Online University

Yesterday someone in my department’s main office got a request from a student to receive credit for taking the now-infamous free online AI course from Stanford. It is routine for a university to award transfer credit for a course taken at a different school, but this case is trickier since a student taking the AI course isn’t enrolled at Stanford and doesn’t get credit there. This post — which will be disorganized because my thinking on this subject is not yet organized — looks at what the Stanford course, the Khan academy, MIT’s Open Courseware initiative, and related efforts might mean for the future of college education.

Will there be a single, best course filling every niche, and everyone just takes that course? The analogy I’d like to make is between online courses and textbooks. Most subject areas are not dominated by a single textbook, but there is usually a small collection of textbooks that, together, are used as a basis for probably 80% of the courses. Personally I’d much rather learn from a textbook than from an online course — listening to someone talk is exceptionally inefficient. Why didn’t mass-market textbooks wipe out universities sometime during the 20th century? Because, of course, taking a class adds value beyond what can be found in the book. This value takes many forms:

  • A course comes as part of a broader “college experience” that many people want.
  • A course is part of an eventual degree that serves as a kind of certification.
  • Instructors are available to provide additional help.
  • Putting classmates in close proximity creates a sense of community and at least in some cases promotes learning.
  • A course is often part of a curriculum that has been designed in an integrated way.
  • A course serves as a forcing function, making it more difficult to put off learning the material.

I think we have to accept the conclusion that universities as we understand them today will be destroyed more or less to the extent that these sources of value can be provided by online education.

Let’s look at a couple of extremes. First, a course like Calculus I — a big lecture course at most universities. The experience of trying to learn integration while sitting in a big, crowded lecture is so bad that watching the lecture online almost seems attractive. It’s not hard to imagine these courses going away over the next 20 years. There seem to be various possibilities for how this will play out. First, a big university could offer an online version of Calc I, but this is very inefficient because only a few hundred or thousand people take it each year. Rather, courses like this will be handled by a few large organizations (companies or forward-thinking universities) and most institutions will simply contract out Calc I by giving some fraction of the tuition to the course provider. Course providers will make money by scaling — first through outsourcing and increasingly through AI-based techniques for assisting and assessing students. My fear is that these online courses will suck very badly, in the same way that so many web applications suck today. However, realistically, the not-online Calc I course I took 20 years ago sucked too: lectures were boring and recitation was at 7:30am with a TA I truly could not understand.

At the other extreme from big service courses, we have things like the “Senior Software Project” course offered by many departments or the Android Projects class that I’m teaching now. These have a large amount of instructor involvement, a large amount of in-person interaction between students, grading cannot easily be automated, etc. I don’t want to say that online versions of these classes are impossible, but certainly they would have a very different character than the current versions. These courses represent the part of a college education that directly descends from the old apprenticeship system and it would — in the long run — be a big problem if this part of the college experience went away. Of course the most serious students would still apprentice themselves through hackerspaces, internships, and such — but people in for example the 50th through 80th percentiles would likely be left poorly prepared for their future careers by an online-only education.

The picture I am painting is that at least in the near term, universities and traditional college degrees survive, but some of their bread and butter gets eaten by highly scalable providers of low-level courses. There will be fierce competition among providers — similar to the current competition between textbook providers, but the stakes will be higher. As we move forward, some fraction of students — in particular, non-traditional students and those who otherwise don’t want the traditional college experience — will move towards online-only degree programs. At first these will provide an inferior education and therefore they will be sought out by students who just cannot make regular classes work, or who are primarily interested in a degree for its own sake. Perhaps, as time passes, telepresence and related technologies will manage to become solid enough that a real education can be attained online.

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12 responses to “Online University”

  1. This seems like an inevitable consequence of large lecture classes; they’re an easy way to get lots of tuition money per professor hour but the lack of access to a professor takes away much of the benefit of taking a class over reading a textbook. Arguably, there is a similar effect with large numbers of students in the same class: students are overwhelmed by the big numbers and many feel just as alone in a huge lecture hall as they would in front of a computer. The result is that universities are going to lose the benefit of offering large lecture courses, which is only natural because they’re not offering that much more than the textbook, anyway – and the textbook is hardly free.

    Another factor is our emphasis on the bottom line: most people don’t really care about the GEs they take because they’re at a university to get the degree they need for the job they want, not to get a well-rounded education. As such, online courses are an attractive way to take courses they take only because they must. After all, they never see a professor and so don’t have to worry about disappointing him/her. They do whatever they have to do to get a grade, check it off, and forget anything they ever learned. It may be – it probably is, I think – that cheating is easier in online classes.

  2. At least for graduate classes, I would argue that this cannot be and should not be one best form of the class. We should always want diversity in the way things are taught just as we want diversity in the gene pool. If everyone is presented a single view of a topic, then we become blind to the other viewpoints. These multiple available viewpoints, in fact, should be a hallmark of our education system. The more ways people view problems, the more likely they are to able to extend them in different ways, creating further innovations.

    I believe one benefit of unique classes at different universities, and hopefully one that will enable them to last as distinct entities, is that students graduating from each have different “flavors.” Certainly students from Stanford and MIT have different strengths. But also students graduating from Utah can have strengths tied to the faculty here and the needs of the local industry and entrepreneurial environment.

  3. Ryan, I haven’t been directly involved in this, but my understanding is that this is one of those things that takes a while for a university to figure out — the registrar’s office is involved, etc. But as of now, no.

  4. Petey I agree on all counts. Cheating in online classes is something that’s going to be very difficult to manage.

    Jeff, I agree with your arguments. But one lesson I take from history is that when a large-scale, economics-driven change happens, it’s kind of like plate tectonics — our preferences and beliefs are irrelevant.

  5. I prefer wait for the telepresence to take a “serious” as a complete graduate course online. But I agree, these kind of experiences can add market value for institutions with low level complexity courses, and better, with a scalable structure.

    I see another problem in online classes, at lest in graduate level… how a professor could conduct a research? As in traditional model they help your students with more accurate guidelines, suggesting, discussing, simulating results… And to me, study without research have small value.

  6. Rich Demillo from GaTech has been talking about this issue for a while. His views are at

    My own view is that research universities shouldn’t be wasting students time by putting them into large lecture subjects that don’t have high-touch TA support and sense of joining a research-focused community (which the for-profits won’t be able to offer). Even Calculus or Intro Physics should be taught with lots of small-group interaction with an expert. That’s expensive, but that is also why students would want to attend an R1 for their education.

  7. Hi Alan, I agree with your comments — we absolutely can and should do a better job with these large “service courses” that happen to make up a large part of the students’ first two years.

    A separate issue, based on my experience at three R1 universities, is that a large fraction of students don’t “want to attend an R1” in any informed sense. Certainly I didn’t.

  8. I noticed that Demillo’s book is out now, should be interesting reading. But just the other day I got the new Christensen book about universities — need to read that one first.

  9. Seems to me that accrediting free online courses (no enrolment, no accountability) is opening a can of worms. I can’t see how you could possibly give credit if the uni itself that is giving the course won’t.

    Funnily enough, I learnt just fine in a large lecture room or even theatre, though there were also tutorials to help. But it really depends on the lecturers, the quality of which ranges from engaging and genuinely enthusiastic about teaching to abysmal. I can’t imagine having anywhere near the same engagement online compared to even a large lecture theatre.

    By astounding coincidence I took one of Alan’s classes, USyd CS3 Database Management Systems, about 20 years ago. Hi Alan! (He was one of the more interesting lecturers :-))

  10. Looking on the bright side, this might be a natural evolutionary optimisation of the university system. At least in the UK, a degree is punishingly expensive and, to my mind, in most cases probably not worth it.

    By outsourcing the non-specialist / non-contraversial topics, universities can focus on – and distinguish themselves in – the hard, creative and interesting areas that benefit from experienced tuition and, in doing so, perhaps make higher education more affordable.

  11. Andrew, I generally agree.

    One thing, however, is that I don’t have an optimistic view of what happens when capitalism meets the requirement for a top-quality education. In a profit-based environment the incentives are to admit and graduate as many students as possible. To keep them happy and in the system, they will usually get the grades that they expect and believe that they deserve.

    I probably needn’t mention that we’re not so far from this situation already, with many departments (including mine) receiving compensation from the institution proportional to the number of student credit hours.