All posts tagged online learning

The Wild West of Coursera and Free Online Content


Teaching the world 150,000 people at a time, just feels so intimate. A few weeks ago I started taking a class on Coursera from The University of Michigan, both because I am interested in the topic, as well as I had yet to take a Coursera course (more on that in a minute). In the first video presentation of the class the instructor welcomed all of the students and said while there are a lot of students signed up, he wanted the whole experience to feel very personal. He said “I am not going to say how many people have signed up,” but then a few minutes later, as if so excited by the visibility of the course, he had to throw it out there “hundreds of thousands of people all over the world are participating in this free course.”

Wow, that is a ton of people. In the forums – which are set up to encourage peer-to-peer collaboration, there is a thread titled where are you from. The course quickly starts to feel like the United Nations – with participants from over 75 countries, including places as far away as Iran, Serbia, and Uganda. The usual suspects are in there too – people from every European country, as well as most states in the United States. To say it simply, this course is a big operation. Getting 150,000 people to tune in weekly to anything is a big deal, so this free online education thing must be a big deal.

With the recent announcement that 12 more institutions are joining the Coursera family to offer free online content, it’s quickly apparent that this whole free online course thing isn’t fad. There are plans for hundreds of courses – when you multiply 100*150,000 you get 15 million. It got me thinking….

So what happens when you get 16 of the most prominent global higher education institutions together to share free content on hundreds of topics? Well naturally, a lot of confusing competition. What makes things even more interesting is that two of the institution, UPenn and Caltech are investors in Coursera.

Here’s what I have noticed.

In many cases the classes don’t align much with traditional institutional strengths and while extensive, the course offerings feel a bit random. Yes it makes sense to learn about machine learning or computer science from Stanford staff, but what about fantasy and science fiction from Michigan? Logging onto Coursera and looking at the course listings feels a bit like venturing into the Wild West. Yes, it’s certainly cool that you can learn so much for free from reputable institutions and certainly the courses have been designed within the highest quality standards, but the whole partnership feels a bit scattered. It all feels like a brand visibility play – everyone wants to be one of the cools kids on the playground.  Is it value enough to have millions of people around the world tuning into your institution’s free classes? Probably.  Is someone in Uganda likely to come to Urbana and matriculate at the University of Illinois because of a free only class they participated on Coursera? Probably not. But other organizations like American English University are offering English pronunciation courses successfully online.

In my class content the brand identity is everywhere – they don’t want you to forget that you are taking a class from The University of Michigan – the big yellow Michigan M is on the videos and assignments. The instructor repeatedly talks about his long tenure at Michigan. Sometimes he starts waxing philosophically about how “we are all pioneers”. So I guess this is the Wild West.

I am waiting for the day when two institutions on Coursera want to offer a class on the same topic. Then who wins? Well the strongest brand of course…

Video Forecasts the End of Higher Education


“It is the best of times — it is the worst of times. In 2020, people have access to a breadth and depth of knowledge unimaginable in an earlier age. However, (colleges) as you know them have ceased to exist. Academia’s fortunes have waned. Twentieth century universities are an afterthought, a lonely remnant of a not-too-distant past.”

So begins a video titled “Epic 2020” that has been getting some attention on the Web. I disagree pretty strongly with some of the points made in the video, and believe the timeline is quicker than colleges will actually decline, but I keep coming back to this video for a bunch of reasons.

First, some reservations: Despite the opening passage, Dickens this is not. The presentation is rife with ironies and howlers. It forecasts that  technology will overwhelm higher education, but the video itself is low-tech to the extreme, much of it consisting of a “scatter gram” representation of a voice. The narrator, Bill Sams of Ohio University, mispronounces the name of his biggest influence, Sebastian Thrun, for believing traditional higher education is headed for the grave. A little more research, please!

The ending is also a puzzle. Sams seems to be setting up Epic 2020, his “organization,” as some kind of HAL 9000. In 2020, he intones, Google will launch Epic — “the Evolving Personal Information Construct. Epic not only understands everything that you know, but also it knows everything that you need to know to be successful in your professional , social and personal life. EPIC constructs and provides just in time knowledge and information that keeps you current and synchronized with everyone around you.”


But here’s why I can’t get this video out of my head: the straight-ahead, uninflected narrative, and the voicing of the greatest fears of many in higher education — that the forces that will permanently change what we have all thought of as higher education have already been unleashed. Sams lays out a narrative with these key points:

  • He speaks at length about the Khan Academy, and notes that its brilliance lies in its assessment system. Time on task is measured in seconds. It is the first real-time assessment of learning, something that schools have long wanted to avoid.
  • Sams believes academic badges will grow in stature as alternative to degrees, and successful and promising graduates will be identified not by their degrees and the institutions where they got them, but by professors and fellow students at a place like Thrun’s Udacity, where student comments and questions are rated by others, and the most engaged and insightful students gradually rise to the top of influence ratings. Those students are then identified to potential employers as the most promising potential hires. The companies would pay the educators for their help in identifying their star future employees.
  • Public universities will be forced by fiscal constraints and pressure from parents and legislators to award transferable course credits for demonstrated ability rather than class attendance and passing grades on tests and papers. The connection between class content and assessment will be broken.
  • Most new online classes are free, and, in time, other colleges cannot sustain the prices for classes that they are commanding. Tuition is abandoned as a concept. The student loan industry collapses, as well.

Will higher education collapse in this manner? No, this is far too simplistic. But are there grains of truth and seeds of nightmares in this? I would argue Yes. This video should inspire a mixture of guffaws, inspiration, and feelings of dread in just about anyone who watches it. So, if nothing else, Sams has succeeded in starting a dialogue that any college thinking seriously about its future needs to have.

Is a Campus a College when Everyone Studies Online?


We’ve written a lot lately about aspects of colleges that will have to change over the next few years, like admissions, and technology, and teaching styles. We have talked about some of the economic theories that help explain why this is occurring. We have also talked about some of the forces upholding the old model of higher higher education that has been resistant to change, such as marketing and accreditation (and here).

But what about the very core of your college: the campus?

A decade ago, colleges and universities were in a full-on building boom, creating dormitories and recreation centers to satisfy the newest generation of self-involved college student. The Internet boom made a lot of people wealthy, and that led to a golden age in college giving. Much of the money was directed to individual buildings that captured the imagination of the donors. But now, students aren’t influenced the way they once were by fancy new dormitories. Moreover, the students of the future are much more likely to take classes from several different institutions. On average, the students will be older, and may have other complications, like full-time jobs or families, that will make them see a college campus as immaterial to their needs.

In light of that, the majority of colleges and universities need to put a great deal of thinking into how to make their campuses more relevant to students. Some universities, such as the University of Colorado, are following the learning communities model followed most famously by the Ivy Leagues schools. More universities need to think of integrating student living with learning.

The residential institution will not necessarily disappear because the old model of living and learning on campus won’t disappear. Most 18-year-olds need the discipline, encouragement and support of professors or graduate assistants.  Unfortunately, the costs at these institutions will be prohibitive to most students, so this experience will likely fall to the more affluent.

Residential colleges and universities will have a market if they add value to the residential experience.  Residential colleges will need to formally recognize the skills and knowledge gained through the out-of-class experiences.  These skills include leadership, teamwork, public speaking, management and so forth.

We can imagine a “hybrid residential college” where most of the courses are online offerings from the nations’ greatest universities or instructors, but at each college, mentors of advisors work with the students to insure that they have a rich out-of-class experience, and that the learning continues in all kinds of creative ways after the lecture is over.

Along with rethinking student living space, colleges should also reconfigure learning spaces, using modular rooms and furniture to emphasize an openness to interdisciplinary study. Colleges should have meeting rooms of many different sizes, from 2 to 200, acknowledging that learning takes place in all kinds of groups.
Overall, universities need to be much more realistic about the way they view their campuses. Some have more space than they can use, and should consider selling some property or partnering with community groups or other colleges to make sure the space is gainfully used. The campus master plan — at most institutions, a 10-year planning document — should be subject to constant updating and change. Some universities are better at this than others.

Universities should focus on what parts of their campus hold the deepest meaning for their students, their alumni, and other constituencies. Those areas of campus are likely to hold in some way the memory of college that is so precious to many, and what they will carry with them the rest of their lives. Those areas of campus should be considered almost sacred.

But even within the most important parts of campus, colleges need to be aware of the statement they are making with their buildings. They should continue the commitment they have shown in recent years to sustainability, whether it takes the form of green roofs, composting toilets, or recycled building materials. The way that colleges use their buildings is watched closely by their idealistic students, and a commitment to reducing energy costs allows the college to make a visible and lasting commitment to ethics and integrity that will likely make much more of an impression than anything a professor or president ever says. With students spending less time on campuses, those limited chances to make an impression are more important than ever.

A.I. Replacing the College Professor?


The end of face-to-face college instruction!

That is the startling scenario that a panel contemplated Thursday night as a forum opened on The Future of Higher Education at The New School University in New York.

Looking 20 to 30 years out, “The wealthiest institutions will continue to provide face to face instruction. Other universities will not be able to afford to deliver instruction face-to-face any longer,” said Neil Grabois, former provost of Williams College and president of Colgate University. He is now dean of the Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy at The New School.

Grabois said he envisions classrooms with holograms of instructors and an increased use of artificial intelligence to assist individual students. The technology for such a classroom is under development.

Other panelists piled on. “Our modes of teaching are really obsolete,” said Jamshed Bharucha, president of Cooper Union. “The way most teaching is done is not aligned with how the brain works. The dirty little secret of learning is that you forget.”

Many college instructors dump knowledge into students as if it will be retained forever, said Bharucha. But students would retain more if teaching was more interactive and interdisciplinary, and more enveloped in technology. “The precious time in a classroom should be used in a more dynamic way than we are using it now.”

The changes are coming to a head because of the unsustainable cost structure of higher education and the growing backlash of students and parents against increasing costs (The session was marked by angry outbursts by students against Matthew Goldstein, president of the City University of New York, which just imposed another series of tuition increases.Goldstein was also on the panel).

“We have brought a lot of this on ourselves,” said Grabois. Somehow, the mission of universities “has changed from the social good to the private good.” Looking through the history of higher education, “at times of large change, those are times when pedagogical changes are almost imposed on us if we don’t do it ourselves.”

The College Experience: Preserving Culture


I remember the snow falling on the quad and my friend Allen muttering “The only people for me are the mad ones.” He had recently read Kerouac’s On The Road and was convinced that people around him weren’t really living… “like really living, man,” he said. It was the middle of the night and The University of Chicago campus, with its ivy, and benches, Gothic towers, and sidewalks – was like a turn of the century movie set. We were playing the part of the college freshmen, questioning the purpose of our education and the American Dream. We had worked hard, but we were lucky.

It was a visceral experience. I remember the way it smelled, the sound of our feet crunching the snow, and the way the coffee in my hand tasted. There are many memories I have from back then, but this is the one that follows me – the memory that reminds me of questioning, but still believing that anything is possible. We had showed up on campus that fall with some experiences, ideas, and a whole lot of wonder. It was as close to magic as I have ever come. A bit dramatic? So what…it was all dramatic. The conversations, the all-nighters, the parties with so much energy and excitement you could’ve packaged it up and powered the whole city, and time – yes time. There was time to think, time to do what you wanted to do, time to explore, time to meet people, time to dream, and time to really… grow.

The experience is different for everyone, but I am certain there are similarities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the recent high school graduates enrolled in college in October 2010, 90.4 percent were full-time students. Colleges have cultures and when the unique forces and people on a campus come together they create the college experience. It has a lot to do with the physical campus – where on many campuses students come from all over the city, country, or globe to live, eat, sleep, study, and socialize. College campuses are the ultimate communities. At The University of Chicago I had dozens of friends who lived within one mile of me and there were no parents, very few rules, and an institution that fostered intellectual and social inquiry. But, wow did the winters get cold . And the food was mediocre at best. It’s all part of the memory. The institution of going to college, exploring your next step, and taking the time to ease into the real-world is truly an experience.

Will the College of 2020 be like this? Sure, some institutions will be able to preserve their culture and cultivate these types of experiences. But others will have a harder time. Expensive small private colleges are trying to find the best way to be competitive in the market and get students and resources, but without question, some of these institutions will not survive. An even larger concern is online programs – which are making it easier for students to learn remotely, but also taking them away from campus. Of course there are significant advantages to institutions offering more online programs, but we don’t need to get into that here. As more and more students demand online classes, I hope they know what they are missing on campus. There are experiences to be had and memories to made everywhere – but there is something special, perhaps magic, that happens on a college campus.

As higher education professionals we spend so much time thinking about the data, the outcomes, and the trends. It’s important to step back and remember that at the core of each institution is a distinct culture – one that creates memories. That’s the college experience.

Online Education Facts

The Mobile Campus: Textbooks for iPad


This is the third post in a four part series on The Mobile Campus. This series examines how students are using mobile devices and the impact on higher education. To read the first post on student mobile application usage trends click here. To read the second post about location based application Foursquare’s partnership with universities click here.

Backpacks will be a lot lighter this fall when student’s head back to class at some colleges.  Inkling, a San Francisco start-up has developed an interactive textbook platform for the iPad. Both universities and investors have taken notice. Publishing companies McGraw-Hill and Pearson are early investors. According to the Association of American Publishers, $4.5 billion worth of textbooks were sold in 2010. The universities already set to use Inkling iPad textbooks this fall include Brown, University of California-Irvine, and the University of Central Florida.

But will they college students use interactive iPad textbooks? Are they interested? Turns out it’s exactly what they want. A July 2011 research study by Kelton Research revealed college students can expect to spend more than $2400 on textbooks before getting a degree and the average student carries 20 pounds of books around campus. According to the same study, 62% of the college student respondents revealed they would spend more time studying if they had either online or mobile access to their textbooks, and 71% of respondents were ready for required reading to be accessible through a mobile or online application. Although there are dozens of mobile tablets on the market, The iPad is the most advanced and popular, making it the perfect platform for interactive textbooks.

When it launched in 2010, Inkling had 4 books for the iPad, but by fall semester there will be over 100 textbooks downloadable within the iPad app. Currently students are able to buy book chapters through the iTunes app store at $2.99 each. Art, business, history, and medical textbooks make up a bulk of Inkling’s catalogue. Users are able to interact in many ways with the textbook – from rotating images, to zooming, to watching imbedded videos. Medical textbooks that show 3D renderings of the heart and other elements of the circulatory system have been receiving rave reviews from medical students.

Inkling is currently the frontrunner in the interactive tablet textbook space, but they certainly have competitors – including CourseSmart, which offers PDF e-textbook services and Push Pop Press, an interactive iPad reading platform which was recently acquired by Facebook. Another competitor Kno has a database of 70,000 textbooks that can be downloaded and read on mobile devices, but they lack the interactivity of Inkling’s iPad offerings.

So what does this mean? One thing is for certain – students will carry fewer textbooks in the coming years. Whether it is Inkling or another company, textbooks will continue to transition onto tablets and other devices that make them more accessible and engaging. As long as digital textbooks meet the needs of students they will dominate the market by 2020. If they make learning easier, more efficient, engaging, and fun, then they will disrupt one foundation of learning.

To learn more about Inkling visit

To download the application, visit the Apple iTunes store by clicking here.