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Education en masse

Technology | Major universities jump onto the online-class juggernaut

Issue: "School choice," Aug. 25, 2012

"Introduction to Logic." "Artificial Intelligence Planning." "Greek and Roman Mythology." "Algorithms, Part 1."

Those are just a few of the online courses you can now take-for free-from Stanford, Princeton, Duke, and other big-name universities. This spring and summer more than a dozen schools teamed up with Coursera, a company that runs a web-based education platform, to provide more than 100 internet-based classes. Co-founded by two Stanford professors, Coursera enrolled more than 600,000 students in its initial classes, most of them from outside the United States. The free courses don't provide credit (students get a certificate of completion instead), although the University of Washington plans to offer credit for a fee.

The classes are what educators have dubbed "massive open online courses." The acronym MOOC is a new buzzword among those who believe online learning will reinvent 21st-century education.

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In Coursera classes, reinvention looks like this: Thousands of students enroll in a single class, such as "Introduction to Astronomy," and access media and homework assignments on the web. A professor explains concepts in online videos, which automatically pause about every 10 minutes so software can quiz students and gauge retention. Students interact and ask questions of each other online, and in some cases will even grade one another's work, using guidelines created by the professor.

Some professors are excited about increasing their "class" size to tens of thousands of students. But others believe online teaching is inferior to a classroom setting, and point out that online students are prone to drop out (only a fraction of students who enrolled in a pilot MOOC last year went on to finish).

Coursera, along with competitors like edX and Udacity, still needs to prove the MOOC experiment can succeed. Coursera currently has no revenue stream-yet universities are jumping into the game, sensing an inevitable trend toward online education.

The board of the University of Virginia forced school president Teresa Sullivan to resign in June partly because, board emails suggested, she hadn't done enough to adapt the school to online learning. After students and faculty protested, Sullivan got her job back, but within three weeks she gave approval for four university classes to be offered through Coursera.

"There are still many unknowns for us to study concerning the long-term impact of this form of online teaching," she said. "But it's critical for [our school] to be in on the ground floor so that we can learn along with our peers what the future holds."

Browsing for votes

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In the first national poll examining political "microtargeting," researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that 86 percent of Americans disapproved of "political advertising tailored to your interests." Two-thirds said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who buys information about their online activities.

In fact, both presidential candidates do so, though they won't say to what extent. Specialists from both campaigns likely buy digital profiles from Microsoft, Yahoo, and internet advertisers to learn individual computer users' voter registration status, donation history, age, or browsing habits. They might then display an online ad about a candidate's energy policy to one person, for instance, and an ad about reproductive rights to another. - Daniel James Devine

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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