Let the Revolution in College Education Begin

May 16, 2012

NY Times: Come The Revolution (05-15-12)

Let the Revolution in College Education Begin

by Thomas L. Friedman

Andrew Ng is an associate professor of computer science at Stanford, and he has a rather charming way of explaining how the new interactive online education company that he cofounded, Coursera, hopes to revolutionize higher education by allowing students from all over the world to not only hear his lectures, but to do homework assignments, be graded, receive a certificate for completing the course and use that to get a better job or gain admission to a better school.

“I normally teach 400 students,” Ng explained, but last semester he taught 100,000 in an online course on machine learning. “To reach that many students before,” he said, “I would have had to teach my normal Stanford class for 250 years.”

Welcome to the college education revolution. Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary. The costs of getting a college degree have been rising faster than those of health care, so the need to provide low-cost, quality higher education is more acute than ever.

At the same time, in a knowledge economy, getting a higher-education degree is more vital than ever. And thanks to the spread of high-speed wireless technology, high-speed Internet, smartphones, Facebook, the cloud and tablet computers, the world has gone from connected to hyperconnected in just seven years. Finally, a generation that has grown up on these technologies is increasingly comfortable learning and interacting with professors through online platforms.

The combination of all these factors gave birth to Coursera.org, which launched on April 18, with the backing of Silicon Valley venture funds, as my colleague John Markoff first reported.

Private companies, like Phoenix, have been offering online degrees for a fee for years. And schools like M.I.T. and Stanford have been offering lectures for free online. Coursera is the next step: building an interactive platform that will allow the best schools in the world to not only offer a wide range of free course lectures online, but also a system of testing, grading, student-to-student help and awarding certificates of completion of a course for under $100. (Sounds like a good deal. Tuition at the real-life Stanford is over $40,000 a year.) Coursera is starting with 40 courses online — from computing to the humanities — offered by professors from Stanford, Princeton, Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania.

“The universities produce and own the content, and we are the platform that hosts and streams it,” explained Daphne Koller, a Stanford computer science professor who founded Coursera with Ng after seeing tens of thousands of students following their free Stanford lectures online. “We will also be working with employers to connect students — only with their consent — with job opportunities that are appropriate to their newly acquired skills.

So, for instance, a biomedical company looking for someone with programming and computational biology skills might ask us for students who did well in our courses on cloud computing and genomics. It is great for employers and employees — and it enables someone with a less traditional education to get the credentials to open up these opportunities.”

M.I.T., Harvard and private companies, like Udacity, are creating similar platforms. In five years this will be a huge industry. While the lectures are in English, students have been forming study groups in their own countries to help one another. The biggest enrollments are from the United States, Britain, Russia, India and Brazil. “One Iranian student e-mailed to say he found a way to download the class videos and was burning them onto CDs and circulating them,” Ng said last Thursday. “We just broke a million enrollments.”

To make learning easier, Coursera chops up its lectures into short segments and offers online quizzes, which can be auto-graded, to cover each new idea. It operates on the honor system but is building tools to reduce cheating.

In each course, students post questions in an online forum for all to see and then vote questions and answers up and down. “So the most helpful questions bubble to the top and the bad ones get voted down,” Ng said. “With 100,000 students, you can log every single question. It is a huge data mine.” Also, if a student has a question about that day’s lecture and it’s morning in Cairo but 3 a.m. at Stanford, no problem. “There is always someone up somewhere to answer your question” after you post it, he said. The median response time is 22 minutes.

These top-quality learning platforms could enable budget-strained community colleges in America to “flip” their classrooms. That is, download the world’s best lecturers on any subject and let their own professors concentrate on working face-to-face with students. Says Koller: “It will allow people who lack access to world-class learning — because of financial, geographic or time constraints — to have an opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their families.”

When you consider how many problems around the world are attributable to the lack of education, that is very good news. Let the revolution begin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on May 16, 2012, on page A25 of the New York edition with the headline: Come the Revolution.

5 thoughts on “Let the Revolution in College Education Begin

  1. Malaysia Boleh is ahead of these colleges with Open University. Everyone in Malaysia can enroll and obtain a degree with Open University. Check it out.

    Secondly many Malaysian businessmen and political leaders like to have MBA’s and Ph.D behind their names and there are many universities that award these without attending classes or doing a thesis or dissertation. Some allow life experience as credit and all you have to do is submit a paper and in a month you get your degree from these degree mills. So nowadays we really need to look at the MBA’s and Ph.D’s that Malaysians strut around with. Probably not worth the paper it’s printed on.

  2. When Labour won the election in 1964, Harold Wilson appointed Jennie Lee as Minister for the Arts and asked her to take over the University of the Air project. By May 1969 Professor Walter Perry had been appointed as The Open University’s first Vice-Chancellor.

    The OU opened to its first students – 25,000 of them – in January 1971 with a choice of four multi-disciplinary foundation courses in the arts, social sciences, science or maths.

    As you can see, Malaysia Boleh is 40 years and more behind lah.

  3. It is revolutionary.

    Imagine, for a mere $100, a poor kid can have a similar lecture as a rich kid whose parents can afford $40,000 per year.

  4. You can sign up for a degree in computer science or
    business admin for free at the online University of the People.
    (Caution: at the moment, the University has not been accredited yet)

  5. Online education may seem seductive and even compelling given the high cost of education but it is not a panacea. Online education can only be successful when there is strong inner motivation. If it is used to teach a class of badly motivated kids the result would be apathy and no learning would take place

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