Future Tense

The New Public Ivies

Will online education startups like Coursera end the era of expensive higher education?

Daphne Koller, educator, speaks during Session 3: Building Blocks, at TEDGlobal 2012 on Tuesday, June 26, in Edinburgh, Scotland
Daphne Koller, educator, speaks during Session 3: Building Blocks, at TEDGlobal 2012 on Tuesday, June 26, in Edinburgh, Scotland

Photograph by James Duncan Davidson.

It just got easier to get a free education. The startup Coursera, which was launched by two Stanford professors last year, is partnering with 12 major research universities to offer more than 100 free online courses in topics ranging from computer science to poetry. These institutions, which include Caltech, Duke, and the University of Virginia, join Coursera’s first four partners: Stanford, Princeton, Penn, and Michigan. Millions of people around the world are expected to enroll.

This is a big deal for higher education. Coursera and similar ventures, including Udacity and edX, have thrown open the gates to America’s best schools. These aren’t just videotaped lectures. They’re streamed in real-time, and they’re increasingly interactive, giving the professor the option to pause and instantly poll the students to see if they understand what she’s just said. They include regular assignments and multiple-choice tests, and Coursera is rolling out a program for humanities classes that would have students grade one another’s essays.

It is tempting to see this as the beginning of the end of the current model of higher education. Why would anyone pay tens of thousands of dollars for an education at a mid-tier college when they could learn from Ivy League professors online for free (or, at least, for cheap)? Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, a brilliant Stanford computer scientist, recently predicted that within 50 years there will be only 10 universities remaining in the world. He hopes Udacity will be one of them.

But Coursera has opted to work with existing institutions rather than compete with them. Andrew Ng, who co-founded Coursera with his Stanford colleague Daphne Koller, insists that their firm is meant to complement, not supplant, the traditional college experience. “Online education is absolutely not a replacement for the high-quality education that a top university can give,” Ng says. “Why do people pay $50,000 a year to attend an institution like [one of Coursera’s new partners] Caltech? The reason is that the real value of a Caltech education isn’t just the content. Content is increasingly available for free on the Web. The real value is the interactions with professors and other, equally bright students.”

Coursera, Ng says, is about expanding access to the content, if not the full experience. Driven by ever-broader demand, higher education costs have soared in the past two decades, leaving even middle-class families struggling to afford college. Those who can afford a place like Caltech, and who get in, probably aren’t going to abandon that opportunity in favor of an online education. It’s those students who can’t, or don’t, who will avail themselves of the school’s online offerings. Just as important, the a la carte menu of classes will draw in loads of people who aren’t full-time students and who don’t have the time or money to enroll in formal continuing education programs. People like Chris Wilson, who took Ng’s machine learning class online last fall and blogged about it for Slate.

That students have flocked to Coursera is rather inspiring when you consider that its online classes have thus far not counted for real credit at any of the participating schools. Learning, not résumé padding, has been the motivating force. The startup’s popularity has in turn attracted heavyweight investors like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, even though Coursera has yet to make any money. Possible revenue sources in the future include charging students for certificates, charging employers for access to top students, and offering more classes for real college credit.

The real question about Coursera’s model has been whether top universities would buy in. Some critics doubted that top-tier institutions would willingly give away a product for which they now charge hundreds of thousands of dollars. Coursera’s new partnerships provide an emphatic answer. But what’s the explanation—why have Johns Hopkins, UCSF, the University of Toronto, and the University of Edinburgh, among others, signed on so eagerly?

Part of it is that these universities see a technological revolution coming and they don’t want to be left out. Emails show that the University of Virginia’s board shunted aside the school’s president partly because they thought she was responding too slowly to the online education craze. (After an outcry, the board brought her back two weeks later. And board leaders apparently weren’t aware that a deal with Coursera was already in the works.)

But Ng believes Coursera classes also offer real benefits to the students who physically attend these institutions. They allow professors at those schools to do something that Khan Academy’s Salman Khan has been preaching to secondary schools for a few years now: flip the classroom.

Classroom flipping means assigning lectures as homework, leaving actual classroom time for hands-on instruction and group work. Ng told me his class at Stanford is already doing this, and he’s encouraging other professors to adopt the approach for their Coursera classes as well.

When you think about classroom flipping, Coursera videos start to look less like a dubious replacement for the college experience. Instead, they’re more like a welcome replacement for another product: textbooks.

Ng says that’s not a bad analogy. “I’ve actually had several professors tell me they were previously thinking of writing a new textbook, and they decided instead to teach an online course on Coursera,” he says. “It turns out to be less work, and your reach is likely greater. Not to mention that it’s so much more interactive. I certainly think students learn better by taking an online course than by reading a textbook.”

Textbooks, of course, have always offered motivated outsiders access to famous professors’ pedagogy at a sliver of the price of college tuition. It’s just that they’re too dense and boring for most people to slog through without a grade on the line. Online classes have the potential to solve that problem.

By democratizing Ivy League-level lectures, Coursera and its cohorts will force the nation’s colleges to prove their value in other ways. That can only be a good thing for students—and their cash-strapped parents.