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The Brave New World of Online Education

Paris.

A few weeks ago, I decided to apply to go back to college–to one of the 20 top liberal arts colleges in America. It turned out to be deceptively simple: No SAT exams, no mammoth tuition fees, no huge student loans, no nail-biting wait to see if I was admitted.

I simply signed up and now I’m now taking a course at Wesleyan given by Michael Roth the President of the University, a brilliant, entertaining lecturer, an expert, among other things on the Enlightenment and  Modernist thought.

The current fees for tuition and housing at Wesleyan are about $60,000 a year. I’m taking this course for free.

Wesleyan is located in Middletown Connecticut. I’m taking the course in my home office in Paris. Professor Roth is not here on sabbatical. He’s on my computer screen. Whenever I want him.

The course is a product of a brave new world of education called MOOC, which stands for Massive On Line Courses. Massive indeed. I was one of more than 25,000 students across the globe, of all ages, all nationalities, all with different goals, who signed up to take this course which began last month.

This could be the beginning of an enormous revolution in education. Or maybe just a very glitzy but ultimately ineffectual technology.  Rather than write about it from the outside. I decided to sign up for a course myself.

I logged on to the site of Coursera, a startup founded just a year ago by two Stanford University professors, which now has more than three million students taking 320 university courses in 210 countries.

I scrolled through the catalogue of hundreds of on-line courses offered by professors from Stanford to Cal Tech to Duke to the University of Pennsylvania—Astronomy, Advanced Calculus, Marketing, Music, Art, Creative Writing, Computer Engineering.

One survey course given by Wesleyan University caught my fancy: “Modernism and Post Modernism”.

We’d be covering the likes of Kant, Marx, Manet, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, Virginia Woolf, and so on. The last time I’d been confronted with such a challenging intellectual array was in college fifty years ago. To my shame, I’ve shied away from such reading ever since.

The course would be starting in a few days. It would run for fourteen weeks.

Signing up on line took about two minutes.

We’re now a little more than half way through the course, and it’s been great. I’m already recommending it to friends.  There’s nothing to lose but your own time.

This is the way it works: Ever Monday, Professor Roth uploads an hour’s video lecture to the course site, the lecture is usually split into four 15 minute segments.  Whenever they choose, course members simply log on, download a segment, and watch it on their PC’s or laptops or iPads or whatever.

We’re not in the classroom with the professor, true. Many years ago, my father paid a pile so I could study at a top ivy-league university. I sat in cavernous lecture halls, often with hundreds of other students, listening to different Great Minds on the podium, scribbling notes as I tried to stay awake and keep up, jotting something down even if I wasn’t sure I understood it. I had precious little personal contact with those Great Minds.

I also take notes as Professor Roth talks. He’s on the screen just in front of me, most of the time, full-frame, dynamic, entertaining, comparing Emmanuel Kant with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, reading poetry by Baudelaire, analyzing Sigmund Freud.

But if I drift off or the telephone rings, and I need to review what he’s said–no problem. I put the professor on pause, go back a couple of minutes and play it again.

I also download written material—essays or articles or books by the figures we are covering that week. That material is also free.

True, most university courses usually break down into sections, giving students the chance to discuss what they’re studying face-to-face, directly with teaching assistants and each other.

There’s no such possibility with the kind of massive online course I’m taking. Nor can we go personally to the professor at the end of class or during office hours to ask our penetrating questions.

On the other hand, there is an on-line discussion forum that any of us, from anywhere on the planet, can log on to and create a new “thread” related to the material we’re studying.

Some threads are predictably pedestrian. Others, more provocative. “What would Karl Marx have thought of the Arab Spring?”

The obvious interest and maturity of many such threads keeps me reading, thinking, and commenting myself. With some of my fellow students, a bond is already forming.

Several threads were launched by students looking to hookup with others from their area to form their own study groups—from India, New York City, Seattle, Bulgaria, Melbourne, Turkey, Iran. There are Spanish-speaking and Russian-speaking groups, but the most active is : “the Online, Older Study Group.”

What about exams or tests? There are 8 written assignments, limited to a maximum of 800 words, the subject given by Professor Roth at the beginning of the week; the essay due about five days later.

I do a lot of blogging, but I was surprised by how warily I approached the task of writing a cogent 800-word essay about such daunting figures as Darwin, Flaubert, or Nietzsche.

Because of the thousands of people taking the course, there is no way that Professor Roth and his two teaching assistants can grade the mountain of essays. So, we grade each other.

After submitting our own essay, I download the essays of three other students. I have no way of knowing who they are, but, furnished with instructions on how to evaluate them,  I proceed to pass judgment. I probably learn as much by agonizing over the essays of my peers as by writing my own assignments.

I was also surprised by the tightening in my gut as I logged on to the site to find out what kind of marks my own essay received.

In a breathless blog, Coursera has just notified me that, though their company is less than a year old, students around the world have now signed up fro a “staggering 10 million courses.”

What Coursera doesn’t say, is that, though millions may sign up for free courses, millions also drop out before finishing. Of the 25,000 who signed up for the course I’m currently taking, probably only about 10% will finish.

Where is this phenomenon headed? If the courses are free, how can Coursera and the universities who are flooding into this market make money?

What’s in it for them? What’s really in it for the students?

And how am I going to deal with the essay I’m supposed to write on Freud and Virginia Woolf?

BARRY LANDO is a former producer for 60 Minutes who now lives in Paris. He can be reached at: barrylando@gmail.com or through his website.

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BARRY LANDO is a former producer for 60 Minutes. He is the author of  “Deep Strike” a novel about Russian hacking, rogue CIA agents, and a new American president. He can be reached at: barrylando@gmail.com or through his website.

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