[ExI] Do online courses spell the end for the traditional university?

James Clement clementlawyer at gmail.com
Sun Jun 9 02:20:39 UTC 2013

 Do online courses spell the end for the traditional university?

Publishing, music, shopping, journalism – all revolutionised by the
internet. Next in line? Education. Now US academics are offering
world-class tuition – free – to anyone who can log on, anywhere in the
world, is this the end of campus life?
 A thing of the past? University graduates at Cambridge. Photograph:
Trigger Image/Alamy

Two years ago, I sat in the back seat of a Toyota Prius in a rooftop car
park in California and gripped the door handle as the car roared away from
the kerb, headed straight towards the roof's edge and then at the last
second sped around a corner without slowing down. There was no one in the
driver's seat.

It was the prototype of Google's self-driving car and it felt a bit like
being Buck Rogers and catapulted into another century. Later, I listened to
Sebastian Thrun, a German-born professor of artificial intelligence at
Stanford University, explain how he'd built it, how it had already clocked
up 200,000 miles driving around California, and how one day he believed it
would mean that there would be no traffic accidents.

A few months later, the *New York Times* revealed that Thrun was the head
of Google's top-secret experimental laboratory Google X, and was
developing, among other things, Google Glasses – augmented reality
spectacles. And then, a few months after that, I came across Thrun again.

The self-driving car, the glasses, Google X, his prestigious university
position – they'd all gone. He'd resigned his tenure from Stanford, and was
working just a day a week at Google. He had a new project. Though he didn't
call it a project. "It's my mission now," he said. "This is the future. I'm
absolutely convinced of it."

The future that Thrun believes in, that has excited him more than
self-driving cars, or sci-fi-style gadgets, is education. Specifically,
massive online education free to all. The music industry, publishing,
transportation, retail – they've all experienced the great technological
disruption. Now, says Thrun, it's education's turn.

"It's going to change. There is no doubt about it." Specifically, Thrun
believes, higher
education<http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/higher-education> is
going to change. He has launched Udacity <http://www.udacity.com/>, an
online university, and wants to provide mass high quality education for the
world. For students <http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/students> in
developing countries who can't get it any other way, or for students in the
first world, who can but may choose not to. Pay thousands of pounds a year
for your education? Or get it free online?

University, of course, is about so much more than the teaching. There's the
socialising, of course, or, as we call it here in Britain, drinking.
There's the living away from home and learning how to boil water stuff. And
there's the all-important sex and catching a social disease stuff. But this
is the way disruptions tend to work: they disrupt first, and figure out
everything else at some unspecified time later.

Thrun's great revelation came just over a year ago at the same TED
conference where he unveiled the self-driving
"I heard Salman Khan talk about the Khan
Academy<http://www.khanacademy.org/> and
I was just blown away by it," he says. "And I still am." Salman Khan, a
softly spoken 36-year-old former hedge fund analyst, is the founding father
of what's being called the classroom revolution, and is feted by everyone
from Bill Gates (who called him "the world's favourite teacher") down.

The Khan Academy, which he set up almost accidentally while tutoring his
niece and nephew, now has 3,400 short videos or tutorials, most of which
Khan made himself, and 10 million students. "I was blown away by it," says
Thrun. "And frankly embarrassed that I was teaching 200 students. And he
was teaching millions."

Thrun decided to open up his Stanford artificial intelligence
to the world. Anybody could join, he announced. They'd do the same
coursework as the Stanford students and at the end of it take the same exam.

CS221 is a demanding, difficult subject. On campus, 200 students enrolled,
and Thrun thought they might pull in a few thousand on the web. By the time
the course began, 160,000 had signed up. "It absolutely blew my mind," says
Thrun. There were students from every single country in the world – bar
North Korea. What's more, 23,000 students graduated. And all of the 400 who
got top marks were students who'd done it online.

It was, says Thrun, his "wonderland" moment. Having taught a class of
160,000 students, he couldn't go back to being satisfied with 200. "I feel
like there's a red pill and a blue pill," Thrun said in a speech a few
months later. "I've taken the red pill, and I've seen wonderland. We can
really change the world with education."

By the time I sign up to Udacity's beginners' course in computer science,
how to build a search engine, 200,000 students have already graduated from
it. Although when I say "graduate" I mean they were emailed a certificate.
It has more than a touch of Gillian McKeith's PhD about it, though it seems
employers are taking it seriously: a bunch of companies, including Google,
are sponsoring Udacity courses and regularly cream off the top-scoring
students and offer them jobs.

I may have to wait a while for that call, though I'm amazed at how easy
Udacity videos are to follow (having tips and advice on search-engine
building from Sergey Brin, Google's co-founder, doesn't hurt). Like the
Khan Academy, it avoids full-length shots of the lecturer and just shows a
doodling hand.

According to Brin, if you have basic programming ability – which we'll all
have if we complete the course – and a bit of creativity, "you could come
up with an idea that might just change the world". But then that's Silicon
Valley for you.

What's intriguing is how this will translate into a British context.
Because, of course, when it comes to revolutionising educational access,
Britain has led the world. We've had the luxury of open access higher
education for so long – more than 40 years now – that we're blasé about it.
When the Open University was
1969, it was both radical and democratic. It came about because of
improvements in technology – television – and it's been at the forefront of
educational innovation ever since. It has free content – on
 and iTunesU <http://www.apple.com/education/itunes-u/>. But at its heart,
it's no longer radically democratic. From this year, fees are £5,000.

In America, Thrun is not the only one to have taken the pills. A year on
from the Stanford experiment, and the world of higher education and the
future of universities is completely different. Thrun's wasn't the only
class to go online last autumn. Two of his computer science colleagues,
Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, also took part, with equally mind-blowing
results. They too have set up a website, Coursera<https://www.coursera.org/>.
And while Udacity is developing its own courses, Coursera is forming
partnerships with universities to offer existing ones. When I met Koller in
July, shortly after the website's launch, four universities had signed up –
Stanford, Princeton, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Just four months later, it has 33 partner universities, 1.8 million
students and is having venture capital thrown at it – $16m (£10m) in the
first round. And it doesn't stop there. It's pretty remarkable that
Coursera and Udacity were spun out of the same university, but also the
same department (Thrun and Koller still supervise a PhD student together).
And they have the dynamic entrepreneurial change-the-world quality that
characterise the greatest and most successful Silicon Valley startups.

"We had a million users faster than Facebook, faster than
says Koller. "This is a wholesale change in the educational ecosystem."

But they're not alone. Over at Massachusetts Institute of Technology,Anant
Argarwal <http://people.csail.mit.edu/agarwal/>, another professor of
computer science, who also cites Khan as his inspiration (and who was, in a
neat twist, once his student), has launched edX <https://www.edx.org/>,
featuring content from MIT, Harvard, Berkeley and the University of Texas

Argarwal is not a man prone to understatement. This, he says, is the
revolution. "It's going to reinvent education. It's going to transform
universities. It's going to democratise education on a global scale. It's
the biggest innovation to happen in education for 200 years." The last
major one, he says, was "probably the invention of the pencil". In a
decade, he's hoping to reach a billion students across the globe. "We've
got 400,000 in four months with no marketing, so I don't think it's

More than 155,000 students took the first course he taught, including a
whole class of children in Mongolia. "That was amazing!" says Argarwal.
"And we discovered a protégé. One of his students, Batthushig, got a
perfect score. He's a high school student. I can't overstate how hard this
course was. If I took it today, I wouldn't get a perfect score. We're
encouraging him to apply to MIT." This is the year, Argarwal says, that
everything has changed. There's no going back. "This is the year of

A month ago, I signed up for one of the Coursera courses: an introduction
to genetics and evolution, taught by Mohamed Noor, a professor at Duke
University. Unlike Udacity's, Coursera's courses have a start date and run
to a timetable. I quite fancied a University of Pennsylvania course on
modern poetry but it had already started. This one was 10 weeks long, would
feature "multiple mini-videos roughly 10-15 minutes in length", each of
which would contain a number of quizzes, and there would also be three
tests and a final exam.

It's just me, Noor, and my 36,000 classmates. We're from everywhere:
Kazakhstan, Manila, Donetsk, Iraq. Even Middlesbrough. And while I watch
the first videos and enjoy Noor's smiley enthusiasm, I'm not blown away.

They're just videos of lectures, really. There's coursework to do, but I am
a journalist. I am impervious to a deadline until the cold sweat of
impending catastrophe is upon me. I ignore it. And it's a week or so later
when I go back and check out the class forum.

And that's when I have my being-blown-away moment. The traffic is
astonishing. There are thousands of people asking – and answering –
questions about dominant mutations and recombination. And study groups had
spontaneously grown up: a Colombian one, a Brazilian one, a Russian one.
There's one on Skype, and some even in real life too. And they're so
diligent! If you are a vaguely disillusioned teacher, or know one, send
them to Coursera: these are people who just want to learn.

Four weeks in, Noor announces that he's organising a Google hangout: it's
where a limited number of people can talk via their webcams. But it's
scheduled for 1am GMT on Sunday morning. I go to sleep instead. However I
do watch the YouTube video of it the next day and it's fascinating viewing.
Despite the time, Richard Herring, a train driver from Sheffield, is there,
bright and alert and wanting to tell Noor how much he's enjoying the course.

"Richard!" says Noor. "Nice to meet you! Your posts are amazing. I often
find that before I have a chance to go in and answer a question, somebody
else has already answered it, and it's often Richard. Thank you."

"I just love science," says Richard. "I was never any good at school, but
I've just picked it up along the way. It's a brilliant course. To get
something like this without paying anything is marvellous. I'm loving it."

So is Sara Groborz, a graphic designer who was born in Poland but now lives
in Britain. And then there's Naresh Ramesh, from Chennai, who's studying
for a degree in biotechnology, and Maria, who lives in the US and is using
the course to teach her students in a juvenile correction institute. Aline,
a high school student in El Salvador, comes on. She took the course, she
says, because she goes to a Catholic school where they don't teach
evolution. "And you're the best teacher I've ever had!" she tells Noor.

How gratifying must it be to be a teacher on one of these courses? When I
catch up by email with Noor the next day, he writes. "I'm absolutely LOVING
it!" By phone, he says it's one of the most exciting things he's ever done.

What's more, it means that next semester he's going to be able to "flip the
classroom". This is a concept that Khan has popularised and shown to be
successful: students do the coursework at home by watching the videos, and
then the homework in class, where they can discuss the problems with the

There are still so many issues to figure out with online education. Not
least the fact that you don't get a degree out of it, although a university
in the US has just announced that it will issue credit for it. At the
moment, most people are doing courses for the sake of simply learning new
stuff. "And a certificate, basically a pdf, which says this person may or
may not be who they say they are," says Noor.

And while computers are excellent at grading maths questions, they're
really much less hot at marking English literature essays. There's a
preponderance of scientific and technical subjects, but the number of
humanties courses is increasing with what Koller says is "surprisingly
successful" peer assessment techniques. "It can't replace a one-to-one
feedback from an expert in the field, but with the right guidance, peer
assessment and crowd-sourcing really does work."

And in terms of content, the course I'm doing is pretty much the same as
the one Noor's students take. At Duke, they have more interaction, and a
hands-on lab environment, but they are also charged $40,000 a year for the

It's a lot of money. And it's this, that makes Udacity's and Coursera's and
edX's courses so potentially groundbreaking. At the moment, they're all
free. And while none of them can compete with traditional degrees, almost
every other industry knows what happens when you give teenagers the choice
between paying a lot of money for something or getting it for nothing.

Of course, education isn't quite an industry, but it is a business, or as
Matt Grist, an education analyst from the thinktank Demos tells me, "a
market", although he immediately apologises for saying this. "I know. It's
terrible. That's the way we talk about it these days. I don't really like
it, but I do it. But it is a market. And universities are high-powered
businesses with massive turnovers. Some of the best institutions in Britain
are global players these days."

Grist has been looking at the funding model of British universities, and
sees trouble ahead. The massive rise in fees this year is just the start of
it. "We've set off down this road now, and if you create competition and a
market for universities, I think you're going to have to go further." He
foresees the best universities becoming vastly more expensive, and the
cheaper, more vocational ones "holding up". "It's the middle-tier, 1960s
campus ones that I think are going to struggle."

When I ask Koller why education has suddenly become the new tech miracle
baby, she describes it as "the perfect storm. It's like hurricane Sandy,
all these things have come together at the same time. There's an enormous
global need for high quality education. And yet it's becoming increasingly
unaffordable. And at the same time, we have technological advances that
make it possible to provide it at very low marginal cost."

And, in Britain, the storm is perhaps even more perfect. This is all
happening at precisely the moment that students are having to pay up to
£9,000 a year in fees and being forced to take on unprecedented levels of

Students, whether they like it or not, have been turned into consumers.
Education in Britain has, until now, been a very pure abstraction, a
concept untainted by ideas of the market or value. But that, inevitably, is
now changing. University applications by UK-born students this year were
down almost 8%. "Though the number who turned up was much lower than that,"
Peter Lampl, the founder of the Sutton
tells me. "They were 15% down."

The trust champions social mobility and nothing accelerates that more than
university. "That's why we're so keen on it," says Lampl. "We're monitoring
the situation. We don't know what the true impact of the fees will be yet.
Or what the impact of coming out of university with £50,000 worth of debt
will have on the rest of your life. "Will it delay you buying a house? Or
starting a family? People compare it to the States, but in America one
third of graduates have no debt, and two-thirds have an average of $25,000.
This is on a completely different scale."

And it's amid this uncertainty and this market pressure that these massive
open online courses – or Moocs as they're known in the jargon – may well
come to play a role. There are so many intangible benefits to going to
university. "I learned as much if not more from my fellow students than I
did from the lectures," says Lampl. But they're the things – making
life-long friends, joining a society, learning how to operate a washing
machine – that are free. It's the education bit that's the expensive part.
But what Udacity and the rest are showing is that it doesn't necessarily
have to be."

The first British university to join the fray is Edinburgh. It's done a
deal with Coursera and from January, will offer six courses, for which
100,000 students have already signed up. Or, to put this in context, four
times as many undergraduates as are currently at the university.

It's an experiment, says Jeff Hayward, the vice-principal, a way of trying
out new types of teaching "I'll be happy if we break even." At the moment
Coursera doesn't charge students to receive a certificate of completion,
but at some point it's likely to, and when it does, Edinburgh will get a

But then Edinburgh already has an online model. More than 2,000 students
studying for a masters at the university aren't anywhere near it; they're
online. "And within a few years, we're ramping that up to 10,000," says

For undergraduates, on the other hand, study is not really the point of
university, or at least not the whole point. I know a student at Edinburgh
called Hannah. "Do you have any lectures tomorrow?" I text her. "Only
philosophy at 9am," she texts back. "So obviously I'm not going to that."

She's an example of someone who would be quite happy to pay half the fees,
and do some of the lectures online. "God yes. Some of the lecturers are so
crap, anyway. We had a tutorial group the other day, and he just sat there
and read the paper and told us to get on with it."

Max Crema, the vice-president of the student union, tells me that he's
already used online lectures from MIT to supplement his course. "Though
that may be because I'm a nerd," he concedes. "The problem with lectures is
that they are about 300 years out of date. They date back to the time when
universities only had one book. That's why you still have academic
positions called readers."

I trot off to one of them, an actual lecture in an actual lecture theatre,
the old anatomy theatre, a steeply raked auditorium that's been in use
since the 19th century when a dissecting table used to hold centre stage,
whereas today there's just Mayank Dutia, professor of systems
neurophysiology, talking about the inner ear.

He's one of the first academics signed up to co-deliver one of the Coursera
courses come January, although he defends the real-life version too:
"Universities are special places. You can't do what we do online. There's
something very special in being taught by a world leader in the field. Or
having a conversation with someone who's worked on a subject their whole
lives. There's no substitute for this."

There isn't. But what the new websites are doing is raising questions about
what a university is and what it's for. And how to pay for it. "Higher
education is changing," says Hayward. "How do we fund mass global
education? There are agonies all over the world about this question."

There are. And there's no doubting that this is something of a turning
point. But it may have an impact closer to home too. Argarwal sees a future
in which universities may offer "blended" models: a mixture of real-life
and online teaching.

Coursera has already struck its first licensing deal. Antioch
a small liberal arts institution in Ohio, has signed an agreement under
which it will take content from Duke University and the University of
Pennsylvania. And a startup called the Minerva
Project<http://www.minervaproject.com/> is
attempting to set up an online Ivy League university, and is going to
encourage its students to live together in "dorm clusters" so that they'll
benefit from the social aspects of university life. Seeing how the students
on Coursera and Udacity organise themselves, it's not impossible to see how
in the future, students could cluster together and take their courses
online together. For free.

There's so much at stake. Not least the economies of dozens of smallish
British cities, the "second-tier" universities that Matt Grist of Demos
foresees could struggle in the brave new free education market world.

At Edinburgh, fees are having an effect – applications are down – but "most
students seem to see it as *mañana* money," says Jeff Hayward. "It's still
hypothetical at the moment."

But this is the first year of £9,000 fees. An English student at Edinburgh
(it's free for Scottish students), where courses are four years, is looking
at £36,000 of debt just for tuition. And maybe another £30,000 of living
expenses on top of that.

These websites are barely months old. They're still figuring out the
basics. Universities aren't going anywhere just yet. But who knows what
they'll look like in 10 years' time? A decade ago, I thought newspapers
would be here for ever. That nothing could replace a book. And that KITT,
David Hasselhoff's self-driving car in *Knight Rider *was nothing more than
a work of fantasy.
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