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Online Higher Education

Microsoft Research Director Daniel Reed

The higher education community is abuzz with debates regarding massive open online courses (MOOCs) and distance education, fueled in no small part by the stunning response to Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig's online AI course at Stanford. (This and other courses have since become part of Udacity.) In turn, MIT's Open Courseware and online learning initiative, MITx, were the progenitors of edX, a joint venture between MIT and Harvard. Coursera and a consortium of twelve major universities also just announced a partnership to offer MOOCs. The Khan Academy has adopted a different model, emphasizing micro-lectures on thousands of topics. Since then, other public, private and non-profit institutions, not to mention pundits and commentators, have joined the fray.

Many of us have seen parts of this movie before, when new e-learning technologies were projected to transform higher education. Although no one died in a climactic car crash, a series of these technologies failed to deliver on their early promise.

At one time, CATV lectures for continuing education were common in the U.S. At Illinois, I remember PLATO, a much more ambitious experiment, which brought plasma displays, speech synthesis, touch screens and computer-aided instruction (CAI) to thousands of students in the 1970s and 1980s. This amazing set of technologies reshaped the lives of both students and developers, but it faded away. (See Mind to Mind: Building Innovation). Roughly twenty years later, we tried again, when a group of us at Illinois launched an Internet computer science master's program that targeted India. Alas, broadband limitations then constrained delivery to batch mode; a revised version of it continues today.

Each of these technologies and many others had their place, but none fundamentally reshaped the active lecturer, passive listener model that is the hallmark of most university courses. Today and tomorrow may be different, with nearly ubiquitous global broadband now available for delivery, a plethora of inexpensive consumer computing devices for consumption, and rich cloud services to host that content. In addition, the rise of social networks and crowdsourcing connecting geographically distributed groups has created cohesive intellectual communities.

Yet the other social, political and economic dynamics may be even more important. There is a growing public backlash against rising college tuition, there are persistent questions about the economic value of college degrees, and there is continuing demand for lifelong skills refresh as economic shifts eliminate job classes.

Like technological and cultural shifts, the online education issues are subtle and intertwined. Thus, it is instructive (how apt) to learn from the past. Heeding Santayana's dictum, there are lessons to be gleaned from another labor intensive, active-passive endeavor–musical performance–when a transformative technology was introduced, the lowly phonograph record. Let us begin with a bit of history.

Lessons from the Shellac 78s and Vinyl 45s

The year 1877 was an important demarcation line in the history of musical experiences and delivery. Thomas Edison perfected the cylindrical phonograph, later more widely popularized by Emile Berliner in the form of the gramophone record. In a testimony to the longevity of a successful technology, that format defined recorded music delivery for most of the 20th century.

Today, the time when music could only be heard live and locally seems like an era lost in the mists of pre-history, yet it was little more than a century ago. In short order, the widespread recording of individual musicians, groups and orchestras, and the subsequent rise of record contracts and distribution systems transformed the sociology and economics of music. For the first time, these recordings brought musical performances to diverse national and international audiences. A single performance could now be heard and reheard by millions of individuals at the times and places of their own choosing.

As a personal aside, I still remember the Victrola and 78 RPM records that belonged to my aunt. The Victrola was spring driven and powered by a crank on the side. The smell of the record sleeves, the heft and thickness of the shellac 78s, the scratchy sound, and sheen of the oil polish on the wooden cabinet are deeply imprinted.

Widespread record distribution and radio made some performers, later called recording artists, wealthy, international stars. Meanwhile, other musicians of equal or near equal skill, who did not secure recording contracts, were relegated to an economic and cultural netherworld of local performances and limited fame. During my teen years, the apotheosis of this highly bimodal distribution was AM Top 40 radio and Casey Kasem's American Top 40, along with the LP concept album.

Since then, musical genres have become ever more diverse and specialized, as new technology has allowed recording labels to target likeminded audiences, even if small in size. In turn, independent musicians have taken to the web, sometimes bypassing record labels and delivering music directly to their fans, all the while balancing income against size of fan base. Against this backdrop, digital content pirates and intellectual property advocates are locked in a technological and cultural battle around verification and access, payment, sharing and portability.

Educational Commodities

What are the parallels with the music industry and higher education? First, both musical performance and education began as "local and live." To experience a performance, one traditionally had little choice but to buy tickets (pay tuition) to see the musician (instructor) perform live. In both cases, the quality of the performance might vary widely with the skill of the performer, but the approbation and fame, or derision and complaints, were geographically bounded. Each city and region had its local performers and acolytes.

As I noted earlier, records and distribution systems changed this music production and consumption model profoundly. Truly successful musicians, defined by popularity and revenues, now have international reach and global distribution networks. They are megabrands with millions of followers. Via the web, even performers in esoteric musical genres have geographically distributed, albeit much smaller, audiences.

Online education has the same potential to transform a small number of instructors and institutions into megabrands, with hundreds of thousands of globally distributed students. It could also allow teachers of more esoteric material to reach global audiences. The question is culturally simple. As a student, would you rather take a required general education or specialty elective course from one of several internationally rated instructors and/or lauded scholars, or be constrained to the pedagogical skill and intellectual acumen of the professors at a single university?

Second, by making courses marketable commodities that can be purchased from multiple, non-local purveyors, the spatio-temporal constraints of only local delivery and consumption disappear, allowing students (customers) to purchase from a much wider palette. This has several important corollaries, some good and some not. We may be able to deliver higher quality content to more students and disseminate new knowledge more rapidly, including lifelong skills refresh. There is also the risk that diversity of pedagogical approaches and experimentation could be lost, that cross-disciplinary experiences could be more difficult to facilitate, or that linking research and education could more challenging.

It is likely, even possible, however, that many generic courses will become true commodities, with much less local value differentiation. After all, introductory courses such as chemistry 101 are similar at all institutions across the country. Disciplinary curriculum standards and accreditation bodies help assure this. Should such courses be replicated everywhere, or should a marketplace of consumer (student) choice determine which instances of these courses succeed?

This is not just a question for general education, but one that applies to computing as well. Introductory programming, algorithms and data structures and many of our other core curriculum courses are amenable to this approach. The advanced courses and seminars offered by highly respected faculty have potentially different dynamics, as Thrun and Norvig's AI course showed, but there are commonalities.

Without doubt, there are some "third rails" in this uncertain future, a few of which challenge the very nature of today's higher education model. These include certification and verification, branding and economics. Today, there are more questions than answers, which is why university leaders and trustees are so concerned and engaged.

Quo Vadis?

In addition to delivering content, our existing higher education structures and processes triage applicants for quality, validate student identities and certify (via testing) that graduates possess the knowledge and skills asserted. Yes, the true degree of competency varies widely across individual graduates, but the brand equity of the institutions is a qualitative standard (i.e., one knows what an MIT or Michigan degree connotes).

We have long passed the point when no one on the Internet knows if you are a dog. (See Remembering Internet Dogs for a bit of history.) Nevertheless, online certification and verification remain difficult issues, with some analogs to the ongoing debate around digital content piracy and free versus paid content access. How do we best verify online student capabilities and identities and confirm that the asserted identity corresponds to the individual completing the online coursework? In the old days of CATV education, onsite, proctored examinations were the solution.

On the economic front, what content should be freely available and what should be accessible only via fee? Perhaps more importantly, what are the economic implications for educational institutions and faculty? The true production costs of courses (e.g., history and engineering) vary substantially, and one often implicitly subsidizes the other via tuition. The national commoditization of some courses could eliminate many of these cross-disciplinary subsidies and even eliminate faculty positions or even entire departments at some universities.

Online education could also drive states to reduce support for public colleges and universities even more. They might opt to offer course vouchers or financial support directly to students rather than institutions. In aggregate, the effects of such changes could also have profound research implications, with colleges and universities unable to sustain the economic base needed to subsidize research.

Finally, what are the branding implications? If a student has taken online courses from ten different institutions, from whom do they receive a degree? Does the degree even matter, or is the only substantive question one of verified competency? In this brave new world, I suspect the institutions with the most to fear are those with lesser brands. One attends MIT, Harvard, or Stanford for brand equity, not just knowledge. The music analogy is strong here, relegating some institutions to the status of local cover bands, performing for secondary audiences.

Parting Thoughts

As a technologist, I am always somewhat chary when anyone proclaims a new technology as radical and game changing. Sometimes the technology is revolutionary, as the phonograph proved, but we have all seen technologies introduced with great fanfare, only to watch them fade into obscurity. In addition, our higher education institutions have proven resilient and effective in socializing and educating young adults for hundreds of years. Make no mistake, our colleges and universities are not without faults, and they are often slow to embrace change and respond to shifting social expectations.

Nevertheless, I think this is time of profound change, of punctuated equilibrium when the confluence of technologies, social expectations and economic pressures will necessitate substantive change in our university structures. We must move carefully and thoughtfully, embracing opportunity while diligently preserving that which we cherish and value.

Lux et veritas.


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