Reinventing College & Education

I recently read “College Is Dead. Long Live College!,” a cover story from Time magazine (October 29, 2012). The article talks about massive open online courses (MOOCs). It also briefly discusses three growing online “universities” Udacity, Coursera and Edx. The quality of these free college-level courses is often questionable. The material may be lacking, or the course instructor beyond boring.

The author of this article attended some traditional brick-and-mortar classes in a addition to a six others on Udacity to compare and contrast. He dropped at least three or more of the Udacity courses for the aforementioned reasons (i.e. boring, half-baked, etc.). However, much of his article focuses on a high quality physics class he attended and what made it so great. Much of it had to do with the way the class was taught: multiple video clips, frequent quizzes you could retake until you got the answer right, problem solving throughout the lecture. The following quotes stood out to me:

The video stopped, patiently waiting for me to choose one of the answers, a task that actually required some thought. This happened every three minutes or so, making it difficult for me to check my e-mail or otherwise disengage — even for a minute….

Studies of physics classes in particular have shown that after completing a traditional class, students can recite Newton’s laws and maybe even do some calculations, but they cannot apply the laws to problems they haven’t seen before. They’ve memorized the information, but they haven’t learned it…

After 47 fast-paced videos spliced with pop quizzes, I did actually know how big the earth was. Brown had reviewed geometry and trigonometry with examples from actual life. And when it came time to put it all together, I got to see him measure a shadow that formed a right triangle, setting up a mathematical proportion to calculate the circumference of the earth, just like an ancient mathematician.

Before Udacity existed, Sebastian Thrun (CEO and co-founder of Udacity) took to publishing his courses online, told his students they could opt for the online course and made some interesting discoveries.

More than three-quarters of them did so, viewing the videos from their dorms and participating as if they were thousands of miles away. Then something remarkable happened. On the midterm, the Stanford students scored a full letter grade higher on average than students had in previous years. They seemed to be learning more when they learned online. The same bump happened after they took the final.

Still, the Stanford students were not the stars of the class. At the end of the semester, not one of the course’s 400 top performers had a Stanford address.

Fascinating.

I hear plenty of my fellow classmates complain about professors and classes. It takes extra effort to really apply yourself to classes you don’t want to take or to see the benefits of certain assignments or projects. Some times I think my classmates are just being whiny and not seeing the value in their education. While this may be true, I think they have good reason to complain. Many of us are aware of the pitfalls in our education.

The prospect of receiving a better education for free is mind blowing and exciting. A lot of progress and changes are yet to be made, but the ball is rolling.

This week, Udacity announced that six companies, including Google and Microsoft, are sponsoring classes in skills that are in short supply, from programming 3-D graphics to building apps for Android phones.

Still, it will be a long time before companies besides high-tech start-ups trust anything other than a traditional degree. That’s why hundreds of thousands of people a year enroll in the University of Phoenix, which most students attend online.