What Campuses Can Learn From Online Teaching

Tuesday, October 2, 2012
The Wall Street Journal

Higher education is at a crossroads not seen since the introduction of the printing press. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other campuses, the upheaval today is coming from the technological change posed by online education. But that's only the half of it. Just as edX, Coursera, Udacity and other online-learning platforms are beginning to offer the teaching of great universities at low or no cost, residential education's long-simmering financial problem is reaching a crisis point.

Universities have been sharing some of their course content—such as reading material and videotaped lectures—free online for more than a decade. (MIT launched OpenCourseWare in 2001.) In the past year, however, they've developed technology that lets them actually teach in an interactive format designed specifically for online learning.

Last December, when MIT launched MITx—MIT course content online—150,000 people from 160 countries signed up for the prototype course, Circuits and Electronics. The network of students that came together around it was so powerful that the course's instructor stopped his teaching assistants from answering questions in the online forum. The students had said they learned the material better when they helped each other out.

In the decade that online education has been developing—and we haven't seen anything yet—the trend toward rising tuition has made the residential college experience out of reach or ruinously expensive for many potential students. While the financial pain borne by students is in the headlines, however, the truth is that universities are straining to cover the cost of educating them. At MIT, which centers on education through intensive, hands-on science and engineering research, we have to invest more than three times as much to educate our undergraduates as we receive in net tuition (that is, tuition minus financial aid).

The positive development in online learning and the negative trend in residential-education costs came about independently, but it's now impossible to consider the future of higher education without thinking of both. Online education holds the key to making residential education better and less expensive even as it promises to offer education to many millions more people. And the quality of purely online education will depend on the residential education from which it stems.

How can online education improve the residential experience? At MIT, we got a hint when we allowed a test set of MIT students to take the MITx version of Circuits and Electronics, supplemented by weekly contact with faculty, for credit. They liked the experience and demonstrated deep comprehension of the material.

Some are calling this model the "flipped classroom." It puts students in front of faculty when the students are prepared by material they have learned online—on their own schedule and at their own pace. Instead of being one of 200 people sitting for a lecture, a student is in the same room with a professor in order to have meaningful back-and-forth exchanges.

In the flipped classroom, an online-learning platform's software can determine a student's learning style and tailor online instruction to it. For instance, for a variety of problems, some students benefit from seeing the graphical representation of mathematical answers. That same software can give a student quizzes embedded in online lectures, provide instant feedback on his mastery of material, and give him advice on how to get through the tough stuff.

Given its possible scale, online education may improve the financial model of residential education. If a university's courses can be offered online for small fees to people around the world, we might arrive at a sweet spot where high numbers of online learners are getting extremely good value for their fees, and the university that creates the content is using those fees to serve the mission of the university as a whole—part of which is to make education, on and off campus, affordable.

We already are putting some of these ideas into action. Harvard University and MIT announced the launch of edX, an open-source, not-for-profit online learning platform that will offer, for a small fee, credentials for learners who demonstrate mastery of a given course. More recently, the University of California, Berkeley joined us; others are sure to follow.

Amid all of this change, MIT will remain a residential community that buzzes with the thrill of discovery and the entrepreneurial pursuit of its implications. We want to empower future generations to discover for themselves the magic of university research—the force behind radar advances that helped win World War II, biological discoveries that made cancer a fightable disease and breakthroughs in computer science that helped give us the Internet we are now only beginning to fully exploit.

A version of this article appeared October 3, 2012 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal. Reprinted with permission of The Wall Street Journal © 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.