The New Online Education

by eric

This year has been momentous for online education, with first Stanford and now MIT offering free online courses designed for the web.  Taking a number of cues from the Khan Academy, these courses are different from previous online offerings.  They are free to take and have no admissions requirement, in contrast to online classes provided by colleges and universities which are part of standard degree programs.  However, unlike the free course materials often posted online, these courses are designed for the web from the start to take advantage of the strengths of the medium.  They are starting to define a new web pedagogy.

This fall, I took Andrew Ng’s online Machine Learning course.   The course units were divided into short video lectures (8-15 minutes each), each of which had an ungraded review question to check comprehension.  Each unit ended with graded review questions, and in the advanced track there were weekly programming exercises that were graded electronically.

For my purposes, the course was a complete success.  While the online version had somewhat less topical coverage and rigor than the offline version it was based on, I now feel confident that I can undertake machine learning projects and learn more as needed, building on the fundamentals of the course.

These new online courses are designed from the start to scale.  All grading is done electronically, so there is little difference for the instructors between teaching ten students and ten million.  Since the lectures are prerecorded and short, students can watch them on their own schedule, fitting them around work or family obligations.  However, the class is not completely asynchronous.  Weekly deadlines encourage one to remain caught up and engaged.  Help is provided student-to-student in course forums online and self-organized real-life meetup groups, so enforcing a schedule creates a cohort which can tutor itself.

What are the implications of these courses for higher education in general?  It’s difficult to say.  To some degree, these courses function as branding for the exclusive universities that offer them, providing a taste of elite education without the potential of a diploma that would really open doors.  It is clear that these universities won’t undercut themselves and dilute their prestige with these offerings; they’re unlikely to offer online equivalents of their law or business curricula, for instance.

It’s tempting to think that widespread use of these courses would encourage hiring based on demonstrated skills, no matter how attained.  It’s possible, though, that they will feed a new credentialism as schools monetize these online offerings by selling certifications for completing a block of courses in a topical area.  (“I have a Stanford Certificate in Big Data Learning for Social Marketing Entrepreneurship!”)

One particular advantage of these courses is their potential for unique offerings.  With a global audience, courses too specialized or unusual to have large enrollments at any specific school could reach many interested students.

No matter their effect on higher education, in the near term these courses represent a remarkable opportunity for self-motivated independent learners to pick up new skills and broaden their education.  Great universities have always shared their knowledge broadly; the web may further democratize this outreach.