“Higher education is at a crossroads not seen since the introduction of the printing press.” So begins an op-ed written by L. Rafael Reif in the Wall Street Journal today. “Just as edX, Coursera, Udacity and other online-learning platforms are beginning to offer the teaching of great universities at low or no cost, residential education’s long-simmering financial problem is reaching a crisis point.”

The author doesn’t use the phrase “existential crisis,” as did Helen Dragas, the much-maligned Rector of the University of Virginia, to describe the Board of Visitors’ thinking when it demanded the resignation of President Teresa Sullivan (since reinstated). But he sure does a good job of summarizing the thinking that informed Dragas’ argument that higher ed had reached an inflection point.

And who is this this presumptuous pundit who dares lecture administrators and faculty who know far more about running a university than rich, fad-chasing dilettantes like Helen Dragas? Why, he’s the newly inaugurated president of MIT, one of the top-tier institutions driving the online revolution.

My key takeaway from Reif’s piece is how rapidly online learning is progressing. Universities have long shared some of their course content, but only in the last year, he says, have they developed technology that lets them “actually teach in an interactive format designed specifically for online learning.” Reif eviscerates the conceit that online learning can never replace the “face-to-face learning” — profs addressing students in lecture halls — that takes place in a traditional campus setting. Last year when MIT offered a course on Circuits and Electronics, 150,000 people from 160 countries signed up, he says.

The network of students that came together around [the course] was so powerful that the course’s instructor stopped his teaching assistants from answering questions in the online forum. The students had said they learned the material better when they helped each other out.

Reif wants to preserve the residential college experience, but he suggests that can be done only by radically re-thinking the professor’s role in teaching a course. He describes how online learning has “flipped the classroom” — putting students in front of faculty only after they are prepared by material they have learned online on their own schedule and at their own pace. “Instead of being one of 200 people sitting for a lecture, a student is in the same room with a professor in order to have meaningful back-and-forth exchanges.”

The MIT president also sees online educating demolishing the financial model of traditional higher ed. MIT’s edX learning platform will offer, for a small fee, credentials for learners who demonstrate mastery of a given course. MIT’s value-add for students at the MIT campus is the opportunity to interact with some of the world’s best faculty members after they have mastered the basic material.

Not everyone is smart enough to get into MIT and not everyone could afford the tuition, even if they were. What will evolve, I predict, is a hybrid learning experience in which people will enroll in courses designed and taught by professors from MIT, Harvard, Stanford, UVa — and even some independents — in order to gain the core knowledge, which they will supplement by means of face-to-face interaction in “flipped classrooms.”

That model will create tremendous opportunities for the elite universities that design the courses, and it will create tremendous opportunities for anyone — community colleges, career schools, etc. — who can provide the “flipped classroom” experience while either (a) under-pricing traditional colleges and universities or (b) serving non-residential students who squeeze in their courses around work and family.

Here in Virginia, the question is whether we want to be early adapters who benefit from the most significant innovation in higher ed “since the printing press,” or will we be on the receiving of change.

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  1. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    Jim picked out the key quote: “The network of students that came together around [the course] was so powerful that the course’s instructor stopped his teaching assistants from answering questions in the online forum. The students had said they learned the material better when they helped each other out.”

    The hugely expanded classroom that brings with it many highly talented (indeed brilliant) learners who will enter the classroom after they’ve absorbed the basics of the subject will turbo-charge Learning for the highly capable. Learning will explode. The University’s challenge (and that of the Professor) then will be staying on the back of the Unleashed Tiger.

    In this exciting and scary time for Higher Education, many Old habits will prove deadly. For the quick and nimble, opportunity abounds, on both sides of the Lectern.

  2. I found this to be provocative: ” …and even some independents”

    If you have a credentialing entity that is independent from the Universities do that then empower “independent” professors?

    I don’t know that I’d call this an existential threat as much as I would call it almost infinite opportunity independent of geography.

    And if Americans keep running away from STEM education – the online revolution is going to allow others to eclipse our kids in the world competition for global jobs.

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