Scientific superstars to headline free online edX courses

Some scientific superstars will be headlining online classes offered through edX, the nonprofit that aims to transform education by offering classes online. The lineup of free classes offered by MIT this year includes a biology class taught by Eric Lander, a leader in the human genome project, a class focused on poverty from the economist and MacArthur “genius” Esther Duflo, and electricity and magnetism from legendary physics professor Walter Lewin.

And that’s just a taste: Michael Sandel, a government professor at Harvard University, will offer his class on Justice, already taken by 15,000 Harvard students, to the whole world. There will be a class on the Greek hero from Gregory Nagy, a leading classicist at Harvard.

These are charismatic thinkers at the top of their fields. At least one class description describes the teacher as the “host” of the course, and I have no doubt students will be not only challenged, but entertained. Direct access to these kinds of professors is part of the dazzling promise of this sort of online education, and many articles have taken the view that these MOOCs, Massive Online Open Courses, have finally hit their stride. Perhaps this is finally the right technological and cultural moment for online education to disrupt and destabilize the college campus.

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Some early data from MIT gives a preliminary sense of just how big an opportunity this is turning out to be—but also of the challenges to making online education successful. A tremendous number of students signed up for MIT’s Introduction to Computer Science and Programming this past fall—100,000. But only 11 percent actively used the course materials. Nearly 30,000 people signed up for a chemistry class, but only about 2,000 people passed. A class on circuits and electronics attracted 46,000 students, but only 6,000 were active participants. About half passed. That’s still a lot more than can fit in a typical lecture hall, but it was a drop-off from the first time the class was offered, when it drew a registration of more than 150,000 people, and more than 7,000 passed.

Putting academic starpower at the helm of a raft of new classes seems a sure way to break more records, as well as to help with the continuing refinement of the classes. At least one MIT class will experiment with allowing students to earn a special certificate if they take a proctored exam for a fee—one solution to the possible cheating problem that arises with distance education.

There’s plenty of enthusiasm about the way the Internet may now be poised to shake up education, the same way it transformed the music industry or journalism. But a little skepticism also seems reasonable. What can history tell us? Nicholas Carr, writing in Technology Review, recalls the fervor in the early 20th century over the correspondence course, in which people would learn by mail.

Obviously, online courses have a lot of versatility that couldn’t be replicated by simply reading material sent by mail (which is yet another industry that’s been disrupted by the Internet). The Internet has truly changed the way we communicate with one another and seek information, and these education experiments do seem likely to have large ripple effects. For one thing, they could provide unprecedented access to people who for monetary or geographical reasons can’t go to Harvard or MIT.

But some of what people get out of higher education includes intangible things, such as useful connections or an understanding about how to live independently and function in the world. Knowledge is only part of the process, and even when it comes to knowledge, it’s not clear yet the best way to impart it using online tools.

Like a lot of potentially world-changing technologies, people are probably both under- and over-estimating the transformation. But it’s amusing, and perhaps informative, to look back in time.

“Critics point to the earlier correspondence-course mania as a cautionary tale,” Carr wrote. “Even as universities rushed to expand their home-study programs in the 1920s, investigations revealed that the quality of the instruction fell short of the levels promised and that only a tiny fraction of enrollees actually completed the courses. In a lecture at Oxford in 1928, the eminent American educator Abraham Flexner delivered a withering indictment of correspondence study, claiming that it promoted “participation” at the expense of educational rigor. By the 1930s, once-eager faculty and administrators had lost interest in teaching by mail. The craze fizzled.”