Update: Breaking on July 17. 2012 the NYTimes finally recognizes the profound impact Coursera and other free online university offerings are having on undergraduate education. Read it here or follow Takethe5th.com and get the story 3 months earlier and with live experience nuances.
This blog has been an enthusiastic supporter of the Coursera University Courses offered by such schools as Stanford, Princeton, University of Michigan and University of Pennsylvannia among others. These are often the very same courses offered on campus. They have reading lists, video lectures, quizzes, tests and various mechanisms for courses-takers to interact with one another. Ohh … and they are free , students anywhere in the world can attend, and students who complete the program and tests receive a certificate of credit from the institution providing the course. We think Coursera and its clones will totally disrupt undergraduate education in the World over the next 2-5 years
And there are more clones as MIT and Harvard are combining to offer a line up of courses in the Fall under the the edX banner . Meanwhile, theOpenUniversity with over 600 courses is increasing the features offered and the range of courses. But fee-based online and DVD based courses like the Great Courses have had to slash their prices by 80% or more. Given the flood of free online courses avaialble in the Fall, it will be interesting to see if enrollment patterns change at for-fee online colleges like Pheonix University or smaller colleges and institutions.
However, the online course movement is not without concerns. First, the Coursera lineup of courses is far from being even close to complete degree curricula even for Computer Science which currently garners the most of its offerings. However, both MIT’s Courseware and theOpenUniversity do have more complete course cuuricula in a number of subject areas. What edX will deliver in the Fall is still an open question. Second there is the question of bait and switch. Philanthropist Bill gates at Microsoft is infamous for offering all sorts of monetray and other incentives to software developers in the late 1980′s and early 1990′s when Microsoft was vying for being top PC OS with Apple, IBM and others. Then by 1993 when Microsoft had obtained a monpoly in the marketplace, Gates reversed field and began to bundle freebies to gain footholds in software markets Redmond did not have dominate share plus restricting once lavish support payments and delying complete API reveals while Redmond coders had What is to prevent the elite universities from doing a similar bait and switch tactic ?
Well the university communities themselves. As Organization Theory Professor March concluded about both universities but also government organizations, they are loosely coupled collectives unlike the centralized and often rigidly hierarchical business corporate organizations. The elite university executive would have an immense task in getting consensus among taechers, faculties and other players toenable a a bait and switch operation. However, severe economic constraints might force some discipline.
Finally, in following the courses offered at MITs Courseware and Coursera, I observed a timidity to take on controversial contemporary topics. For example, I had expected to find a course about Energy Alternatives or The Causes of the 2007-2009 Financial Crisis or The Evidence for Global Warming or The Crisis in US Governance. Some Coursera programs do offer some insights on these topics, but so far no one has taken the tough subjects directly. Ooops – until University of Pennsylvannia’s Dr Ezekiel Emanuel has offered Health Policy and the Affordable care Act which is extremely relevant given the great heat without insight offered by many media and political outlets including purported Think Tanks like the Heritage Foundation.
Dr Emanuel has provided so far a cracker-jack course. He has provided outstanding course materials from the Kaiser Foundation, CBO, IMF and half a dozen respected sources. The material is definitely relevant as his readings are able to debunk several red herrings in the Health Care debates[Medical malpractice suits account for less than 1% of Health Care costs. prescription drugs only account for 10% of costs, or the US pay 50% more per capita to obtain health care that is 4 years behind the life expectancy of the best countries ]. Finally, there is a dry and wry wit in his lectures that commands attention. A++ for this course.
So the brave new disruptive world of free online undergraduate university courses lurches forward. It simply will have an a huge impact on undergraduate education, even if it founders – because it will raise the good question, how could that be so?