Elite Education For The Masses

Brian Caffo teaches a public-health course at Johns Hopkins University that he calls a “mathematical biostatistics boot camp.” It typically draws a few dozen graduate students. Never more than 70.

This fall, Caffo was swarmed. He had 15,000 students.

They included Patrycja Jablonska in Poland, Ephraim Baron in California, Mohammad Hijazi in Lebanon and many others far from Baltimore who ordinarily would not have a chance to study at the elite Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. They logged on to a Web site called Coursera and signed up. They paid nothing for it.

These students, a sliver of the more than 1.7 million who have registered with Coursera since April, reflect a surge of interest this year in free online learning that could reshape higher education. The phenomenon puts big issues on the table: the growth of tuition, the role of a professor, the definition of a student, the value of a degree and even the mission of universities.

“Massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, have caught fire in academia. They offer, at no charge to anyone with Internet access, what was until now exclusive to those who earn college admission and pay tuition. Thirty-three prominent schools, including the universities of Virginia and Maryland, have enlisted to provide classes via Coursera.

For his seven-week course — which covers advanced math and statistics in the context of public health and biomedical sciences — Caffo posts video lectures, gives quizzes and homework, and monitors a student discussion forum. On the first day, the forum lit up with greetings from around the world. Heady stuff for a 39-year-old associate professor who is accomplished in his field but hardly a global academic celebrity.

“I can’t use another word than unbelievable,” Caffo said. Then he found some more: “Crazy . . . surreal . . . heartwarming.”

For universities, the word for it is revolutionary. And higher education’s elite is in the vanguard.

In addition to for-profit Coursera, MOOC providers include a fledgling nonprofit competitor, edX, which has drawn hundreds of thousands of users to free online courses from Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California at Berkeley. On Oct. 15, the University of Texas system joined them.

“We want to dramatically increase access to learning for students worldwide while, at the same time, reinventing campus education,” said Anant Agarwal, president of edX.

A third high-traffic MOOC platform, for-profit Udacity, declares that “higher education is a basic human right.”

The courses pose questions for top universities: Are they diluting or enhancing brands built on generations of selectivity? Are they undercutting a time-tested financial model that relies on students willing to pay a high price for a degree from a prestigious institution? Or are they accelerating the onset of a democratized, globalized version of higher education?

MOOC students, for the most part, aren’t earning credit toward degrees. Educators say that before credits can be awarded, they must be assured that there are adequate systems to prevent cheating and verify student identities. But at the very least, these students can claim to have been educated by some of the world’s most prestigious universities.

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THE WASHINGTON POST

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