The 60 million dollar (online) university

TV-watchers of my generation will remember “The 6 Million Dollar Man”. After an accident he had been rebuilt with robotic parts, and as a result he had super-human strength and abilities. Now we’ve got the 60 million dollar online university. That’s the price tag on the new joint venture of EdX, a partnership between The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University to offer online learning to anyone with an internet connection. EdX will supply Harvard and MIT classes online for free. According to Anant Agarwal, edX President, “There is a revolution in Boston and beyond that has to do with a pen and a mouse…online education will change the world.” The vision is that the experimental online experience “is designed to improve, not replace, the campus experience.”

David Brooks, of the New York Times, reminds us that online education is not new, but predicts there will be a “campus tsunami.” Sure enough, just days after the EdX announcement, Purdue University joined the ranks of universities that are experimenting with online courses. PurdueHUB-U promises modular on line courses with video lectures, interactive visualizations, and tools for students to interact with their peers and the professor. The project’s leaders hope it will improve face-to-face classes and bring in revenue by attracting students around the world.

Purdue doesn’t have the deep pockets of Harvard-MIT. According to Purdue’spress release, their initiative will be seeded with $2 million over four years. They predict that it will break even, with revenue covering expenses, within five years.

As we watch the tsunami from Canada, how should we respond?

For starters, we should pay attention to the price tag. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, other elite universities, including Columbia, Yale, Princeton and Stanford, attempted online-education programs but closed these after experiencing financial woes. If Harvard and MIT think it will take $60 million to make online learning work, can others invest less?

The opportunity for anyone to take courses from two of the most prestigious universities in the world is amazing. And for free? The price-tag couldn’t be better. (No cheap shots at my frugalness, please.)

Yet while Harvard and MIT are world-class institutions, they do not have a monopoly on the best university instructors. We need to make sure that we seek out the best wherever it is, and not simply focus on the biggest names.

At the same time, the opportunity to use great lessons to enhance the K-12 classroom is amazing. And I love that both universities have made a commitment to use Ed-X as a research opportunity to improve their teaching on campus.

This I know for sure. Great schools will always need great teachers. In the past, great teachers worked hard to find great resources. Thanks to Khan Academy, Harvard and MIT, and undoubtedly others who enter the fray, teachers will have easy access to great resources, for free. (Did I mention the free part?)

What does the future hold for teaching? I believe that there will always be value in old fashioned, face-to-face learning environments where teachers and students learn together in classrooms and other co-curricular programs. The good teachers will find the great resources.

But the best teachers will use them to enhance teaching and learning for students.

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