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The Future of Universities is Here July 19, 2012

Posted by Andre Vellino in Open Access, Universities.

An impressive list of 16 universities (including the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne and the University of Edinburgh) have now signed up with Coursera to offer free on-line courses.  I audited one a few months ago on Natural Language Processing (from Stanford) to see what it was like – it was stunningly good.

My very first thought was “the future of conventional universities is in doubt“. This course alone had 42,000 registrants, 24,000 of which watched at least one video. Only 1,400 of the registrants got a “certificate of achievement” (i.e. completed the course and handed in all the assignments) but in the meantime there were 800,000 video-downloads of the courseware.

Distance-learning or on-line courses have been around for a long time – in the same way that “finger”, “who” and “chat” in Unix had been around a long time before Facebook, Linked-In and Instant Messaging.  The difference now is that major Universities are jumping on the bandwagon and offering them for free.  Why? Perhaps because of decreasing enrolment: free on-line courses are a way to recruit students from everywhere and to show them the best of what universities have to offer.

But also (in the US anyway), education is a business (see the Frontline documentary on the business of higher education: College Inc.)  That universities are feeling the financial pinch and being pressed by their boards to be more agressive in the marketplace was perhaps most visibly illustrated at the University of Virginia (the case against on-line education is elegantly articulated by Mark Edmundson – a professor of English at the University of Virginia – in a New York Times OpEd article).

Making courses on-line available for free will be a moneymaker when they start counting towards a degree, which clearly inevitable in the long run. However, I didn’t expect this development to come so soon after the beginning of the experiment. The Seattle Times reported just yesterday that the University of Washington is going to be offering some of their Coursera courses for credit.

Canada, in the meantime, has its own Canadian Virtual University which lists over 2,000 courses and 300 degrees and diplomas available on-line. The difference with Coursera is that the CVU is not free.

Anyone see any parallels with the publishing industry here?


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