Apr. 23, 2014

When classes span across continents

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September 13, 2012

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The higher education world was taken aback last year when Sebastian Thrun, vice president of Google and professor at Stanford University, offered a robotics course to the largest class anyone’s ever heard of: 160,000 students. With the power of the Internet and educational software, Thrun was able to give the same assignments and tests to people from dozens of different countries, at no cost. Although a lot of them outperformed even the best Stanford students, no one outside the actual classroom was receiving any credit. But that’s just one of a number of possible outcomes that the Internet can bring to bigger and more diverse audiences. Efforts to provide course materials online, spearheaded by Harvard and MIT, are still in their earliest stages, but they’re already being talked about as the future of global education.

Innovative schools looking to curb the exploding costs of a college degree will find it redundant to pay professors to give the same lecture dozens of times throughout their careers, to a few students at a time. We now live in a world where anyone can access a pre-recorded lecture, and anyone can have a conversation with the professor about the material without needing to be in the same room. No more 8 a.m. lectures — class will be whenever you want it to be, fitting the needs of students who demand more and more flexibility each year.

This doesn’t mean that college as we know it is going the way of the dodo. It just means that colleges will shift structurally from physical places to the Internet, providing easier access to professors. The digitization of more and more academic resources means that it’s easier than ever for someone to complete all the requirements for a college degree from half a world away. College students will also have the option to engage in courses that interest them but aren’t offered nearby — anyone can find the exact material they want to learn, as long as someone in the world is teaching it.

The logistics of massively expanding class sizes will restrict some courses more than others. It’s much easier for software programs to grade thousands of math exams than thousands of English essays. However, the expansion of online resources will facilitate the collaboration of more people engaged in the same subject, which means there will be more people who can answer your questions and help you study.

We’re not likely to be the most affected here at the College of William and Mary, where in-state students can get a good degree that doesn’t break the bank. The schools that are most at risk are those that are expensive but not very reputable. Niche opportunities will open up, but there’s no hope for maintaining the one-size-fits-all status quo. When a student can take classes from five different schools in a single semester, charging someone $50,000 a year isn’t going to cut it.

These changes aren’t likely to radically alter the lives of any current students. But we should be prepared for the future. I know we at the College are very fond of our traditions and that we study basically the same way our predecessors did 300 years ago. However, the use of technology in education, particularly its role in eliminating distance, isn’t a fad; it’s coming and it will force schools to change the way they do business. Instead of reacting to inevitable change, the College should anticipate a number of possible ways online learning could affect the way it does business. If it doesn’t, it risks losing relevance in a competitive global education market.

Email Carter Lockwood at crlockwood@email.wm.edu.

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