2012 March 10 Saturday
Massive Open Online Courses Taking Off

Online education is starting to reach critical mass.

Consider Stanford’s experience: Last fall, 160,000 students in 190 countries enrolled in an Artificial Intelligence course taught by Mr. Thrun and Peter Norvig, a Google colleague. An additional 200 registered for the course on campus, but a few weeks into the semester, attendance at Stanford dwindled to about 30, as those who had the option of seeing their professors in person decided they preferred the online videos, with their simple views of a hand holding a pen, working through the problems.

The bricks-and-mortar college campus model is headed for obsolescence. It makes far more sense to have a small number of the best lecturers and cutting edge researchers record videos that can be watched by hundreds of thousands or even millions. We get multiple advantages from this approach:

  • Lower costs. No need to hire many professors to each lecture to small groups.
  • Higher quality. Only the best lecturers can be used.
  • Greater convenience. No need to drive to a campus or live on a campus. No need to attend the lecture right when it is first delivered. Watch when you want to from where you want to.
  • The ability to watch different lecturers on the same subject in order to see different ways of looking at the same topic area.

What else we need: more standard tests that one can take online to test one's understanding of a topic area. Also, facilities where one can take proctored tests for a wide range of subjects. Some companies already make a business out of this with industry standard tests such as for Cisco networking certifications and Microsoft certifications. We need the same model to cover understanding of basic college courses such as Calculus and Organic Chemistry.

I expect in the next 10 years the online courses are going to start driving some traditional colleges out of business. The uptake rate for online education is rapidly accelerating. This will raise productivity and cut costs across the economy.

Another important advantage of online education: it will break up the educational factory model.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2012 March 10 07:59 PM  Education Online

Wolf-Dog said at March 11, 2012 1:05 AM:

In fact, thanks to the new computing capabilities, the online (or on disk) courses will be far superior to regular courses in the future.

The new PDF files will contain astounding interactive graphical capabilities in the future. We will no longer view a lecture like being in a classroom. In fact, perhaps the lecturer will no longer be visible in person, but instead, there will be many user-friendly online explanations that will guide the reader step by step, and the reader will be able to navigate through many layers of further examples and explanations in each paragraph. Within the course there will be a kind of search engine that will enable the student to look up forgotten concepts within the course. So far most PDF files do not have any of these capabilities, but in the future the electronic course pack will contain all these features.

This kind of learning will start competing with expensive elite universities, so that those students who were unfairly rejected by top schools (or who could not afford the tuition fees) will still have access to excellent education. Those who accumulate the necessary online credits with high grades will then have proven capabilities equal to those of the students who graduated from regular colleges.

bjk said at March 11, 2012 4:34 AM:

This isn't an unconventional view. At this point, it's the conventional view. Is there any reason why students might prefer school, with a campus, clubs, other students, football games, frats, etc. etc. to sitting in front of a computer in Mom's basement?

Engineer-Poet said at March 11, 2012 5:44 AM:

One of the big savings is going to be in school administration, particularly the political offices.  If education is on-line and self-selected, there is no need for diversity officers, minority-outreach consultants, or any of those other PC sinecures.

It's doubtful that those people have many useful skills, but getting them out of the ed biz removes much of their ability to be destructive.

Engineer Dad said at March 11, 2012 5:41 PM:

And landing that dream job may have little to do with whether you have a college degree.

From Technology Review - The Youth Effect

In late January, some 75,000 people around the planet sat in front of their computers and pondered how to make anagrams from a bowl of alphabet soup. They were participants in the Hacker Cup, an international programming battle that Facebook organised to help it find the brightest young software engineers before competitors like Google do.

After three more rounds of brain teasers, Facebook will fly the top 25 coders to its head office in Menlo Park, for an adrenaline-soaked finale this March that will award the champion $5,000. In return, Facebook gets a shot at hiring the stars discovered along the way.


The best hiring strategies simultaneously test skills and advertise Facebook's internal culture, which Goldfein says values "clever workarounds that shortcut complexity." In addition to the Hacker Cup and a series of similar "Camp Hackathon" contests that tour U.S. colleges, there's a set of fiendishly tricky online puzzles that Facebook maintains online. Solving them with sufficient style can net a phone call from a recruiter. "This is a way to say that if you're brilliant we don't care where you worked and if you have a college degree," says Goldfein.

Florida resident said at March 12, 2012 3:32 AM:

Dear Mr. Parker !
Sure, on-line education constitutes much lesser financial burden on the students (and, alas, their parents.)
But, besides the function of teaching the material to students,
top Universities has the function of _selecting_ high-IQ studnts;
if you want politically correct expression, higly able students.
The supply of such students is the bottleneck, supply is limited.
And cheaper courses will not increase the supply of high-IQ studnts in USA.
Respectfully yours, Florida resident.

Wolf-Dog said at March 12, 2012 5:09 PM:

Randall Parker wrote: "I expect in the next 10 years the online courses are going to start driving some traditional colleges out of business. The uptake rate for online education is rapidly accelerating. This will raise productivity and cut costs across the economy."

This is true, many colleges will be forced to cut their tuition fees as a consequence of the competition from digital courses, but the top universities will almost certainly defend themselves by innovating one level beyond courses, by further and emphasizing their research and their elite mentoring traditions.

Thus, in many cases one of the most important component on the resume of a job applicant will be the test scores in the universal tests that they have attained in the online courses that they have taken (equivalent to the GPA in college transcripts) and which courses the student took from the online system. There will be several levels that the student will be able to attain in an online chemistry degree program, depending on the performance on various such courses. The high scores in the most difficult course programs will be the thing the job applicants will list at the top of the resume.

On the other hand more research oriented courses that train students to show originality, will still be in high demand, and these courses will still be provided by established mentors. But it can be argued that these mentors will also be helped by computers, ultimately hiding the identity of the people behind these mysterious mentors. In any case, it seems that any student who has attained a high score in the prerequisite online courses that are prerequisite for the mentor's research course will be admitted to that specific course. The problem, in this case, will be that perhaps the most prestigious courses of the mentor will still have a high tuition fee, but in most cases this will be more rare than the current situation.

Check It Out said at March 12, 2012 5:41 PM:

Whew! I already feel exhausted trying to imagine what the hell this world is going to do with so many idiot grads who are good for squat, but hold white-collar ambitions.

I hear that now some universities are featuring free online degrees. That gives you an idea of todays's quality in education.

Big Bill said at March 17, 2012 11:40 AM:

Nice try, Florida Resident, but the function of American schools is not to import smart Third Worlders (I.e. "increase the supply", as you put it), but educate American kids to their fullest potential. This is something your homeland should consider doing as well instead of exporting it's smart (and not-so-smart) kids to America and expecting us to educate them instead of our own.

Ronnie Williams said at May 21, 2012 6:44 AM:

I agree to the fact that people are now trending towards online education just because of its benefits over campus based education system. However, whatever the case is in the future, I certainly believe that campus education will be there with a significant increase of online education (specially in third world countries).

There could be several reason for that, however I would like to mention a few!

- Programs which require Hands-on training can not be mastered only with online education, they need proper training to make themselves fit for the market demand.
- Subject like Medicine, which requires extreme practice with perfection can not be done with online schools
- Campus Education will be preferred by students who would like to enjoy campus life
- Campus class participation makes confidence in students which is important specially during the growing age.
- ..........
- .....

I can list down a lot more benefits but I would like to add that online education is a need of specific class which is either continuing education, wanted to pursue education with jobs, willing to give more time to family and children. For them, its a cost-effective practical solution but traditional campus based will always be there because of its benefits that can not be achieved with online learning!

Check it out said at May 21, 2012 4:45 PM:

>"Lower costs. No need to hire many professors to each lecture to small groups."

Some online courses are even free. Education has become cheap because in many areas of study -not all- education has ceased to be what it used to be or has become worthless. Take for example a Doctorate in "Theology" or "Divinity", from which you get no real abilities or uses. It's just like one of those old blacksmith coal-heated irons from the 19th century, for which nobody really has a use nowadays, except perhaps as an ornamental artifact.

In a world that's fast becoming seriously overpopulated, having a degree won't necessarily be enough to get you anywhere. Many young people know that there won't be enough jobs for the degrees and specializations they're pursuing. Your degree certificate is only as good as the job it can get you.

Soon you'll see doctors, lawyers and engineers driving cabs or frying chimichangas.

Ronnie Williams said at May 24, 2012 1:03 AM:

@Check it out

I agree to that fact that education has become a bit cheap BUT considering quality accredited education and the practical approach towards the betterment of human kind, education will always be a tough job for students to achieve the desired goals,

"Soon you'll see doctors, lawyers and engineers driving cabs or frying chimichangas." Why would anyone wants to be a doctor when that person doesn't really want to OR unable to practice that profession, the only thing that comes to my mind is the lack of hands-on experience, courage, knowledge and an unaccredited unauthorized degree. Being a doctor is not an easy game :) .... it needs years of practice and studies to be finally bale to to treat human !!! and I don't think there will ever be such thing as "online MBBS degree" !!!

James said at October 26, 2013 8:45 AM:

As someone who has taking a lot of online courses, Harvards program is probably the best. Some "online colleges" offer very little content, and you would probably be better off learning from YouTube.

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