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."
We may have the capabilities. But academics are wary of them. In a recent poll by Inside Higher Ed and Babson Survey Research Group, 58 percent of professors said they were more afraid of online learning than excited by it. A full two thirds said learning outcomes on the web were inferior to in-person instruction. Yet, the more experience instructors had teaching online, the more positive they felt about it.
And therein lies Coursera's promise. The company does not consider itself an alternative to a traditional university. Rather, it's more of a market for learning. Schools that design classes for Coursera retain the rights to their work, meaning it's a risk-free way for them to dip into online education without building the technology infrastructure from scratch. In turn, professors can incorporate the web material into their regular courses, for instance by turning their 9 a.m. lectures into homework. In time, the process could breed more familiarity, less contempt, and much more efficient classrooms.