January 2013

Volume 28 Number 01

Don't Get Me Started - Lowering Higher Education, Again

By David Platt | January 2013

David PlattA year ago in this column, I told you how the Internet would hammer the higher education industry the same way it’s hammered the newspaper industry (and the travel industry, and the music industry and … you get the idea). I never imagined how quickly that hammering would start.

There’s a new word—a geek acronym, naturally—for that hammer: MOOC (rhymes with fluke). It stands for Massive Open Online Course, and while I delight in the MOOC concept, I have wondered about its prospects. I wondered if reputable providers would produce enough high-quality content. Well, they’ve jumped onto that. Three large organizations dominate the market: Udacity, started by Sebastian Thrun from Stanford University (udacity.com); edX, a collaboration of Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley (edx.org); and Coursera, an umbrella of 33 universities, including Brown, Penn, Duke, Stanford and Caltech (coursera.org). Online learning isn’t limited to the for-profit University of Phoenix any more.

I wondered if the content would adapt to the online learning environment. Anant Agarwal at MIT had more than 150,000 students from all over the world sign up for his inaugural MOOC on circuit design and analysis. In addition to carefully produced videos, he provided lab exercises with an online circuit sandbox, containing virtual signal probes, sweep generators and oscilloscopes. I can see this simulator idea catching on, thereby allowing MOOCs to handle lab classes such as freshman chemistry.

I wondered how students could meet other students, and speculated that bars might sponsor it. The recreation department in my hometown of Ipswich, Mass., has since announced the formation of Ipswich University (ipswichu.org). Any time two or more people want to get together for a class, Ipswich University arranges a meeting place somewhere in town, with workspace and computing facilities. You will have to bring your own beer (so far, anyway).

My Harvard Extension students love the online format. Apart from the obvious advantages of slotting my class anywhere in their schedules, and not having to fight traffic into Cambridge and pay for parking, they like being able to pause a lecture so they can take notes or look something up. They also like replaying sections they didn’t understand at first, or when they miss the punch line of a joke. I, on the other hand, find it somewhat depressing to have only one or two students attend live, instead of 100 like I used to. My teaching assistants have heard most of my jokes, often many times, and don’t laugh the way virgin students do. I’m considering adding a canned laugh track to my lectures.

Of course, as soon as online education starts producing useful results, governments start screwing it up. The state of Minnesota has banned Coursera from offering courses there because Coursera had not received authorization from the state to do so (bit.ly/WqZfQ8). Something is seriously wrong when students have to flee to neighboring Iowa to pursue a free online education. Perhaps we need a MOOC on the works of Ayn Rand.

The Hammer Will Fall

Online learning is currently being marketed as an enrichment activity: “lifelong learning” is the latest catchphrase. With the fast pace of technology-driven change in all fields, I certainly see the need for higher education to evolve from one huge bolus after high school to more of a steady lifelong drip. I spoke with a longtime reader named Ken, who’s currently pursuing an online MBA, and he loves it. As a father of three, working a full-time job, he couldn’t advance his education any other way.

But it won’t be long before online challenges traditional universities for undergraduate degrees. Nascent MOOCs and online programs haven’t yet made serious inroads, but the economics ensure that they’re headed that way, throttle wide open and turbocharger howling. Coursera is even exploring college credit for its MOOCs (see bit.ly/SSZYVl).

The hammer will fall first on the Hampshire Colleges and Colgate Universities of the world. They don’t have the reputation of a Harvard to attract full-fare parents when MOOCs cost so much less, nor the endowment of a Harvard to sustain themselves without it. I wonder which institutions I’ll be writing deathwatches or obituaries for in this column next year.

I’ll know that online learning has triumphed when the first person with an online degree gets accepted to medical school. Freshman medical students still need to dissect cadavers in person. For now, anyway.

David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.