A Roadmap for the Revolution

Your head may be spinning due to the speed with which news, predictions, and plans about online innovations have been popping up. On May 2, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced that they will team up to offer free online courses through a $60 million joint venture known as “edX.” This comes only months after MIT’s creation of its own online platform “MITx.”

How can we understand the changes coming to higher education? Let’s think of these online programs and ventures as points along a continuum, starting with those that support or enhance traditional universities and moving toward those that threaten to overturn higher education itself.

At established institutions, online courses have already proliferated. For example, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill moved all of its elementary Spanish courses online in 2009. According to a report from the Babson Survey Research Group and the College Board, the number of students enrolled in online courses in 2011 increased for the ninth year to nearly 6.1 million—31 percent of total enrollment.

As traditional schools embrace online formats, private companies have moved in to provide the necessary infrastructure and know-how for such a shift. One company, 2tor, is the brainchild of Princeton Review founder John Katzman. As many universities have found, it is one thing to build a website for a course, but it is another to deliver a complete educational experience in an online form. This is where 2tor comes in.

The University of Southern California, Georgetown University, and Washington University in St. Louis have all contracted with 2tor to assist them in taking degree programs online. The UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School offers its online MBA through 2tor. The cost, nearly $89,000, is similar to the cost of the school’s traditional MBA program.

While 2tor acts as a contractor for many schools, other companies function more as partners. StraighterLine offers its own online courses that students can take for college credit. The credit can then be applied toward degrees at accredited universities.  What makes StraighterLine unusual is the extremely low price of its offerings—$99 a month plus $39 for each course taken.

The American Council on Education has recommended college credit for 34 of Straighterline’s courses, but the job of convincing traditional universities to follow the ACE’s recommendations is another matter. In some instances, as with Western Governors University, Straighterline has worked out direct partnerships that allow credit transfers. But faculty and students protested at Fort Hays State University in Kansas when the administration initially decided to accept StraighterLine courses.

While Straighterline and 2tor still function within what might be termed the “pay-for-play model” of higher education, some universities are making their courses available online free of charge. Officially, these universities hope to reach more of the world’s students and use online models to improve outcomes for their own students. Unofficially, universities may recognize the coming turmoil over distance education and wish to solidify their position before others enter the market.

In 2002, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created MIT OpenCourseWare. The experience for OpenCourseWare users is similar to that of a real MIT course, minus the grading, interaction with a teacher, and a physical learning environment. Anyone in the world with an Internet connection now has access to completely free lecture videos, notes, syllabi, and problem sets from regular MIT courses. (The materials available vary by course.) To provide this service, MIT and other grant sources spend nearly $3.5 million per year.

Encouraged by the popularity of OpenCourseWare, MIT took a bold step in 2011, creating MITx. Instead of simply making course materials available, MITx functions as a complete online educational experience, with tools to assess students’ understanding of the material. Students who complete the course will receive a certificate from MITx.

With MITx still in its infancy, Harvard and MIT announced the “edX” venture. At the press conference barely a week ago, Harvard president Drew Faust stated, “two of my most important commitments as Harvard president have been to increase access to education and to strengthen teaching and learning. EdX will enable us to advance both those purposes in ways we could not previously have imagined.”

Most recently, a number of new higher education ventures are making a go of it with no official university affiliation at all.

One of them is Udacity. In late 2011, Sebastian Thrun, a tenured professor at Stanford, took one of his artificial intelligence courses online and opened it to the public. By the time the class began, nearly 160,000 people had signed up to take the course. The Stanford administration allowed Thrun to continue his experiment, with the caveat that the course could not be used for Stanford credit.

Following the heady success of this first course, Thrun left his position as a tenured professor and started Udacity. The website allows students to take courses online for free. Upon completion of each course, students are presented with a certificate.

Udacity’s popularity has given rise to similar websites, such as Coursera, a collection of various online courses. The topics are usually quantitative in nature, and provided through cooperation with Stanford, Michigan, Princeton, Penn, and UC-Berkeley. Here, too, students receive certification after completing the course.

While Udacity and Coursera offer courses in a la carte fashion, the University of the People brands itself as the first tuition-free online university. Started with backing from the United Nations, the University of the People offers associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in business administration and computer science.

The University of the People is trying to integrate itself into the traditional university community. It has an agreement with New York University to find students who will enroll in NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus. It has a research partnership with the Yale Information Society Project and Yale Law School. Many of its administrators and faculty are also on staff at major universities in the United States.

Admission is not guaranteed. Applicants must be 18 or older, have a solid grasp of English, and prove that they have completed high school.

Accreditation—which is required to receive federal funds in the United States—may be an obstacle for the University of the People. But if it can gain accreditation and remain free to students, it could post a threat to some established universities.

And how long will accreditation be a problem, anyway? As George Leef wrote a few days ago, “badges” for accomplishments could conceivably replace the degree.

Finally (as we reach the far end of the continuum), some people are challenging the idea of traditional higher education itself. Entrepreneur Peter Thiel (of PayPal and Facebook fame) questions how useful college is for many people. In 2011, he established the Thiel Fellowship, providing 20 college-age youths with $100,000 to drop out of college and commit themselves to an entrepreneurial enterprise.

One of those selected, Dale Stephens, started the social movement UnCollege, whose mission is “changing the notion that going to college is the only path to success.”

UnCollege promotes free learning through both university programs like MIT’s Open Courseware and other unconventional sources. They range from TED lectures—the popular online talks by thinkers from Salman Khan to Matthew Ridley—to Project Gutenberg, which posts classic texts online.

With sites like Udacity attracting significant venture capital, its founder Sebastian Thrun made the bold prediction that there may only be ten universities left within the next fifty years. That might be going a bit too far, but one thing is very likely: change is coming to higher education.