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Brave new online world: Colleges adapt to growth of video courses

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 4, 2012 - As a founding member of the Online News Association, Dianne Lynch is well aware of how developing technology can force severe disruptions in a long-stable business — and how those advancements can also move a field forward at lightning speed.

Now, as president of Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., she is watching the same forces that prompted a revolution in journalism likely do the same in higher education. But having seen the results of one such upheaval, she doesn’t fear the second.

In recent months, the onrushing growth of online video that lets top professors from elite universities teach courses to thousands of students anywhere in the world has been one of the hottest — and most controversial — topics in higher education.

Consortiums like Coursera, which began with Stanford, Princeton, Penn and Michigan, and edX, where Harvard first teamed up with MIT, are growing fast. Their lists of course offerings are multiplying even faster.

Daphne Koller, a computer science professor at Stanford and co-founder of Coursera, has painted the issue this way:

Too many people live in places where higher education is unavailable. Too many people who live where that education is available can’t afford it. And too many of those graduates don’t find jobs in their field, failing to get the value they need in exchange for their time and their effort.

When her co-founder Andrew Ng taught a popular machine learning course at Stanford, Koller said, 400 students could take it, sitting in a lecture hall in Palo Alto, Calif. When he offered the same course online, 100,000 people signed up, from all over the world.

Similar stories happen increasingly at Coursera, edX, Udacity and elsewhere, including not only groups of colleges but individual campuses themselves. The transformation is profound, says Lynch — and to some, profoundly scary.

“For the first time in higher education,” the Stephens president says, “there is now an alternative to the way we have always done things. The academy, by definition and by culture and by choice, is very slow to change. The academy takes great pride in not being a slave to the vagaries of the marketplace. Those of us who have chosen to devote our lives to higher education believe we are experts about what we believe our culture need to know.

“There hasn’t been an alternative. If you wanted to have higher education, you had to come to a college or university. Now, there has been a radical shift in all of that. What you see in Coursera is what Netscape was to the internet — the first really true great product that provides a glimmer of what the future will be like. It gives faculty the opportunity to be free agents in the intellectual marketplace. That is enormous.”

Lynch and others are quick to point out that online learning isn’t for everyone or for every subject. For fields that require hands-on training — anything from fashion design to theater arts to nursing — people can learn only so much from watching a screen.

And while the convenience of online learning may appeal more to older students with homes, jobs and families, fresh high school graduates aren’t necessarily eager to give up the experience of leaving home for somewhere new, discovering who they are and what they want to do.

It’s not just universities getting into the course video arena. The New York Times is offering readers what it calls One Day University, and even St. Louis County Library is making available eCourses on topics ranging from accounting to health care to personal development.

But higher education institutions are the ones most heavily invested in the move, for obvious reasons, even though all of them are not ready to rush in.

For top-tier schools like Washington University, says Provost Edward Macias, the computer revolution offers “new and exciting opportunities for our students and for obviously many others who could benefit from a first-rate education. That part is very exciting.”

But, he said, even though the university has taken a few tentative steps into the brave new online video world, it isn’t ready yet to take the full plunge.

“We want to learn from others’ experiences and build on what they have learned and try to come out with best practices,” Macias said. “We’re pretty keen on building capacity in this area. But we absolutely want to provide a learning experience as rich and robust as what you can get with an on-campus, in-class experience.

“We are very happy to experiment, but the main thing is that whatever we do, we want to evaluate to see what works well, and ultimately we want to end up with an academic experience that fits with the kind of Washington University education that we think is among the best in the world.”

What will 2020 be like?

While no one can be certain how the video revolution in higher education will unfold, at least one scenario making the rounds online provides an interesting story line that is likely to make most educators somewhat dubious — and more than a little uneasy.

Called EPIC2020 and viewed more than 20,000 times online, its premise is this:

“In the year 2020 most colleges and universities no longer exist.

“Academia is no longer the gatekeeper for education.

“Tuition is an obsolete concept.

“Degrees are irrelevant.

“What happened to education?”

The video — put together by a team led by Bill Sams of Ohio University — traces the birth of the revolution to 2009, with the founding of Khan Academy, which now has thousands of online video lessons viewed 180 million times and growing. It provides questions, lectures, hints and links that let students proceed at their own pace, lets professors gauge how long students are spending on videos and provides badges to mark successful completion of lessons.

The badges represent an alternative to the traditional college degrees and accreditation.

As the video world progresses, interactivity increases with discussion forums and Q&A sessions with professors. In the forums, students answer each other’s questions, broadening the source of information for every student.

Then, the EPIC narrator intones, “2012 would be remembered as the year everything began.”

First, Stanford Professor Sebastian Thurn resigns from his faculty position after seeing the power and reach of an online artificial intelligence course. He reaches more students with that one course than most professors teach in their entire career.

Leaving Stanford, Thurn founds Udacity, which begins with six online computer science courses, all free. MIT joins in, offering a free course, with a certificate of completion added for a small cost. TED, the popular conference that provides online video talks on a wide variety of subjects, also gets involved with TED Ed.

As student debt approaches $1 trillion, and tuition increases sharply outpace inflation, the speculative future begins:

Student loans are eliminated and as a result students demonstrate and revolt, demanding cheaper or free courses, where they pay only for assessment. In 2014, state schools begin offering credit for demonstrated ability, not just courses completed, therefore breaking the historical connection between content and assessment.

Apple buys Amazon, forming AppleZon, merging iBooks and Kindles, and iTunes U quickly supplants many universities. Using the Amazon algorithm, the new company matches potential students with their academic interests. Google responds by buying Khan Academy and Udacity, creating a pair of educational organizations that do not include traditional colleges and universities.

In 2018, companies begin accepting badges as proof of achievement rather than degrees and stop recruiting on most campuses; a year later, residential colleges and universities become what the scenario terms “maturational holding grounds for the children of the wealthy. Their focus is on comfortable living accommodations, gourmet food, recreation, social activities and sports teams.”

The Model-T era

Such a scenario is far from guaranteed, of course, but it gives an idea of the unknown, uncertain future that higher education faces.

David Russell, commissioner of higher education in Missouri, says that the precise changes that are coming may be unclear, but the need to cope with them is not.

“Students are voting with their feet,” he said. “Over the past couple of decades, they have shown they want easy access to good professors, they want more hands-on learning experiences rather than just lectures and they like having access to what they need on a 24-hour basis.”

But figuring out how to provide what students need, both technologically and financially, is a tough puzzle. Just as newspapers had to adapt to the possibilities and strengths of the internet and not just throw onto a screen the same stories that appear in print, colleges and universities need to figure out the best use of developing techniques.

“We’re very much aware of the fact that you can’t take the old traditional lecture and put someone on video giving the same presentation,” Russell said. “That’s not going to work. That has held technology back for a long time because people haven’t learned how to do use it.

“But technology is expensive. I am somewhat concerned about the fact that as colleges need to adapt to new ways they deliver courses and information, they are going to find significant costs associated with doing that.”

And, adds Macias from Washington U., a lot of experimentation is needed as well. Asked what is gained and what is lost in the use of online classes as opposed to the more traditional ways of teaching, he responded:

“You can’t answer that because it’s not standardized. With the in-class experience, where you teach a class, you pretty much know what it’s going to be like and students know what it is going to be like if they have talked with others who have taken a course like yours.

“In the online world, there are a lot of experiments, and some people are better at it and some are worse. We are a long way from being close to anything that can be called standard.”

Just this week, the University of Missouri at Columbia announced it would invest $2.5 million to enhance its online degree offerings. But at the university's St. Louis campus, the movement is headed in the opposite direction, toward more in-person instruction, said Judith Walker de Felix, vice provost for academic affairs and dean of the graduate school.

“Video is just sort of a flat, uninteresting way to teach,” she said. “They are sort of like the old-fashioned course packets. We want to do away with those.”

She realizes there is more demand for online learning, particularly for non-traditional students who can’t always make the trip to campus. But, Walker de Felix added, students aren’t always prepared for the demands of an online course.

“The ones who are shocked are the undergraduates who think it is like a video game and they can play it at their own speed,” she said. “Then they have their assignments come due, and they say they aren’t ready. It’s been there from the beginning.”

The advantage of being able to draw students from a wide area isn’t what UMSL is all about, she added.

“We really want to be the region’s university,” Walker de Felix said. “We want people to come to the campus. We don’t want to be recruiting from Massachusetts.

“The best model of learning is where students have both online and face-to-face contact. That is what faculty prefer, but it’s not always what students want. Life happens, and they are busy with families and careers. So on our campus, we will probably have a combination.”

That view matches the outlook of Dianne Lynch at Stephens, who says that talking about online courses versus those in person creates a false dichotomy.

“It’s like journalism,” she said. “More people read news and information now than ever did when it was exclusively in print. There is more interaction, and all the fears about readers being unable to distinguish between a blog and a guy screaming on the street corner and the New York Times are incorrect. Readers are smart enough.

“We are in the very early stages, the Model-T era of online learning and teaching. We are just learning how to do it well and also just developing the tools we need to do it well. In early, early, early online learning, it was about throwing something on the screen and asking students to write you an email. That has moved forward dramatically. Today, courses tend to include video, audio and multimedia, just the way real life is.”

Firsthand experience

For three local students who have experience taking video courses online, the advantages that most people cite hold true. But there are drawbacks as well.

Patrick Buller of Bethalto, 40, who is getting a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, has taken courses from Coursera and Udacity — the kinds of courses he could not take in person.

While he found the courses worthwhile, in general, he also found that taking them on the computer meant that between his time at work and time doing other things, the online courses weren’t always at the top of his to-do list.

“Maybe this is just me,” he said, “but it took a backseat sometimes. I wasn’t getting graded, and it didn’t cost me anything. When I would get busy, I would fall behind.

“What was weakest, at least for me, was that there wasn’t pressure to keep up and do a good job. Maybe some people are better at that then me, but that’s how it worked for me.”

Lona Skaggs of Mineral Point, Mo., has been on both sides of the equation, taking courses online and teaching them. After completing work for her master’s from Walden University, she hopes to set up an online tutoring business.

She appreciated the peer teaching online, where students connect with each other to work through the lessons, and she also liked the fact that with the computer courses, you could set your own pace.

“In a class,” she said, “you have a lot of quick-time reaction that has to be done right then. Some people don’t want to do that. When you are online, you have a duty to react, but you get the time to do so.

“You can also reach the teacher a lot more easily online. In a classroom, the teacher will have an outline to teach and get it done and there may not be a lot of time left. The teacher may have office hours, but you can’t talk with them any time via email like you can with the online class.

“It would really help a lot of people who are shy to come out of their shells.”

Living in Washington County and taking classes at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, Skaggs, 58, also had a 200-mile round-trip commute three days a week, something she definitely didn’t miss with her online classes.

Taking computer courses made Michaela Turner of Richmond Heights a technological believer.

“I hated being on the computer before I started school,” she said, “but it’s really true what they say, your brain changes with every experience, and I got really good at it.”

She’s writing a master’s thesis on the impact of yoga on the brain, and she wasn’t able to find what she wanted with local classes. Online, she found just what she needed.

“At first I would say I missed the student experience,” said Turner, 56, “but I had a couple of classes when I was in a chat room, and there was so much participation I really felt like I knew these people, even though they were from Montana, New York, Texas, and were all different ages with all different educational experiences.”

So on balance, do they prefer courses in person or online? Do they think the traditional college experience will disappear?

“I think there will still be a place for the physical campus,” Buller said.

”What I think will happen is there will be a lot of lectures online, and then there will be some sort of smaller section where people get together.

“What you might do is have three lectures a week that you can watch online, then have a lab where you can get together and have a TA answer questions. I think it will transform universities, and I think it will affect high schools, too.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.