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How online learning is reinventing college

The online learning movement, spreading more by the week, will change how tomorrow's students go to school, who teaches them, and what they learn. 

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This image shows one of the campus gates leading into Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

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Students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are not automatically required to go to class. So you notice when, on a lousy midwinter evening in a driving 45-degree rain, 98 show up at Room 46-3002 in Singleton Auditorium. They come not for the free Thai takeout (though it's appreciated), but because everyone in Eric Lander's introductory biology course is needed. In person.

Ilana Porter, an ebullient first-year student from New Jersey, doesn't mind, and even dumps her plate of noodles to be on time. "We want good seats," she says, and secures a spot in the front row.

Dr. Lander, a MacArthur "genius" and a leader of the Human Genome Project, is the sort of iconic professor you expect to find at the front of a lecture hall at an eminent university. In Ms. Porter's pared down parlance, he is "legit." So much else here, though, is experimental. That's because "Introduction to Biology: The Secret of Life" is also a Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, offered by edX, the MIT-Harvard University nonprofit, free of charge to anyone in the world with an Internet connection.

Producers film the course with three cameras "like a sporting event," says videographer James Donald. Professional stage lights illuminate the room. Techies with headsets hover at the perimeter. Before Lander, with rain-dampened hair, starts his lecture, he looks to Mr. Donald for the "we're rolling" sign. Then, during more than half the class, he gazes into a teleprompter, addressing a person whose expressive face has been projected onto the screen to make Lander respond to his remote pupils more naturally. Porter and her peers in the auditorium are just the brainy studio audience.

One might ask, exactly whose class is this, anyway?

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