Can free online courses transform higher education?

Can free online courses transform higher education?

When Bilal Shah got his doctorate in computer science from the University of Southern California back in 2010, the job market wasn’t exactly welcoming. “I graduated into the Great Recession. Nothing would test my mettle more,” says Shah.

Around that time, he heard about a free massive online open course (MOOC) on machine learning – a branch of artificial intelligence related to the design of certain computer algorithms – taught by Stanford’s Andrew Ng. Since Shah had plenty of spare time, he gave it a try. Every morning for three months, he sat in a local cafe, drinking coffee and watching lectures on his laptop. He took quizzes, did programing assignments and checked his work on the course’s online discussion board. “It was an easy, convenient way to learn something new,” notes Shah, who is in his early 30s.

Soon after getting certification from the class, he landed a job interview with ID Analytics, the San Diego-based identity fraud and credit risk modelling company. “They prodded my knowledge [of machine learning] and they could tell I knew the material well,” he says. “I got the job. It was a great feeling.”

Amid a sputtering recovery that has shone a spotlight on the dearth of qualified workers in particular segments of the economy, many in the business community view MOOCs as a key part of the solution. And at a time when rising college costs and growing income inequality occupy the national debate, some say the platforms that offer MOOCs could potentially transform higher education. Giving millions of students around the world access to high quality classes could help shrink the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

A number of start-ups and prominent colleges have recently gotten in on the game. Coursera, an online learning system created by Ng and Daphne Koller, both Stanford computer scientists, has partnerships with four universities: Stanford, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton. Coursera delivers MOOCs in maths, science and the humanities. Udacity, another online education company, launched in February by Sebastian Thrun, a former Stanford professor, offers MOOCs mainly in computer programing and software design. Harvard and MIT recently announced edX, a joint online education partnership, which begins classes in spring.

“Higher education will change; the system is unstable,” says Kevin Werbach, a Wharton legal studies and business ethics professor, who is teaching a MOOC on Coursera this summer. “It’s an industry that will be in severe turmoil in the next decade. There are so many schools in distress, and the student loan burden is [huge]. In that environment, online platforms like Coursera are an interesting opportunity.”

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