The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University recently announced they’re teaming up to offer free online courses. A handful of other prestigious universities and star professors are doing the same through sites like Coursera and Udacity. We find out what’s in it for the universities, professors — and students and consider what the trend means for the future of higher education.


  • Jeff Young Senior Writer, Chronicle of Higher Education
  • Ben Bederson Professor of Computer Science, University of Maryland-College Park; and Co-Founder and Chief Scientist, Zumobi


  • 13:06:39

    MR. MARK MCDONALDFrom WAMU 88.5 in American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Mark McDonald, WAMU program director, sitting in for Kojo. Not everybody can go to Harvard, but now anyone can take a Harvard class and without the hefty price tag. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University have announced their teaming up to offer free online courses. And a handful of other prestigious universities and star professors are doing the same through sites like Coursera and Udacity.

  • 13:07:17

    MR. MARK MCDONALDBut it's a trend a long time in the making. And the idea seems to be taking off now, finally. It's opening college classes to thousands more students then could ever attend a single lecture. And some are predicting that online courses will finally lower the cost of a college education. Others wonder how it's going to change how universities offer brick and mortar classes.

  • 13:07:41

    MR. MARK MCDONALDWith us to discuss this in the studio is Jeff Young, who is a senior editor for technology coverage with the Chronicle of Higher Education where he covers technology and writes the college 2.0 column. And from our sister station KUT in Austin, Texas, Ben Bederson is a professor of Computer Science at the University of Maryland where he's a member and former director of the Human Computer Interaction Lab. He's also the co-founder and chief scientist of I hope I got that pronunciation right, Ben.

  • 13:08:14

    DR. BEN BEDERSONYes, you did, thanks.

  • 13:08:15

    MCDONALDAnd one of the strange things here is that we're all using modern technology here in the studio. Ben and I can actually see each other on Skype at the same time, which is kind of fun. You know, this thing seems to have the potential to completely revolutionize learning at higher education level, all over the world. Would you agree with that? Jeff first.

  • 13:08:35

    MR. JEFF YOUNGYeah, well it's an interesting trend. And as you say, this is kind of been a long time in the making. The idea of courses online have been around for decades. But there's been a big shift in the last, really, year or two about feeling that now, of course, as consumers, the platforms are out there, people have computers and they have pretty fast bandwidth.

  • 13:08:56

    MR. JEFF YOUNGAnd there's also, I think, the sense that the now is enough use of, you know, high bandwidth lectures and that kind of thing, to offer a quality education that could possibly rival some of these elite institutions. And so it's an interesting time to see universities really jump in again and experiment with at least making an attempt at making a, you know, something that anyone in the world, for free, could get access to where that wasn't possible in the past.

  • 13:09:30

    MCDONALDBen, why is this happening now? I mean, we've had the University of Phoenix courses and other examples of that, the Open University in Britain being online for a long time. Why is it now that the likes of MIT and Harvard and Stanford are taking notice?

  • 13:09:45

    BEDERSONRight. I mean, very good question. There are definitely a few enabling things that have happened that have, you know, made this enter that, you know, public awareness. And those are, sort of, the obvious which is availability. The video availability on the internet, fast bandwidth in the home, high quality devices, which means that everybody can get access to video quickly and essentially free or at least with the costs they're already paying. That's one. And then the other is the technology and that the user experience has been designed to be just a little bit better. There are a few subtle changes that have been made over the years as they've gone through many iterations of the same kinds of ideas.

  • 13:10:28

    BEDERSONAnd those sometimes -- that those small changes are just enough to make the overall experience quite a lot better. And one of the small but simple changes that I've been made that I'd like to point to is that these hour and hour and a half long videos that nobody really wants to watch on these new online sites have been broken into three or five or 10 minute chunks. And the reality is, watching a three minute chunk is a lot less, you know, overwhelming then feeling like you have to sit down and commit to an hour.

  • 13:10:54

    MCDONALDSounds like, kind of, you know, the old version of -- the new version of skimming the book or just reading the cover, right?

  • 13:11:01

    BEDERSONWell, not really because there's still a lot of content there. You know, if you want to take one of these courses, it still is, you know, roughly three hours of video a week. It's just a lot of three minute segments.

  • 13:11:10

    MCDONALDRight. I wonder if there's listeners and users out there who have taken online college courses. Tell us what you got from the experience? Did you think that online education, did it bring down the cost for you and should it and do you think students learn best in a classroom or is online a good substitute or a poor substitute? You can join the conversation with Jeff and Ben at 1-800-433-8850 or give us an email at Jeff, you must've been looking at a lot of these sites. What do they actually look like? What kind of stuff do they have on them?

  • 13:11:45

    YOUNGWell, a lot of this is new and I think Ben pointed out a really key point which, if you look at the way online education was done in the early days, it really was kind of just the way it's always been done. They kind of stuck computers in the classrooms. And now, I think, the disruptive forces, if you will, that have come in are really some outsiders have tried some things. There was one Sal Kahn who has started just kind of helping his cousins, I think. He was tutoring them and using videos and it was his idea to make them shorter, to make these little short videos. And it's interesting that that's got the attention.

  • 13:12:19

    YOUNGThe MIT folks, the other day, at the press conference where Harvard and MIT announced their new platform, they mentioned Sal Kahn and they said that he was an inspiration for making the videos shorter and the idea of just, you know, breaking the 50 minute lecture down into little chunks seems sort of obvious. But if you're just doing the old way, it may not have come to people as quickly and so having that kind of break out.

  • 13:12:40


  • 13:12:40

    YOUNGAnd so the idea, I think, the model of these new courses, free online, open to everyone, is to have people look at these shorter lectures at their own pace and answer assignments that could be automatically graded. At least that's a lot of the model here because that's the other thing that's different, is obviously, if you're going to teach a 100,000 people that might sign up for a free course, then having someone physically graded in the old fashioned way, is probably not feasible, would be expensive. So maybe a computer could even grade an essay. And there's some experimentation on that.

  • 13:13:12

    MCDONALDSo but we're talking about things that are pre-recorded. We're not -- I mean, or is it a mixture of pre-recorded and live professor or whatever, live chat?

  • 13:13:20

    YOUNGFor the online students taking these free courses, it would be watching online lectures and having some sort of interaction with humans online, probably other students would be another way to do it. Because obviously, if you could tap into that network, it's just the same way that other things have happened online with the network effect of just having a group of people online. So even if it's just the old fashioned technology of typing questions back and forth, they're setting up platforms where students might be able to answer their own questions. The professor could answer, in mass, in a typed way. That way you can get to many students in the way that you couldn't do before the technology, is the idea.

  • 13:13:58

    MCDONALDBen, what have you seen out there that's impressed you or disappointed you?

  • 13:14:04

    BEDERSONWell, the overall experience is quite good. I mean, as I said, there are actually a number of innovations. Another one is that there are simple questions that they ask you, typically at the end or sometimes in the middle of these short segments. And so you can't, you know, pretend that you understand it. If you're at all honest to yourself, you watch the video segment, it asks a simple question, you answer it and the answer is no. It's like, whoops, maybe I should go re-watch that segment.

  • 13:14:28

    BEDERSONSo there are these social parts as Jeff was just saying. So all this stuff is exciting and I don't want to put it down because I find it interesting. I actually have been taking these classes myself to brush up on stuff that I either forgot or never learned because I was a student a long time ago. At the same time, you know, you said is this going to take over the university, is this going to replace the university? And, you know, of course I'm biased, right? I'm a dinosaur, but I have to believe the answer is no. And there's a lot of reasons.

  • 13:14:56

    BEDERSONAnd perhaps the best reason is because of why Forbes wrote an article saying that universities should be scared. And Forbes said, universities offer branding and professional networks. And as long as they can continue to offer these, while these online universities don't, then they're okay. And I was thinking, I'm scratching my head, saying, wait a second, universities offer branding and professional networks. Well, that may be true. I like to think that we offer something else, right?

  • 13:15:23


  • 13:15:24

    BEDERSONSomething called education.

  • 13:15:25


  • 13:15:25

    BEDERSONAnd so, what we have to ask is this very basic and deep question is how do humans get educated? How do they learn? And the reality is, there is a difference between facts and learning how to think, how to relate, how to ask questions. And, of course, there are a lot of facts, there are a lot of technical details, there are a lot of things that these online lectures can teach us and they're fantastic for that. But that's all you get out of attending a university. You are not getting enough out of your university and...

  • 13:15:55

    MCDONALDThat's right.

  • 13:15:55 probably need a different one.

  • 13:15:57

    MCDONALDLet's get into that, you know in some depth a little bit later. But I've got a feeling that Omar, who's an A.U. student in Washington D.C., is going to disagree with you a little bit there. Omar.

  • 13:16:08

    OMARHi, hi, am I on the air?

  • 13:16:10

    MCDONALDYou are.

  • 13:16:11

    OMAROh, hi. Okay, yeah. So basically I'm actually studying biochemistry at A.U. and I can say that, for my science courses, the online tutorials that I watch are extremely helpful. I mean, a lot of times, you have lectures where teachers, kind of, don't really know what they're talking about part time. Part of the time or they go really fast. So having those internet resources have been really helpful for me to kind of, you know, keep up and really get problems and things like that done. But I totally agree though, you do lose that element of interaction and asking questions. But I do believe there's a lot more benefits and that's it, thanks.

  • 13:16:43

    MCDONALDSo but you have a kind of a mixture by the sound of it? So you have a mixture of online learning and you do classroom learning as well?

  • 13:16:49

    OMARYeah, well, I mean, I attend courses -- like I attend lectures in person. But sometimes I find internet resources just to help me if I'm, you know, confused about something like that.

  • 13:16:59

    MCDONALDOkay. I should probably declare an interest here because I also do a little bit of teaching in the school of communication at American University. We may have come across each other. Okay, Omar, thanks very much for your call. Let's go to Ken in Silver Spring, Md. Ken, you're on the air.

  • 13:17:14

    KENYeah, hi, I took one of the first, like, attempts at integrating computers in the classroom, 1986, geometry in summer school in a pilot program that didn't end up getting picked up by (word?) county public schools. And although I got an A in that class, as a result of having gone through the pilot program, I don't know how to prove a theorem. About 12 years later, I took an online PoliSci course, I want to say, and it wasn't too bad. But it was, I mean, a lot of it was just like taking quizzes. Like, you might take on a quiz website if you're into that kind of thing. And I never met the professor, even though I was actually attending the university that that class was at.

  • 13:17:59

    KENAnd I think the problem with technology, at least in the past is, has been university Presidents or whoever, just like, oh, we have this technology, like throw it at something, without really thinking about how you're integrating that into what you're trying to teach. So they'll just be like, oh, you know, online lectures or whatever and they don't really, I don't know, come up with a way to think about how to use this technology appropriately to enhance the learning experience especially universities where a lot of it is substitution for cost cutting measures, I think.

  • 13:18:29

    MCDONALDJeff, that might speak to Ben's point about, you know, the values of being in the room. Jeff?

  • 13:18:37

    YOUNGYeah, and I think there is that, of course, suspicion. The Chronicle did a survey of the public and in different survey of college presidents. And we did find a disconnect between where the presidents were a little more bullish, a little bit more upbeat about the potential of these online tools, the technology to fix or kind of improve education. Whereas the public had not yet come around as much to the idea that an online course could be as good as an in person course. Because, I mean, the perception game here is part of this, too.

  • 13:19:05

    YOUNGAnd to have these elite universities say that they can offer -- you know, that they're going to offer these courses at what they're saying is going to be a high level is an interesting moment because I think you wouldn't have heard that, even just a few years ago because of what the caller is pointing out about some of the earlier experiments, really kind of felt disconnected. And the question I think remains, because these are just now starting up and, you know, in the earliest of days, I think it's too soon to say whether these are going to live up to those high standards that people are saying they could do.

  • 13:19:37

    MCDONALDBen, are the dinosaurs capable of making these things interesting and converting them to, you know, that the holistic learning experience?

  • 13:19:46

    BEDERSONI think us dinosaurs, us universities, are surely slow, right? I mean, it's the nature of any, you know, a large institution. At the same time, the universities are also incredibly innovative, right? They are big organic institutions. And so there are things that happen slowly and things that happen quickly at the same time. One of my colleagues, Joe Redish in physics, has been using technology in the classroom for decades. And I know I've been having conversations with people for years about these very issues.

  • 13:20:18

    BEDERSONIn fact, my colleagues created something called the Baltimore Learning Community 15 years ago using technology at the time that had the same goals. And there's been a lot of discussion about flipping the classroom, which might be worth discussing. I don't know if you want to get into that now or later, but...

  • 13:20:34

    MCDONALDSure. No, let's get into that. That's a good idea.

  • 13:20:35

    BEDERSONYeah, I mean, so I guess what I want to -- the few key points I want to raise is that online education's fantastic. It's an additional resource. You know what? Textbooks are also fantastic and great resources. So is Wikipedia. None of these things are going to put anybody out of business but they do offer great new capacities of all kinds. And so will it change things? Absolutely. Will some people choose to take advantage of those and not attend university? Absolutely. But will most people? I don't think so.

  • 13:21:09

    MCDONALDSo let's go to...

  • 13:21:10

    BEDERSONSo what is flipping?

  • 13:21:11

    MCDONALDYeah, define flipping for me.

  • 13:21:13

    BEDERSONSo, you know, in the olden days, you know, last month we used to say go to the university, go to your class to listen to lecture and go home to do homework, right? And one of the, you know, the buzzwords now is, well, if all of the content -- if the facts are available for free online instead what you should do is go home to listen to your lectures. And then come to the classroom to do your heavy thinking, to do your discussion, to do Q &A, to get critiqued, to get feedback, to get inspired, to meet your social networks, to meet with actual other humans.

  • 13:21:51

    MCDONALDOkay. But then the academic learning part of it, much more of that can occur at home in front of the computer.

  • 13:21:58

    BEDERSONSee that's the key thing. What is academic learning? There's the factual learning and that will definitely happen at home. I would argue that the academic part is actually the really hard part. That's where we're doing something complex. That's where we're learning how to think, right. Facts are important but that's not the point. We're trying to learn how to solve problems for situations that we haven't yet encountered, which is why, right, good old fashioned education still has value.

  • 13:22:29

    MCDONALDLet's go to Scott in Bowie, Md. Scott, you're on the air.

  • 13:22:32

    SCOTTHi. I went to a for-profit university and took about 30 percent of my classes online. And the way the school worked is any class that was filled up or you weren't able to take 'cause of your schedule, you could take online. So that facilitated so that you could graduate on time and take classes in the order that you wanted. And the only thing that bothered me though is it didn't bring the price down and the public schools and stuff where it would've been cheaper to go to, they (unintelligible) ...

  • 13:23:12

    MCDONALDWhat was the price of the courses online?

  • 13:23:14

    SCOTTAbout $1200 each.

  • 13:23:16

    MCDONALDHuh. So the perception that it's free, which I think a lot of people have, Jeff, is not true.

  • 13:23:23

    YOUNGWell, I think the online learning has been used obviously by a number of institutions in different ways. And for the for-profit sector, they've definitely been a model for convenience, which has been a complaint of some students with the traditional old time, you know, in-person universities. The announcement that came out of Harvard and MIT the other day was really about doing free online courses as kind of an outreach effort for them. And that was a little different than some of these other universities that are actually trying to sell you a degree program and sometimes a very expensive degree program.

  • 13:23:56

    YOUNGSo you'll see a mix of offerings. The free ones are very interesting though because it seems like they're driving some of the -- really reinventing what it means to teach. And one of the things that is interesting about these free courses is you can have so many more students in a free course. I mean, 100,000 students -- even a place like some of these for-profits, they have a large number of students but when these free classes just have one class getting this many, it's a big data kind of bonanza for the universities doing them 'cause they can study on a -- kind of a big group of kind of guinea pig students how do different things work. They can try different things.

  • 13:24:33

    YOUNGAnd because these courses are free I think it's going to be a laboratory for these universities to try to do things differently that might then go back into higher price courses later on.

  • 13:24:43

    MCDONALDOkay, thanks. Thanks for your call, Scott. Andrew in Tacoma Park has a point about the discourse and the engaging in discussions and the ability to do that online. Andrew, you're on the air.

  • 13:24:56

    ANDREWYeah, can you hear me all right?

  • 13:24:57

    MCDONALDYeah, we can hear you fine.

  • 13:24:59

    ANDREWOh good. I'm sorry I missed most of this discussion. It's really interesting to me and so I don't know if it's been covered. But I notice in my own experience of learning something, learning a new topic that one of the difficulties is coming to understand the kind of assumptions -- the conscious assumptions that I have about the way things work. And reading about things I frequently come across -- I mean, it's easy to remember facts, that that's -- and it's virtually worthless in my opinion. You really need some understanding.

  • 13:25:31

    ANDREWAnd to me it's a very visual understanding of how things work and what the nature of the relationships are. And to do that, to define that sort of information or to get it I find the only way ultimately to do it is to talk to somebody so we can sit there and discuss the issue that's concerning me so I can learn what it is about the statement that I don't understand and we can explore that aspect of it together. But you just can't do that by email or by texting. That seems to me a critical component of education online services just can't provide.

  • 13:26:08

    MCDONALDJeff, is there any technology that accomplishes that successfully, conversation between groups of people?

  • 13:26:14

    YOUNGWell, I think...

  • 13:26:15

    ANDREWNo, between just two individuals. I (unintelligible) ...

  • 13:26:18

    YOUNGOh, it's almost like he's sitting on the stump in the woods kind of having that mentor relationship. That's an interesting point. I think the -- I don't know if any even in-person class as a group can do that. I think that's one of the -- you know, when you talk about online only, there's certainly technologies like Skype, which is being used I think right here in the studio to reach one of our guests, that can do face-to-face meetings, but -- I mean, sorry, but, you know, video meetings that have faces on the screens.

  • 13:26:45

    YOUNGBut I see what the caller's saying, that this idea of really cutting through just facts and getting that kind of inspiration or changing your ideas. And I think that's part of what these experiments are trying to prove is they think they can do it in various interactive ways online. I don't know that I can point to one that does it as good as face-to-face two people mentor relationship. That seems to be sort of the gold standard but very expensive for education.

  • 13:27:10

    BEDERSONYou know, one of the things that so many professors that I know that are doing in the classroom is to really focus on peer learning. Because one of the things you always -- everybody knows as an instructor is that the best way to learn something is to teach it. And so if you give a short lecture or a short discussion or even just summarize what maybe people have learned online before they got to class. And then you ask the students to turn around and find one other student and ask a question or explain something.

  • 13:27:41

    BEDERSONWhat you find is that you'll immediately get a lot of excitement, a cacophony of noises and students get super engaged and they're like, oh now I understand or now I understand what I don't understand. And it's just a totally different kind of experience when you're doing that kind of interaction face to face with someone that you don't even know that you're just sitting next to than any other kind of -- you know, from what I see, what I'm aware of, technology mediated interactions.

  • 13:28:08

    MCDONALDAndrew, what do you think of those responses?

  • 13:28:11

    ANDREWYeah, I've experience to all of them. This is pretty late in life learning for me. But nothing beats talking -- nothing beats the speed and the efficiency of talking to someone who's really an expert in the subject and can see what your problem is, can -- that will understand the nature of the problem. I have some very specific requirements and am actually looking around for some courses to take. But they take too long to get to the issues that I want to know about. And that's -- to me that's an issue. I'm not looking for to taking a degree in something but I want to get some very specific focused understanding of what's going on in certain situations.

  • 13:28:58

    MCDONALDOkay, Andrew, thanks very much for your call. One more quick call before the break from Joanne in Rockville, Md. Joanne, hello. You're on the air. You're through to Ben and Jeff.

  • 13:29:05

    JOANNEHi, thank you for taking my call. I have a doctorate and I'm on a doctoral committee for a gentleman who's getting his doctorate from an online for-profit university. And I received his proposal. The other committee members on his doctorate committee are employees of the university. I received a proposal and when I read it I realized that it needed a lot of work. And it already had been approved by his chair who works for this university and the other three committee members.

  • 13:29:39

    JOANNENot only in its organization but it's the use of proper grammar. It's the idea -- the expression of the ideas. And I found it very disturbing that someone could pay, I'm sure, a huge amount of money to get a doctoral degree and not have the thinking skills and the writing skills that should be representative of someone with a higher degree. And I'll take the response off the air. Thank you.

  • 13:30:07

    MCDONALDOkay. Thank you so much, Joanne. Jeff, do you want to tackle that one?

  • 13:30:10

    YOUNGWell, it's a tough one. The thing to remember too, and I think some of the issues raised by some of these free online classes is it's really raising questions about, as has been pointed out in this show, is what is education. And the quality issue I think is hard because there are -- you can point to in-person classes where the quality is not, you know, up to what people would envision or romantically want. And you can point to online classes for sure that have the same problems.

  • 13:30:34

    YOUNGBut the question is, is the format inherently, you know, not able to live up to the high standards or is it that in a particular case you can find examples like this particular example where people weren't maybe doing their job or having academic rigor. So the question then is would that situation -- could it have been done -- you know, is it just because it's an online course or is it really just kind of bad actors in a specific situation?

  • 13:31:01

    MCDONALDBen, bad actors?

  • 13:31:02

    BEDERSONRelationships is what it's all about, you know. Think back to any -- I mean, everybody has teachers that they can look back to with very fond memories and they were highly motivated by and they would do anything for and worked ten times as strongly for. And I find that even the -- I mean, there's no way that's going to replace by online. And even the medium level, you know, the mediocre personal relationships with teachers and students are much more strongly motivating and much more serious than online, which really requires internal motivation. And many people just don't have it. Many people are trying to get by with what they can.

  • 13:31:38

    MCDONALDThe number to call is 1-800-433-8850. We're online or send us an email to Jeff Young is a senior editor for technology coverage with the Chronicle of Higher Education. Ben Bederson is a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland. We're talking about online education. We're going to take a short break.

  • 13:33:37

    MCDONALDWelcome back. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" on WAMU 88.5. I'm Mark McDonald sitting in for Kojo. With me is Jeff Young, the senior editor for technology coverage with the Chronicle of Higher Education. And on an ISDN line from our sister station KUT in Austin, Texas, Ben Bederson who's a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland. And we're talking about online education and how it's beginning to take off even amongst the Ivy Leagues.

  • 13:34:03

    MCDONALDWe'll take a call from Judy in Washington. Judy, you're on the air.

  • 13:34:06

    JUDYHi. I just want to share my experience. I, about four years ago, took an online language course. And in some ways the course was really interesting because I was taking it at 10:00 at night in Washington, D.C. and there were people in Australia and people, you know, in South America. So it was a very diverse group of students. There were about ten of us. But what I found was that at slow moments in the course there I was sitting at my computer and checking my email and, you know, checking the news. And it really felt like the fact that I couldn't see people really diminished the quality of at least language learning that way.

  • 13:34:54

    JUDYI would fax my homework to the teacher. The teacher would PDF conversation about something that I didn't understand, you know, after class or something like that.

  • 13:35:12

    MCDONALDSo the personal contact for you would've been more kind of crucial in succeeding.

  • 13:35:18

    JUDYWell, but I also found that there's, you know, sometimes if I was going to miss a class I could, you know, view it online, which was great. But what I found really, at least for me and, you know, I'm in my late 40s, was that the idea of being in a class where you could kind of fill up the blank time -- there were a lot of distractions that I could avail myself of that I wouldn't have in a normal classroom setting.

  • 13:35:48

    JUDYAnd my husband who's a professor, about that time made the decision to ban computers in his course 'cause he said he felt like -- you know, 'cause students were reading the newspaper rather than interacting in the classroom. Maybe it's just about being on computers, but I felt like it's really hard to do an hour-and-a-half even with the interaction when you're on the computer. And there's just so much else you can do with your computer besides listening to the slow parts of the class.

  • 13:36:17

    MCDONALDOkay. So it's basically a distraction factor there. Judy, thanks for your call. Let's talk about accreditation for a minute. We've got a comment on our Facebook page. How do you address the issue of accreditation or the lack thereof? Can you add completed courses to your resume portfolio towards career advancement? I'm supposing these courses are meant to be refreshers or supplementals. If not can you substituted say Physics 101 done online with MIT Harvard for Physics 101 in a community college, Jeff?

  • 13:36:49

    YOUNGI think this is a big question that's gotten a lot of our readers at the Chronicle of Higher Education a little nervous at other colleges that aren't, you know, sort of the biggest names that are turning away all these students. I think the question though is accreditation, these classes that are being offered, the free classes out of MIT Harvard and some of the other ones doing it, they're not going to have an accredited degree attached to it. It won't be a Harvard degree but it's going to have a certificate from this nonprofit called either MITX or Harvard X or something like that. Ed X is the group -- the co-op thing they're doing.

  • 13:37:22

    YOUNGAnd so the question, of course -- that's an unaccredited certificate -- could it grow to mean something. Could it grow to be accepted by employers as a substitution for taking a course in a certain subject? And I think that's gotten a lot of people interested. There's a related trend in doing something called educational badges which are -- in a nutshell it's almost like the way Boy Scouts issue badges for different things. And, you know, no one thinks those are -- they're very kind of nuance. They're down into, you know, knots or, you know, fire starting instead of just a whole university course that would be Physics 101.

  • 13:37:56

    YOUNGAnd the question is, could these maybe upstart players come in that don't have the traditional higher ed. accreditation and offer different kind of just-in-time skills for the job market in this way. And I mean, this is an interesting idea that really has a potential to shake things up in higher ed. if it would ever catch on. But it's up to the perception it seems to me, whether an employer would actually take that seriously.

  • 13:38:21

    MCDONALDBed Bederson, try to tackle this one on email from Constance in Silver Spring. "Sad to say many students go to college just to get their ticket of admission to the middle class or what is left of it. Check any list of job ads and you'll find the most basic white color entry level jobs require a college degree. Online education, though, second best can enable talented students to have white collar jobs when they could never afford to attend a brick and mortar college."

  • 13:38:47

    BEDERSONSo I think it's a fantastic point and I don't think we can have this discussion without talking about the economics. The business of education is fundamental. And I like to think of this as in the way that the world is a big place. There are many different markets for education and there are many different, you know, places -- amounts of money that people are willing to spend for different kinds of things that they want.

  • 13:39:12

    BEDERSONI think one possible way this will work itself out is I can imagine sort of there being the $1,000 university, the $10,000 and the $50,000. Where the $1,000 might be what we think of as the free one. It's the online. Sure, maybe Udacity or Coursera will figure out how to, you know, bill $1,000 worth rather than make it completely free. But it'll basically be the online thing.

  • 13:39:34

    BEDERSONUniversity of Maryland is -- maybe it's not $50,000, but it's -- right, it's a good chunk of money and you get all kinds of things. You get the facts but you also get the dorm and the food and the gym and hopefully a better education. And then maybe there's the University of Phoenix. Right there is this kind of $10,000 one where -- or maybe it's the community college version where you might go to a physical place from time to time to get some of the value of having face to face. But maybe all of the content comes from those same free online courses.

  • 13:40:05

    MCDONALDWell, you mentioned -- sorry. Go ahead.

  • 13:40:07

    BEDERSONI was just going to say, I think there's going to be a spectrum of ways that people get educated. There already is, and if they suggest another bit of, you know, capacity that's thrown into the mix and there will be, you know, more people getting educated for free, which is fantastic, and hopefully the expensive places will get better, and if they don't get better then they should go out of business, right?

  • 13:40:28

    MCDONALDLet's see. It would be interesting to see the MIT financial model with Harvard, but we'll talk about that in a minute. 1-800-433-8850. Ben, you mentioned the dorm. I'm guessing that there is a certain category of parents who might be quite relieved that a certain youngster isn't going to experience the dorm life, but on the whole, there's a whole raft of experiences that are actually in established colleges and universities that you can't get online. I mean, there's sports and socializing and being a part of things.

  • 13:41:04

    BEDERSONCan you imagine sending your 18-year-old to the basement to watch videos online for four years instead of going out and having this kind of, you know, this experience that's sort of halfway between living at home and being out in the world? I mean, you know, there's a reason that people send their kids off to college for four years. It is an important educational experience on many, many dimensions.

  • 13:41:24


  • 13:41:25

    YOUNGYeah. No, and I think it's really interesting, and I think there are -- other things could shake up too. We've covered a concept called swirling where you might not, you know, maybe you only go to that dorm for two years, and it's a lot cheaper to go for two years than for four years. So maybe a year in the basement is the future, but maybe not four.

  • 13:41:44

    MCDONALDLet's look at the macroeconomic picture, and we've got this relationship starting between MIT and Harvard in this venture. What do you think's in their minds? Is it a trial balloon or an experiment that others will wait to see if it succeeds, Ben?

  • 13:41:59

    BEDERSONI think they have thought about this and they know exactly what they're doing, which is they know this stuff is coming, right? They know this stuff is going to be widely available for free, so they can either ignore it, or they can recognize that the future of traditional universities has to include the fact that free online content is available, and so this is really a research, you know, effort. They made it very clear, part of their mandate is to be able to study the educational value, the pedagogy of these approaches to figure out what works, how to integrate it with traditional classrooms and what is going to end up creating -- enabling the universities to have the value add.

  • 13:42:42

    MCDONALDThis from Solo on our Facebook page. "What took so long? 1979 we employed VHS-taped courses at Worcester Polytechnic Institute along with help sessions taught by the professor or teacher's aide. The system was great. You could watch a class in the comfort of anywhere. You could stop and start the class at your pace. You could repeat a lecture. The professor was free to spend more time helping individuals. What's not to love?" Jeff?

  • 13:43:08

    YOUNGWell, in that model, that as we've said, has been around for a long time, it's also like, though, that textbooks are out there too. You can to the library and read a lot of things on your own, and what a lot of universities in the early stages of online learning found, was that they had a low retention rate, that some people could jump into this and kind of -- they were disciplined, and they could do this without any prompting or without being in the classroom, and as the earlier caller said, you know, they could get through all the fact that they were distracted by other things, and they could be disciplined.

  • 13:43:35

    YOUNGBut a lot of other people couldn't. They got caught up in other things. They didn't finish, whereas if they had taken an in-person class, they might have finished. And so that's been an issue for online, retention, and so the question now is with some of these newer technologies, with a little more bandwidth out there, can a new generation of tools be a little bit better than those hour-long videotapes with an occasional assignment. Can they be a little more, you know, fast paced and little videos, instant feedback, a little bit of peer evaluation, and will that be enough to make it more mainstream.

  • 13:44:09

    MCDONALDJust to do full justice to Solo's comment, her closing thoughts, or his closing thoughts are, "However, there is lots to be said for the camaraderie and sharing of ideas with classmates that are now available in cyberspace sort of through chat rooms." I guess that was the point earlier about how do you have a proper conversation in cyberspace. The real questions I believe needs to be asked is given that the class is now the same, whether it's taught or at Harvard or at Northern Virginia Community College, is the Harvard education still $50,000 a year more valuable?

  • 13:44:40

    YOUNGAnd that, I think...

  • 13:44:40

    BEDERSONAnd we have to remember -- I'm sorry, it's not the same, right?

  • 13:44:43


  • 13:44:43

    BEDERSONThe lectures are the same, but there's a lot of other stuff going on, and it's fantastic that, right, the community colleges will have access to the same lectures, and I hope that they, you know, can learn to do a lot of other things well also, but I don't think that we can say that they're the same because they have the same content.

  • 13:45:00

    MCDONALDLet's go to Hailey in Stevensville. Hailey, you're on the air.

  • 13:45:03

    HAILEYHi. I'm going to just say my little piece and...

  • 13:45:08


  • 13:45:10

    HAILEYOkay. My question is, is it just online, or is it whatever the expectations are for the for-profit colleges? I'm done with a long career working with the product of those for-profit colleges, and several different sites, and many different people, and to a person they come out even at the masters level unable to write a sentence, unable even to speak with proper grammar, and no critical thinking skills, no curiosity. They are simply getting that degree to get the next step up.

  • 13:45:50

    MCDONALDNow, you're talking about online or both?

  • 13:45:53


  • 13:45:54


  • 13:45:55

    HAILEYThe for-profit colleges that really aren't there for the entire experience. I've heard people talking about the camaraderie, the sharing of ideas, all of that creates a community, as somebody else said, on a lot of different levels, that just is not happening in these other colleges. I mean, I've had people that are taking classes while they're going to school, nothing -- I mean, while they're working. Nothing wrong with that at all, but I've seen the papers that they've written that I couldn't have gotten away with in high school, and yet they get an A on it because the teacher basically rewrites it for them, and then they come out with an A. It's mindboggling.

  • 13:46:43


  • 13:46:44

    HAILEYSo anyway, I just wonder if it's the for-profit model. In a nutshell, that's my question. And I'll...

  • 13:46:51

    MCDONALDOkay. Thanks.

  • 13:46:52


  • 13:46:53

    MCDONALDOkay. Thanks. Is it confined to for-profits, Ben?

  • 13:46:58

    BEDERSONWell, I think we also have to think about the different subject areas, right? A lot of the complaints have been related to writing and critical thinking skills which is what I have been arguing is much harder to get online. If you look at the Coursera and Udacity and (unintelligible) actually is going to start, it is on the technology-related content. That's actually starting with computer-science, not surprisingly because the technology is developed by computer scientists and so they start by digitizing their own teachings.

  • 13:47:28

    BEDERSONSome of the classes where the content really is much more technical on how to, you know, solve a particular problem in a particular way, I think those technical skills are going to be more readily taught online, but the higher you go up the food chain of critical thinking, and that's in technical areas too where you actually have to be creative to invent something, not only apply a formula, I think that the caller is right, that it's -- you're going to see typically, you know, less good results when there's a less-rich environment in which to learn.

  • 13:48:02

    MCDONALDWe're talking with Jeff Young, senior editor for technology coverage with the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Ben Bederson, a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland. We'll get back to the phones in a moment. I'm Mark McDonald sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Let's take a short break.

  • 13:49:57

    MCDONALDAnd welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" on WAMU 88.5. I'm the program director, Mark McDonald. I'm sitting in for Kojo today. With me, talking about online education is Ben Bederson, professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, and Jeff Young, senior editor for technology coverage with the Chronicle of Higher Education. We got an email from Melanie in D.C. She just finished an online master's degree through the University of Illinois, not-for-profit. "The university used Elluminate as an online platform.

  • 13:50:25

    MCDONALDIt allowed for lecture as well as small-group discussions and classroom questions. Some professors were more adept at using it to mimic classroom learning. The program really allowed for the benefits of both traditional as well as online learning. The program really allowed for the benefits of both traditional as well as online learning. There were ways in which the program could improve, but I was impressed with the direction in which it is headed, not at all a boring watch a video lecture, write a post kind of program." So I guess that's where our conversation has gone, Jeff, is about sort of the mixture and getting the mixture right, and this sounds like an example of that.

  • 13:50:56

    YOUNGWell, and it's an interesting point, and that sounds like that course has at least some meetings that are kind of in the same time, everyone coming to the same moment and the same time, this sort of synchronous idea, whereas some of the models have it so that you can just come at your own convenience because getting everyone in a room at the exact same time is very difficult. But this is something we were talking about at the beginning of the show, the fact that these technologies have improved is why I think you're seeing these, you know, this new upstart saying, hey, actually we can do something new and different now that there's just an idea that you can have a video chat pretty much no problem whereas a few years ago, as we all know that took a lot of doing just to get a video link between two people, and so yeah, I think there are different tools out there that are new.

  • 13:51:40

    MCDONALDHere's Terry in Fairfax, Va. Terry doesn't like this idea at all, Terry, right?

  • 13:51:46

    TERRYWell, I don't mind the mixture, certainly. I mean, I have been a college professor, I have directed television, I've done video conferencing, et cetera, et cetera, and what you're really -- what's being foisted upon us by profit motive and by bean counters frankly, is destruction of community. And I mean that in the sense -- I also substitute teach in first grade, second grade, and third grade, and I see it there, and you certainly see it in politics, the civil discourse, the civil conversation is diminishing at a tremendous rate, is what our politics are all about today and why our politics are so destructive, and this is just another step.

  • 13:52:31

    TERRYHow it can be stopped or changed, I'm not sure, but if it's left alone to be most people just being isolated and communicating electronically, and video is not the same as face-to-face, never will be. I've also been a professional in theater for years. This lack of community and this lack of human contact and contradiction and opposition and all that goes into social contact is going to be diminished and that's going to be very destructive to our society.

  • 13:52:59

    MCDONALDYou must have found some good stuff on the web, Terry.

  • 13:53:02

    TERRYI've said -- the mix can be fine, but it cannot be the primary form of education. It is socially destructive.

  • 13:53:09

    MCDONALDNow, would you -- you would expand that beyond the conversation here online learning. You know, what specifically riles you up, is it texting, or is it, you know, chat rooms, is it...

  • 13:53:21

    TERRYNone of that. Well, the chat rooms and the texting and the Twitter and all that, I mean, it's just basically garbage, you know, 99 percent of the time, but the real point is if I have a conversation with you face-to-face, you and I are going to learn different things about each other, you know, all the body language, everything else that's involved and we can argue, we can agree.

  • 13:53:41

    TERRYYou remove that, or diminish that, what we have now, and you can see -- in particular, I just taught in a first-grade class, they don't know how to act with each other at all. They have no social skills whatsoever, and we're going to increase that.

  • 13:53:54

    MCDONALDBen, are you experiencing that, a diminution of social skills among students when you see them in the eye, you look them in the eye?

  • 13:54:01

    TERRYOh, yes, absolutely.

  • 13:54:02

    MCDONALDYeah. I'm just -- I'm asking Ben in Austin. Go ahead.

  • 13:54:06

    BEDERSONI mean, of course, my students come to the university every day, and so, no. I mean, I think that students -- there's a wide range, of course, but no. Students develop social skills, and, you know, some are less mature, some are more mature, but I think coming together is fundamental. It does scare me to the idea that, you know, a student could be an 18-year-old, could, you know, the proverbial go to the basement for four years and watch videos.

  • 13:54:29

    BEDERSONOn the other hand, let me say something positive, which is the idea that information is democratized is fantastic. So one of the things that you do see with these online courses is a lot of them are being taken by people all around the world, that otherwise would have no access to this information. And so the idea that we're going to increase the number of people, whether it's from other countries, or from locations in this country where the people can't afford the university or they live too far from it, or they're busy working or working on a farm or taking care of their little sister, whatever it is, the idea that people can get access to stuff that they wouldn't have had otherwise is very powerful.

  • 13:55:06

    BEDERSONSo I guess I'd like to summarize sort of all this new online video or online education this way, which is, is it better than face-to-face traditional universities? Absolutely not. Is it better than having nothing at all? Absolutely yes. It's somewhere in the idle and, you know, society will hopefully, you know, come up, you know, will develop a range of ways to support people.

  • 13:55:27

    MCDONALDTerry, thanks for your point. I want to move on.

  • 13:55:29

    TERRYThank you.

  • 13:55:30

    MCDONALDJust take one quick call from Henry in St. Petersburg, Fla. Henry, you're on the air.

  • 13:55:36

    HENRYWell, I just wanted to address the issue of face-to-face classes and online classes. I think it's kind of a non-issue for me. I've tried both, and right now I'm taking classes online. The main point is, a student is going to be a student regardless of whatever format they are in. If I go to school to learn, I'm going to learn, I'm going to get educated. But if I go to school to fool around just like, I mean, going to a regular university, if I don't learn anything -- there's maybe a lot of people that come out of universities that couldn't read at, I mean, certain grade levels, but we don't a ascribe that to be, you know what I mean, to studying online or studying in regular school.

  • 13:56:32

    HENRYSo I don't think the issue is really about whether people are able to learn or not, it's just -- it's basically about the student, I mean, themselves.

  • 13:56:47

    MCDONALDOkay, Henry. Thoughts on that, Jeff?

  • 13:56:51

    YOUNGWell, I think -- yeah. This gets back to the question of is it the format in some -- is this format going to be accessible to a broad range of kinds of students, and I think it's going to be really interesting to find out, and the ranges issue is really one that Ben pointed out is, you know, I think there's going to -- there are basically new players in higher education in America right now, which is sort of interesting. The fact that you're having these upstart companies come in and try a new model of offering these lectures for free, and now these institutions like Harvard and MIT offering some things for free, but raising questions about, you know, what parts of education should cost money and which...

  • 13:57:26

    MCDONALDGreat. Great. Great discussion. Thanks to both of you. Ben Bederson, professor of computer science at the University of Maryland. Jeff Young, senior editor for technology coverage at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Thanks for coming in both of you. Nice to see you on Skype, Ben.

  • 13:57:44

    BEDERSONThanks. It's been a pleasure.

  • 13:57:44

    MCDONALDReally getting with it here. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff and Tayla Burney, with help from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. Diane Vogel is the managing producer. The engineer today has been Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phone. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives, CDs and free transcripts are available at our website, We also encourage you to write us and email, join us on Facebook, post a comment at, or simply tweet @kojoshow. I'm Mark McDonald sitting in for Kojo. Thanks for joining us today. See you tomorrow.

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