A new book examines why high-ranking universities, such as MIT, Yale and Harvard, are offering free online classes.
Unlocking the Gates, by Taylor Walsh traces the evolution of opening these elite institutions to more students and what it may mean to the future of higher education. Walsh contends that although these universities don't offer credit or degrees for students completing the free online courses, the trend may foreshadow changes in the way all universities approach teaching and learning. She also asserts these online courses may lead to substantial innovations in how education is delivered and consumed.
Walsh is a research analyst with Ithaka S+R, the research division of the nonprofit Ithaka consulting group, which supported the project together with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. She was recently interviewed in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In the interview Walsh talks about Carnegie Mellon and its Open Learning Initiative (OLI). Walsh is quoted in the Chronicle as saying;
"There's not much "edu-tainment" to be found in the Carnegie Mellon courses. It's really about wanting to learn introductory statistics, and going step-by-step through these modules influenced by cognitive science. It's not going to attract the volume of usage, or necessarily the attention from reporters, that a much more easily consumable humanities lecture video might. ... The concept of a sophisticated learning environment, in which a learner can really master concepts without the support of a live instructor--I think that will endure. If anything, we'll see more of it. The ability to deploy an environment like that could really allow universities to teach a great deal of students at a very high level of efficacy and quality, while saving space and faculty time."
Walsh says she sees signs that many highly selective public universities are changing the way they deliver some basic courses. "The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill [is moving] their introductory Spanish course to online only, and then the project out of California to pilot a set of online courses that could be used to teach undergraduates throughout the UC system. Should experiments like those go well, that could really constitute a major vote of confidence in the medium of online teaching," Walsh told the Chronicle.