Date: Dec 9, 2012 6:44 PM
Author: Jerry P. Becker
Subject: College Is Dead. Long Live College!
From Time Magazine, Thursday, October 18, 2012.
College Is Dead. Long Live College!
By Amanda Ripley
On Sept. 17, the Pakistani government shut down
access to YouTube. The purported reason was to
block the anti-Muslim film trailer that was
inciting protests around the world.
One little-noticed consequence of this decision
was that 215 people in Pakistan suddenly lost
their seats in a massive, open online physics
course. The free college-level class, created by
a Silicon Valley start-up called Udacity,
included hundreds of short YouTube videos
embedded on its website. Some 23,000 students
worldwide had enrolled, including Khadijah Niazi,
a pigtailed 11-year-old in Lahore. She was on
question six of the final exam when she
encountered a curt message saying "this site is
SIDEBAR: Can Online Mega Courses Change
Education? -- See
Niazi was devastated. She'd worked hard to master
this physics class before her 12th birthday, just
one week away. Now what? Niazi posted a lament on
the class discussion board: "I am very angry, but
I will not quit."
In every country, education changes so slowly
that it can be hard to detect progress. But what
happened next was truly different. Within an
hour, Maziar Kosarifar, a young man taking the
class in Malaysia, began posting detailed
descriptions for Niazi of the test questions in
each video. Rosa Brigída, a novice physics
professor taking the class from Portugal, tried
to create a workaround so Niazi could bypass
YouTube; it didn't work. From England, William,
12, promised to help and warned Niazi not to
write anything too negative about her government
None of these students had met one another in
person. The class directory included people from
125 countries. But after weeks in the class,
helping one another with Newton's laws, friction
and simple harmonic motion, they'd started to
feel as if they shared the same carrel in the
library. Together, they'd found a passageway into
a rigorous, free, college-level class, and they
weren't about to let anyone lock it up.
By late that night, the Portuguese professor had
successfully downloaded all the videos and then
uploaded them to an uncensored photo-sharing
site. It took her four hours, but it worked. The
next day, Niazi passed the final exam with the
highest distinction. "Yayyyyyyy," she wrote in a
new post. (Actually, she used 43 y's, but you get
the idea.) She was the youngest girl ever to
complete Udacity's Physics 100 class, a
challenging course for the average college
That same day, Niazi signed up for Computer
Science 101 along with her twin brother Muhammad.
In England, William began downloading the videos
High-End Learning on the Cheap
The hype about online learning is older than
Niazi. In the late 1990s, Cisco CEO John Chambers
predicted that "education over the Internet is
going to be so big, it is going to make e-mail
usage look like a rounding error." There was just
one problem: online classes were not, generally
speaking, very good. To this day, most are dry,
uninspired affairs, consisting of a patchwork of
online readings, written Q&As and low-budget
lecture videos. Many students nevertheless pay
hundreds of dollars for these classes - 3 in 10
college students report taking at least one
online course, up from 1 in 10 in 2003 - but
afterward, most are no better off than they would
have been at their local community college.
Now, several forces have aligned to revive the
hope that the Internet (or rather, humans using
the Internet from Lahore to Palo Alto, Calif.)
may finally disrupt higher education - not by
simply replacing the distribution method but by
reinventing the actual product. New technology,
from cloud computing to social media, has
dramatically lowered the costs and increased the
odds of creating a decent online education
platform. In the past year alone, start-ups like
Udacity, Coursera and edX - each with an
elite-university imprimatur - have put 219
college-level courses online, free of charge.
Many traditional colleges are offering classes
and even entire degree programs online. Demand
for new skills has reached an all-time high.
People on every continent have realized that to
thrive in the modern economy, they need to be
able to think, reason, code and calculate at
higher levels than before.
TABLE OF FREE MOOCs -- Ivy League for the
Masses. See and scoll down
At the same time, the country that led the world
in higher education is now leading its youngest
generation into a deep hole. According to the
Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Americans owe
some $914 billion in student loans; other
estimates say the total tops $1 trillion. That's
more than the nation's entire credit-card debt.
On average, a college degree still pays for
itself (and then some) over the course of a
career. But about 40% of students at four-year
colleges do not manage to get that degree within
six years. Regardless, student loans have to be
repaid; unlike other kinds of debt, they
generally cannot be shed in bankruptcy. The
government can withhold tax refunds and garnish
paychecks until it gets its money back - stifling
young people's options and their spending power.
For all that debt, Americans are increasingly
unsure about what they are getting. Three
semesters of college education have a "barely
noticeable" impact on critical thinking, complex
reasoning and writing skills, according to
research published in the 2011 book Academically
Adrift. In a new poll sponsored by TIME and the
Carnegie Corporation of New York, 80% of the
1,000 U.S. adults surveyed said that at many
colleges, the education students receive is not
worth what they pay for it. And 41% of the 540
college presidents and senior administrators
surveyed agreed with them.
SIDEBAR: MORE: TIME/Carnegie's Higher Education
Poll - See
Arriving at this perilous intersection of high
demand, uneven supply and absurd prices are
massive open online courses (endowed with the
unfortunate acronym MOOCs), which became
respectable this year thanks to investments from
big-name brands like Harvard, Stanford and MIT.
Venture capitalists have taken a keen interest
too, and the business model is hard to resist:
the physics class Niazi was taking cost only
about $2 per student to produce.
Already, the hyperventilating has outpaced
reality; desperate parents are praying that free
online universities will finally pop the tuition
bubble - and nervous college officials don't want
to miss out on a potential gold rush. The signs
of change are everywhere, and so are the signs of
panic. This spring, Harvard and MIT put $60
million into a nonprofit MOOC (rhymes with duke)
venture called edX. A month later, the president
of the University of Virginia abruptly stepped
down - and was then quickly reinstated - after an
anxious board member read about other
universities' MOOCs in the Wall Street Journal.
One way or another, it seems likely that more
people will eventually learn more for less money.
Finally. The next question might be, Which people
How the Brain Learns
This fall, to glimpse the future of higher
education, I visited classes in brick-and-mortar
colleges and enrolled in half a dozen MOOCs. I
dropped most of the latter because they were not
very good. Or rather, they would have been fine
in person, nestled in a 19th century hall at
Princeton University, but online, they could not
compete with the other distractions on my
I stuck with the one class that held my
attention, the physics class offered by Udacity.
I don't particularly like physics, which is why
I'd managed to avoid studying it for the previous
38 years. What surprised me was the way the class
was taught. It was designed according to how the
brain actually learns. In other words, it had
almost nothing in common with most classes I'd
Minute 1: Physics 100 began with a whirling video
montage of Italy, slow-motion fountains and boys
playing soccer on the beach. It felt a little
odd, like Rick Steves' Physics, but it was a huge
improvement over many other online classes I
sampled, which started with a poorly lit
professor staring creepily into a camera.
When the Udacity professor appeared, he looked as
if he were about 12; in fact, he was all of 25.
"I'm Andy Brown, the instructor for this course,
and here we are, on location in Siracusa, Italy!"
He had a crew cut and an undergraduate degree
from MIT; he did not have a Ph.D. or tenure,
which would turn out to be to his advantage.
"This course is really designed for anyone In
Unit 1, we're going to begin with a question that
fascinated the Greeks: How big is our planet?" To
answer this question, Brown had gone to the
birthplace of Archimedes, a mathematician who had
tried to answer the same question over 2,000
Minute 4: Professor Brown asked me a question.
"What did the Greeks know?" The video stopped,
patiently waiting for me to choose one of the
answers, a task that actually required some
thought. This happened every three minutes or so,
making it difficult for me to check my e-mail or
otherwise disengage - even for a minute.
"You got it right!" The satisfaction of correctly
answering these questions was surprising. (One
MOOC student I met called it "gold-star
methadone.") The questions weren't easy, either.
I got many of them wrong, but I was allowed to
keep trying until I got the gold-star fix.
SIDEBAR: GRAPHIC: Degrees of Difficulty -
Tuition keeps rising, but so does the need for
more graduates -- See
Humans like immediate feedback, which is one
reason we like games. Researchers know a lot
about how the brain learns, and it's shocking how
rarely that knowledge influences our education
system. Studies of physics classes in particular
have shown that after completing a traditional
class, students can recite Newton's laws and
maybe even do some calculations, but they cannot
apply the laws to problems they haven't seen
before. They've memorized the information, but
they haven't learned it - much to their teachers'
In a study published in the journal Science in
2011, a group of researchers conducted an
experiment on a large undergraduate physics class
at the University of British Columbia. For a
week, one section of the class received its
normal lecture from a veteran, highly rated
professor; another section was taught by
inexperienced graduate students using strategies
developed from research into human cognition.
Those strategies mirrored those in Udacity's
class. The students worked in small groups to
solve problems with occasional guidance from the
instructor. They got frequent feedback. In the
experimental group with novice instructors,
attendance increased 20% and students did twice
as well on an end-of-week test.
Minute 8: Professor Brown explained that Plato
had also tried (and failed) to estimate the
earth's circumference. Brown did this by jotting
notes on a simple white screen. Like all the
other videos in the course, this clip lasted only
a few minutes. This too reflects how the brain
learns. Studies of college students have shown
that they can focus for only 10 to 18 minutes
before their minds begin to drift; that's when
their brains need to do something with new
information - make a connection or use it to
solve a problem.
At this point in the Udacity class, three video
clips into the experience, about 15,000 students
were still paying attention, according to the
company's metrics. But that's actually high for a
MOOC. (Since it requires little effort and no
cost to enroll, lots of people dip in and out of
these classes out of curiosity. Only 1 in 10 of
those enrolled in a Udacity class typically makes
it all the way to a course's last video.) Like
most other online classes, it was asynchronous,
so I could rewind or leave and come back whenever
I wanted. This also accords with how the brain
works: humans like autonomy. If they learn best
late at night, they like to learn at night, on
their own terms.
Minute 57: After 47 fast-paced videos spliced
with pop quizzes, I did actually know how big the
earth was. Brown had reviewed geometry and
trigonometry with examples from actual life. And
when it came time to put it all together, I got
to see him measure a shadow that formed a right
triangle, setting up a mathematical proportion to
calculate the circumference of the earth, just
like an ancient mathematician.
"Congratulations!" he said. "This is really
incredible, what you can do now." Then he asked
the class to send in videos of themselves
measuring shadows. I was skeptical. Would people
actually do this?
Yes, they would. The first video was from a young
woman in Tampere, Finland - a drummer who wanted
to change her career. There she was, with yellow
dreadlocks, measuring a shadow in a parking lot.
Another woman submitted photos of herself
completing the experiment in Texas, plus a poem.
A poem! "We solve for C, and long at last/ stalk
a route into our own past."
The Finn cheered. "Super artistic!" Brown showed
the poem around the Udacity office. One student
did the experiment at 0 degrees latitude in
Ecuador. Many more people posted questions;
within minutes, they got detailed, helpful
answers from other students. It was as if a whole
pop-up learning community had materialized
overnight, and it was strangely alive.
Turning Down Professors
When he was a tenured professor at Stanford,
Sebastian Thrun, the CEO and co-founder of
Udacity, did not teach according to how the brain
learns. He is not proud of this fact. "I followed
established wisdom," he says. His students, who
were used to traditional lectures, gave him high
marks on his course evaluations. They didn't know
what they were missing.
In 2011 Thrun and fellow professor Peter Norvig
decided to put their Artificial Intelligence
class online. But when they sampled other online
courses, they realized that most of them were
mediocre. To captivate students from afar, they
would need to do something different. So they
started planning lessons that would put the
student at the center of everything. They created
a series of problems for students to solve so
that they had to learn by doing, not by listening.
By last fall, 160,000 people had enrolled. But
the class was not particularly inspiring - at
first. One student complained that the software
allowed students to try each problem only once.
"I realized, 'Wow, I'm setting students up for
failure in my obsession to grade them,' " says
Thrun. So he changed the software to let students
try and try until they got it right. He also paid
attention to the data, and he had a lot of it.
When tens of thousands of students all got the
same quiz problem wrong, he realized that the
question was not clear, and he changed it. And
the students themselves transformed other parts
of the class, building online playgrounds to
practice what they were learning and even
translating the class into 44 languages.
Meanwhile, Thrun had told his Stanford students
they could take the class online if they didn't
want to attend lectures. More than three-quarters
of them did so, viewing the videos from their
dorms and participating as if they were thousands
of miles away. Then something remarkable
happened. On the midterm, the Stanford students
scored a full letter grade higher on average than
students had in previous years. They seemed to be
learning more when they learned online. The same
bump happened after they took the final.
SIDEBAR: MORE: Reinventing College -- SEE
Still, the Stanford students were not the stars
of the class. At the end of the semester, not one
of the course's 400 top performers had a Stanford
The experience forced Thrun to rethink everything
he knew about teaching, and he built Udacity upon
this reordering of the universe. Unlike Coursera,
another for-profit MOOC provider - which has
partnered with dozens of schools, including
Stanford, Princeton and, more recently, the
University of Virginia - Udacity selects, trains
and films the professors who teach its courses.
Since it launched in January, Udacity has turned
down about 500 professors who have volunteered to
teach, and it has canceled one course (a math
class that had already enrolled 20,000 students)
because of subpar quality.
Right now, most MOOC providers do not make a
profit. That can't continue forever. Udacity will
probably charge for its classes one day, Thrun
says, but he claims the price will stay very low;
if not, he predicts, a competitor will come along
and steal away his students.
Udacity does not offer a degree, since it's not
an accredited university. Students get a
ceremonial certificate in the form of a PDF.
Grades are based on the final exam. Students who
choose to take the final for Udacity's
computer-science course at an independent testing
center (for $89) can get transfer credits from
Colorado State University-Global Campus, an
Getting more colleges to accept transfer credits
would be nice, but in the longer term, Udacity
aims to cut out the middleman and go straight to
employers. This week, Udacity announced that six
companies, including Google and Microsoft, are
sponsoring classes in skills that are in short
supply, from programming 3-D graphics to building
apps for Android phones.
Meanwhile, about 3,000 students have signed up
for Udacity's employer-connection program,
allowing their CVs to be shared with 350
companies. Employers pay Udacity a fee for any
hires made through this service. So far, about 20
students have found work partly through Udacity's
help, Thrun says. Tamir Duberstein, 24, who
studied mechanical engineering in Ontario,
recently got two job offers after completing six
Udacity courses. He took one of the offers and
now works at a software company in San Francisco.
Still, it will be a long time before companies
besides high-tech start-ups trust anything other
than a traditional degree. That's why hundreds of
thousands of people a year enroll in the
University of Phoenix, which most students attend
online. Says University of Phoenix spokesman Ryan
Rauzon: "They need a degree, and that isn't going
to change anytime soon."
MOOCs vs. the College Campus
To compare my online experience with a
traditional class, I dropped into a physics
course at Georgetown University, the opposite of
a MOOC. Georgetown admitted only 17% of
applicants last fall and, with annual tuition of
$42,360, charges the equivalent of about $4,200
The university's large lecture course for
introductory physics accommodates 150 to 200
students, who receive a relatively traditional
classroom experience - which is to say, one not
designed according to how the brain learns. The
professor, who is new to the course, declined to
let me visit.
But Georgetown did allow me to observe Physics
151, an introductory class for science majors,
and I soon understood why. This class was
impressively nontraditional. Three times a week,
the professor delivered a lecture, but she paused
every 15 minutes to ask a question, which her 34
students contemplated, discussed and then
answered using handheld clickers that let her
assess their understanding. There was a weekly
lab - an important component missing from the
Udacity class. The students also met once a week
with a teaching assistant who gave them problems
designed to trip them up and had them work in
small groups to grapple with the concepts.
The class felt like a luxury car: exquisitely
wrought and expensive. Fittingly, it met in a
brand-new, state-of-the-art $100 million science
center that included 12 teaching labs, six
student lounges and a café. It was like going to
a science spa.
Elite universities like Georgetown are unlikely
to go away in the near future, as even Udacity's
co-founder (and Stanford alum) David Stavens
concedes. "I think the top 50 schools are
probably safe," he says. "There's a magic that
goes on inside a university campus that, if you
can afford to live inside that bubble, is
Where does that leave the rest of the country's
4,400 degree-granting colleges? After all, only a
fifth of freshmen actually live on a residential
campus. Nearly half attend community colleges.
Many never experience dorm life, let alone
science spas. To return to reality, I visited the
University of the District of Columbia (UDC) - a
school that, like many other colleges, is not
ranked by U.S. News & World Report.
When I arrived at the UDC life-sciences building,
I met Professor Daryao Khatri, who has been
teaching for 37 years and yet seemed genuinely
excited to get to his first day of class in a new
"They hate physics," he said about his students,
smiling. "You will see. They are terrified." He
led me to his classroom, a lab with fluorescent
lights and a dull yellow linoleum floor. His 20
students were mostly young adults with day jobs,
which is why they were going to school at night.
Many hoped to go to medical school one day, and
they needed to take physics to get there.
Khatri started the class by asking the students
to introduce themselves. "I took physics in high
school," said one woman, a biology major, "and it
was the hardest class I ever had."
"I'm about to change that!" Khatri shouted.
Another young woman said, "I took calculus
online, and it was just awful." It felt more like
a support group than a college course. Then
Khatri detailed his rules for the class. "Please
turn the cell phones off," he said in a friendly
voice. "Not on vibrate. I will know. I will take
it away. Cell phones are a big disaster for the
Khatri had less than one-half of 1% of the
students that Professor Brown had on Udacity, but
he was helping them with many skills beyond
physics. He was cultivating discipline and focus,
rebuilding confidence and nurturing motivation.
"Please complain if you aren't learning," he said
more than once.
After a full hour of introductions and
expectations, Khatri started reviewing geometry
and trigonometry so that the students would have
enough basic math to begin. He did this in far
more detail than Brown had on Udacity, and it was
clear from their questions that many of the
students needed this help. As with most other
Americans, their math and science background was
spotty, with big holes in important places. For
the next hour, Khatri called on every student to
answer questions and solve problems; just as on
Udacity, they couldn't zone out for long.
Three weeks later, I returned to Khatri's class.
He was about a week behind the Udacity pace, and
his quizzes were easier. But not a single student
had dropped his class. And when I asked a group
of students if they would ever take this class
online, they answered in unison: "No way."
At this stage, most MOOCs work well for students
who are self-motivated and already fairly well
educated. Worldwide, the poorest students still
don't have the background (or the Internet
bandwidth) to participate in a major way. Thrun
and his MOOC competitors may be setting out to
democratize education, but it isn't going to
What is going to happen tomorrow? It seems likely
that very selective - and very unselective -
colleges will continue to thrive. At their best
(and I was only allowed to witness their best,
it's worth noting), Georgetown and UDC serve a
purpose in a way that cannot easily be replicated
online. The colleges in the middle, though -
especially the for-profit ones that are expensive
but not particularly prestigious - will need to
work harder to justify their costs.
Ideally, Udacity and other MOOC providers will
help strip away all the distractions of higher
education - the brand, the price and the
facilities - and remind all of us that education
is about learning. In addition to putting
downward pressure on student costs, it would be
nice if MOOCs put upward pressure on teaching
By mid-October, YouTube remained dark in
Pakistan, and the power blinked out for about
four hours a day at Niazi's home in Lahore. But
she had made it halfway through Computer Science
101 anyway, with help from her classmates.
Niazi loved MOOCs more than her own school, and
she wished she could spend all day learning from
Andy Brown. But when I asked her if she would get
her degree from Udacity University, if such a
thing were possible, she demurred. She had a
dream, and it was made of bricks. "I would still
want to go to Oxford or Stanford," she said. "I
would love to really meet my teachers in person
and learn with the whole class and make
friends-instead of being there in spirit."
Ripley, a TIME contributing writer, is an Emerson
Fellow at the New America Foundation, where she
is writing a book about education around the world
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244