Coursera and Udacity are college killers


I’ve decided to enroll in Coursera’s Fantasy and Science Fiction course, which starts tomorrow.  Coursera and Udacity have been in the press more and more and full supporter of online education.  I think it will be this decade’s disruptive technology.  Now, I attended college and I’m now enrolled in a graduate university (online, actually I should be studying…) so I’m fully incorporated into the legacy system, but the King is dead, long live the King!

I’m a big fan of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and the anecdote about the removal of grades has always resonated with me.  These online programs are the realization of Phaedrus’ vision; they encourage those who want to learn, not those who think they must.

This movement is particularly exciting in the light of increasing student debt.  If I’m a 18-year old, I’d be asking myself why should I go into a mountain of debt to attend college when the chances aren’t very good that I’ll get a job?  Well, good question, but at the moment you should probably still go to college 🙂 Mainly because online education is in an experimental phase at the moment and it may be too risky to bet a career on it.  Plus, there are limited offerings…

Apart from pragmatism, it’s important to realize that college is a service. Students pay with the expectation of learning.  Online courses have flipped this model much like buying music online has.  The album is a program’s course of study.  The consumer no longer wants to take required classes when there are bite-size individual courses available, for free.

Universities won’t be going away any time soon, especially for professional tracks like doctors, lawyers and PhDs.  Given the University system in the U.S. right now, college is not for everybody and it shouldn’t be pushed on every high school student.  In fact, I think I’d be a fan of colleges that encouraged a year or two off after high school for travel abroad or a year volunteering. (Again discounting those who plan to stay in school for 8+ years).  If we truly value education, and not the diploma, these new systems are to be welcomed, not shunned.

But, it all comes down to societal trust (see, I’ve been reading Liars and Outliers).  Those expensive pieces of paper are certificates which affirms that said upstanding university has certified that the indebted has completed a vigorous course of study.  Employers that trust that organization trust the graduate.  While there are certificates available in this new model, that trust is not yet developed.  Although I think it helps that institutions like Stanford, Princeton, and University of Michigan are the ones leading the charge.  In order to replace the existing system, we’ll need a new benchmark of trust.  Maybe a more rigorous interview process or building portfolios of work?

What’s the difference in student X who completed the coursera Princeton Computer Architecture class and those who did so at Princeton, besides $38,650 a year?  Well, right now, I think a lot still.  But from the pedagogical stance, I think the answer is not much.

I disagree with Mark Edmunson’s NY Times op-ed in that communities can form online.  It’s obviously not the same and nothing is like listening to a record on vinyl.  But the product is simply too expensive to be worth it at the moment.  And for those of us who made life-long friends in college, well 20-year-olds are good at making life-long friends, no matter where they are.

So, I’m signing up and I’ll see how it goes.  I’m midway through my database class, so if the course-work is too much, I know which one I’ll drop (not the database class).  But I think it will be interesting and even more so since English classes are built around interaction.  If you prefer to see a breakdown by “term,” you can go here.


3 thoughts on “Coursera and Udacity are college killers

  1. Hmmm do they have language courses? That could be really useful … Yours sounds cool too! Also I need to reread Zen and the Art !!

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