cylinder to the mp3, and the papyrus manuscript to the ebook, so to is higher education evolving into unimaginable territory. In 1636, John Harvard most certainly never envisioned a future where students did not have to step foot on campus to learn from his university’s esteemed professors. Yet due to recent applications of technology and recent collaborations between the nation’s top universities, that prospect is expanding at a rapid pace.
Recent innovations in “MOOC”s or massive open online courses* are popping up everywhere and appear to be in a virtual sprint in recent months. From free courses to partial or entire online degrees, one can’t help but wonder about the future landscape of higher education.
MOOCs undoubtedly open doors to segments of the population who may have otherwise found the barriers to higher education insurmountable. For example, those in rural areas with obligations to help out close to home, the shy or introverted who might thrive in a more independent learning environment, the highly advanced student who benefits from self-paced learning, those who suffer from panic or anxiety disorders and do not feel able to enter the classroom, and those who are ill, aged, physically unable or otherwise unable to travel to the nearest community college much less the select few ivy-league campuses.
If the new Coursera project is any indication, it appears as though some of the barriers are receiving a technological tear-down. It was recently announced that Princeton, Stanford, University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan, and University of California at Berkeley are partnering to offer top-notch free college-level courses online. The Coursera website states that the collaborative “envision[s] a future where the top universities are educating not only thousands of students, but millions. Our technology enables the best professors to teach tens or hundreds of thousands of students. Through this, we hope to give everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few.”
In addition to Coursera, the public has access to free online courses through Udacity (developed by Stanford grads), Khan Academy (MIT and Harvard grads), Academic Room (Harvard grad), Harvardx (Harvard), and MIT’s MITx and OpenCourseWare to name a few of the largest, most recent, and most prestigious. MIT and Harvard have also just announced edX, a collaborative online learning platform that is distinct from MITx and Harvardx and will potentially offer a certificate of completion upon mastery of certain coursework (note the distinction between a certificate of completion and an ivy-league degree).
With all these clever acronym-heavy options, choosing your online coursework may soon be the modern equivalent to agonizing over which university to apply to during high school… with absolutely no disruption in your parents nagging at you to clean your room for the next four years.
While the aforementioned platforms don’t currently offer full online degrees, it is expected that in 2014 the Minerva Project will be launched to fill that niche. According to their website, Minerva claims to be “the first elite American University to be launched in a century” and is recruiting “the world's most inspirational and engrossing professors” and top notch student body. Each of the organizations vary in the degree to which they will offer free and open coursework vs. required participation, evaluation, and certification.
The common distinction they will no doubt share is that of being at the center of controversy regarding the form of the future classroom, the quality of virtual higher education, the state of the iconic college campus, and the socialization and maturation of the university student. As we move forward on the technology continuum we will gradually come to understand the affect of this globalized higher education system. But for now there appears to be only more and more questions (and some early indications of online efficacy**): Will technology create an unprecedented collective of human minds? Will it lead to incredible leaps in education access and global innovation? Will the technology itself be accessible and higher education be made more affordable? Will it fuel a dramatic shift in the face-to-face landscape of the brick and mortar university? Or will the online platform prove to be a flop if for no other reason than because kids will always want the full college experience?
*Not all online course offerings are necessarily considered MOOCs, for a brief history of MOOCs check out the Wikipedia reference here.
**For information on the efficacy of distance learning vs. face-to-face learning, the U.S. Department of Education has made available The Meta-analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies.
Brad Waters, MSW is a self-proclaimed connoisseur of Michigan’s higher education campuses, having attended Northern Michigan University and earning degrees from Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, and Western Michigan University. He is now a freelance writer and career & life strategy coach/consultant based in Chicago. Sign up to receive his blog & newsletter updates.
©2012, Brad Waters