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Students already take Straighterline courses to shorten their time at a traditional college. More than 20,000 classrooms around the world now use Khan Academy material.
California state universities are offering blended models — MOOC learning materials with onsite help from faculty — and last month 10 state systems announced plans to incorporate Coursera in a range of ways into their own teaching. The early research suggests blended models can be effective. But technology alone, while excellent at some things, can't yet achieve the broadest educational goals — especially for students who need more help.
Roughly 40 percent of Coursera's registered students come from developing countries, as do close to half of edX's. Coursera does not release its survey data on education levels, but most of its students seem already to have managed to get an undergraduate degree. Will other students have the Internet access or educational background to take advantage of MOOCs?
"Disadvantaged populations need higher-touch services, not self-services," says Peter Stokes, an expert on education innovation at Northeastern University.
Abdoulaye Coulibaly, 26, is an English master's student at Felix Houphouet Boigny University in the West African nation of Ivory Coast. He does not believe online education can or should replace the classroom.
"We're going to be very lazy online," he says. "If you put my class online, I'm going to take it and I'm not going to come to the university again. We need to come to class. They're the teachers and they have to teach us. If we don't understand, we need to ask questions. That's the only way for us to understand."
And yet, MOOCs have obvious allure in a place where the few universities burst at the seams — if they function at all. Post-election violence recently forced Felix Houphouet Boigny to close for 17 months, and its libraries still have no books. Just getting to school is an ordeal; Coulibaly must leave his home at 5 a.m. to snag a seat in 8 a.m. class, and he's been robbed a half-dozen times en route.
To Coursera's Koller, the MOOCs' potential is if anything greater in places like Ivory Coast. India, she notes, wants to increase by tens of millions the number of its young people with college degrees. Reaching its goals would require building 1,500 new universities, she notes, but India can't fully staff its current ones. Scaled-up teaching through technology is the only solution.
Francisco Marmolejo, a longtime Mexican university administrator who now leads the World Bank's higher education efforts, says governments around the world are intrigued by MOOCs, but also anxious. Technology's potential to solve the scale problem is obvious. But they fear the MOOCs will become an excuse to ignore the imperative of building local institutions.
Physical universities are "a place where you train to become a citizen," Marmolejo says. "It is not the new technologies against the old system. It is the blended component that I believe may be the key."
In 1997, Marmolejo notes, the late management guru Peter Drucker predicted that big university campuses would be "relics" within 30 years. At roughly its halfway point, that prediction seems highly unlikely, despite all that has happened.
Still, universities "need to change and they will change," Marmolejo says. "Technology will absolutely help them to change."
Robbie Corey-Boulet reported from Abidjan, Ivory Coast.