A reader rightly suggested that I’d be interested in Stanford University’s “Engineering Everywhere” program, which is pushing beyond what elite colleges have already done in terms of putting lectures online to offer tests and everything:
For the first time in its history, Stanford is offering some of its most popular engineering classes free of charge to students and educators around the world. Stanford Engineering Everywhere (SEE) expands the Stanford experience to students and educators online. A computer and an Internet connection are all you need. View lecture videos, access reading lists and other course handouts, take quizzes and tests, and communicate with other SEE students, all at your convenience.
SEE programming includes one of Stanford’s most popular sequences: the three-course Introduction to Computer Science taken by the majority of Stanford’s undergraduates and seven more advanced courses in artificial intelligence and electrical engineering.
Most of the discussion I’ve seen around online learning is polarized around two axes. On the one hand, you have people who are kind of in denial about the extend to which disruptive change is likely to come to American education and would be desirable. On the other hand, you have kind of manic conservatives who want to say that if we just eliminated Pell Grants and student loans tomorrow, the magic of the free market would generate unimaginably wonderful low-cost alternatives.
The reality, I think, is simpler. The university as we know it evolved over hundreds of years, and it takes time to figure things out. One set of pioneers in online higher education came from very low-end for-profit universities whose offerings had a hefty element of scam to them. Then on the other hand we’ve had Yale Open University, MIT Open Courseware, etc. for a while now adding up to an ever growing set of lectures you can watch on iTunes U. This stuff is fun if you’re interested, and comes from institutions with real brands and real instructors, but doesn’t really function as education. And yet now we have this thing from Stanford that merges some of the salient aspects of both models. Either this will succeed, and some other famous universities will follow there example, or else it’ll fail and some other famous universities will try a somewhat different result. But one way or another, the current paradigm, where it’s cheaper and easier than ever to learn something but harder and more expensive than ever to get a degree, isn’t going to persist.