The Single Most Important Experiment in Higher Education

Online education platform Coursera wants to drag elite education into the 21st century. Now, it's getting buy-in from the academy. 615_Harvard_Student_Online_Computers_Reuters.jpg

(Reuters)

As of yesterday, a year-old startup may well have become the most important experiment yet aimed at remaking higher education for the Internet age. 

At the very least, it became the biggest.   

A dozen major universities announced that they would begin providing content to Coursera, an innovative platform that makes interactive college classes available to the public free on the web. Next fall, it will offer at least 100 massive open online courses -- otherwise known as MOOCs*-- designed by professors from schools such as Princeton, CalTech, and Duke that will be capable of delivering lessons to more than 100,000 students at a time. 

Founded by Stanford computer scientists Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, Coursera is one of a handful of efforts aimed at using the web's cost savings to bring Ivy League-quality courses to the masses. Its peers include the joint Harvard-MIT project edX and Udacity, a free online university created by Google executive and former Stanford professor Sebstian Thrun. (Another high-profile startup, Minerva, is attempting to create an actual "online Ivy" that students will pay to attend.) 

But the deals Coursera announced Tuesday may well prove to be an inflection point for online education, a sector that has traditionally been dominated by for-profit colleges known mostly for their noxious recruitment practices and poor results. That's because the new partnerships represent an embrace of web-based learning from across the top tier of U.S. universities. And where the elite colleges go, so goes the rest of academia.  

Coursera has previously teamed with Stanford, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Michigan to offer 43 courses, which according to the New York Times enrolled 680,000 students. It now adds to its roster Duke, Caltech, University of Virginia, Georgia Tech, University of Washington, Rice, Johns Hopkins, University of California San Francisco, University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne, University of Toronto, University of Edinburgh, and Switzerland's École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. 

Only one school, the University of Washington, said it will give credit for its Coursera classes. But two others, University of Pennsylvania and Caltech, said they would invest $3.7 million into the enterprise, bringing the company's venture funding to more than $22 million. Literally, colleges are buying in. 

And the bigger the buy-in, the better. The fundamental challenge for U.S. universities as they struggle to contain their costs is figuring out how to teach more students using fewer resources. That's what MOOCs were born to do. In theory, these automated classes have the power to create the first truly radical efficiency gains in the history of higher education, a leap that would take us light years beyond our creaky current system that, as Coursera's Koller noted to me in an interview, is still bound up in traditions that date back to the Middle Ages. 

"Lectures came about several hundred years ago when there was one copy of the book, and the only person who had it was the professor," she said. "The only way to convey the content was for the professor to stand at the front of the room and read the book. One would hope that we had better capabilities these days."  

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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