Distance learning has existed for more than a century, first as correspondence courses offering higher education opportunities in rural areas. Now, online programs—from the well-known Khan Academy, traditional universities, and educational companies—offer resources to enrich or replace in-class instruction.
“We know students who need academic help are turning to Google,” says Steve Anastasi, interim chief executive officer (CEO) of Sophia, a free online social education community targeted to students in grades six through the first two years of college. Sophia is owned by Capella Education. “It’s very hard to distinguish what’s good online…At Sophia, we put a fence around credible content as well as provide a platform where information is shared and talked about. [Through Sophia,] teachers are able to easily create or find credible academic content, and share it with their students or a broader audience.”
At Sophia, educators can create tutorials to “share with a broader audience or with their class” or select tutorials created by other users to augment in-class instruction, explains Anastasi. He also has heard from parents who use Sophia to refresh their own knowledge as they help children. He says they are currently “mapping [tutorials] to Common Core standards” in math and English and expect to map tutorials to the forthcoming Next Generation Science Standards.
“Sophia offers many ways to learn, so if you are learning about compound interest formula, we’ve got multiple tutorials on that concept. We’re also working on ways to recommend [tutorials]; there’s a possibility of creating ‘favorite’ teachers,” he says. “The site now includes learning pathways in a variety of math subjects. Each learning pathway offers a full course curriculum with multiple tutorials available for each concept within that subject area as well as quizzes to confirm [the student] is getting it. Teachers also can embed the pathways in their instruction; it’s an easy way to see where to go next.”
In the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics areas, Anastasi says Sophia is “focused on grades 6–14…[There is the] potential to provide remedial education, to look at what students need to get prepared for college.”
At Udemy, the goal is to provide a “creative environment,” says CEO Eren Bali. The submissions are reviewed for education strategy and production quality; the site does not judge information. He “believes institutions…put some pressure on teachers on what they should and shouldn’t be teaching.”
Many Udemy courses are offered for free, but some charge a fee; 70% of which goes to the instructor. Bali says popular topics on Udemy are technology, programing, entrepreneurship, and business, but expects to have content on “any subject” as Udemy expands.
Programs like MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW), which piloted its free online lectures a decade ago, opened a free portal into higher education, but did not provide a way for learners to document their accomplishments. Recently, many universities, including MIT, have been expanding their online presences by offering students not enrolled at the traditional school a way to do that.
“Today’s top universities offer…education to a minuscule fraction of the population,” says Andrew Ng, an associate professor at Stanford University and a cofounder of Coursera, a free online education community. With Stanford colleague and Coursera cofounder Daphne Koller, Ng hopes developing technology will make their vision of “top universities reaching millions of students, not only thousands” a reality.
“Developing technology [makes] it easy for professors at top universities to teach… thousands of students,” he says, adding it would take hundreds of years to reach a similar number of students in a traditional in-person classroom setting.
Preserving high standards for free online courses is possible, Ng maintains, citing his online machine learning course as an example. Approximately 100,000 students initially enrolled, but only 13,000 received certificates of accomplishment. Coursera’s partner universities (Stanford University, Princeton University, University of Michigan, and University of Pennsylvania) decide what courses to offer and whether a certificate may be earned.
This spring, MIT and Harvard University announced the formation of edX, a distance learning partnership that offers an “unprecedented opportunity” for examining how people learn that will allow educators and researchers to “begin to ask questions about how well [students] apply information months after a course ended,” Harvard Provost Alan Garber said at edX’s launch. In addition, edX will allow instructors to watch other professors, creating opportunities for “learning from each other,” according to Anant Agarwal, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT.
Ng sees great potential for Coursera in educators’ professional development. “An interesting thing about universities: Most professors don’t know how [the same type of] courses are taught at other universities,” he notes. With Coursera, “I’m watching other professors’ lectures as well and learning from them…[I’m] watching their teaching, thereby learning to improve pedagogy as well.”
In addition to the cost advantage for learners, Ng says online courses create opportunities as partner universities experiment with flipping classrooms and raise a another question. “As video content [is put] online, what is the value of attending a top-tier university? The real value of top universities is in the interaction. Professors are flipping their classrooms to preserve classroom time for interactions. This improves education for everyone,” in the classroom and online.
Khan Academy, www.khanacademy.org
MIT’s OpenCourseWare, http://ocw.mit.edu