I looked today at the Coursera list of upcoming courses. Coursera, from their own description, are “a social entrepreneurship company that partners with the top universities in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. We envision a future where the top universities are educating not only thousands of students, but millions. Our technology enables the best professors to teach tens or hundreds of thousands of students.” They are the most prominent of a number of recent initiatives to make very high quality education available to large online audiences (see e.g. the recent Harvard-MIT edx initiative).
I post this for a couple of reasons:
Firstly, many of the 111 currently listed upcoming courses will be of interest to readers of this blog. There are several courses in Economics including: Game Theory, Microeconomics, Behavioural Economics (taught by Dan Ariely) and several others. They are all free and all taught by well-known Professors in the field. Some even provide certificates of completion, homework assignments, quizzes and exams.
The second reason for posting is to ask what this implies for traditional higher education. There is clearly one school of thought that says the game is up for on-campus education now that the technology for doing this online has come to the point where Coursera can make flexible courses available free for millions of people. And yet, there is no sense yet of a flight from traditional universities and models of delivering higher education. There are so many barriers between making great courses available online and creating full programmes that are validated, credible in terms of assessment and desirable for students in terms of providing a full experience of education, including being able to work with peers, build a network, receive in-person instruction and so on. None of these seem insurmountable so one scenario might be a fully online university environment. Tyler Cowen summarises a discussion among a number of people who have been debating this issue in the US. He comes down on a viewpoint I share (largely from intuition as we really dont have anyway of knowing yet) that hybrid models will begin to proliferate soon merging online instruction with on-campus instruction.