May 9, 2012Business
Harvard and MIT team up to change the online education game

In a society where convenience is king, it is only logical to expect that higher education will be included in the ever growing list of industries that have embraced the Internet and mobile technology.

Online education could provide alternatives to those unable to attend traditional institutions.When most people think of online education, the first institutions that come to mind are schools like the Universities of Phoenix and Devry, which do a commendable job offering variety and flexibility for "non-traditional" students, but have to constantly address perception issues regarding the quality of their programs (especially from their peers in academia). Somewhat ironically, nearly all accredited schools also offer some courses online, but most are criticized for being made up almost entirely of video lectures and lacking in the collaboration that is part of the traditional college experience. However, many experts in the fields of technology and education believe that there is a coming shift that will redefine distance learning.

Several start-ups and elite universities have recently announced programs that will allow students to take higher quality courses online - some for free. Harvard and MIT, for instance, have forged a partnership with the goal of offering free online courses to students all over the world, calling the program edX. Each school is contributing $30 million, and they plan to invite other universities to join in the future. The courses will not count for credit at the institutions, but students can earn certificates of mastery for effectively learning the material for a "modest fee."  Anant Agarwal, who will be the first president of edX, says that the founders hope to be able to reach gifted students who could not otherwise have attended the colleges due to financial or geographic restraints.

This is certainly not the first concept of its kind. Coursera allows students to take courses from a number of top universities including Princeton, Stanford, and UC Berkely for free. The Khan Academy, started by Harvard and MIT graduate Salman Khan, has been offering free online courses since 2006 and has given over 147 million lessons. The software used to generate questions is open source and all video lectures are licensed under Creative Commons, which encourages students to share and collaborate.

Other organizations that are into content creation, like Technology, Education and Design (TED), are also organizing pools of intellectual property to be shared using videos with the intent of becoming a player in the online education space. TED, not unlike the Ivy League schools mentioned above, has had brand management issues as related to being titled an "elitist" institution.  This perception is more than likely nurtured by the fact that a single ticket to a TED sponsored event can cost several thousand dollars.

While distance learning is clearly a rapidly developing field and could hardly be called elitist, it is not without stigma. Many believe that, no matter how much a student learns in an online course, nothing can make up for missing out on the face-to-face interactions with instructors and other students. Another criticism is that students cannot raise their hands and ask a question as they would in a traditional lecture, making it more difficult to receive clarification of difficult materials.

Interestingly, the Department of Education found in a study published Classroom learning, where students interact face-to-face with teachers, may be a thing of the past. in 2010 that "when used by itself, online learning appears to be as effective as conventional classroom instruction," but hybrid models including some face-to-face learning tend to be the most effective.

Needless to say, the founders behind edX are well aware of the downsides and perceptions around distance learning. They plan to offer courses that "move beyond the standard model of online education that relies on watching video content and will offer an interactive experience for students." In addition, many of the materials on the site will be supplemental to what professors are already doing in the classroom and laboratories. The institutions plan to conduct research through edX on how students learn and how to improve teaching methods.

While most educators believe that in-person teaching methods are more effective, some are embracing the coming changes and believe, like the founders of edX, that this type of program could help make higher education more inclusive. It is unlikely that employers will accept online certificates in place of four-year degrees anytime soon, but earning a certificate could be a much more cost-efficient way for people who already have degrees to learn specialized skills for their careers. As science and technology continue to become more advanced, the number of jobs that require cross-disciplinary skills also increase, even in fields like marketing. Programs like edX may help eliminate the need to "go back to school" for career advancement.

EdX and similar not-for-profit organizations could present a challenge to the business model traditionally used by online institutions. Successful for-profit online universities are basically cash cows, due to such low overhead costs, and many are considered scams. Many universities began offering online courses in part to take advantage of the easy profits to be made off of non-traditional students who need flexibility in their schedules. Some for-profit institutions are even considered evil, money hungry bullies who prey on young adults. A study found that "only 30 percent of virtual schools run by for-profit organizations met the minimum progress standards outlined by No Child Left Behind," showing that not all online schools share the same noble motives.

The founders behind edX simply want to study and change how students learn - and make the opportunity to learn more accessible. To most people, the idea of a free online education that is actually decent sounds too good to be true. For the time being, they are probably correct. But if edX and others like it succeed and continue to improve, we may be moving in the right direction.

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