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How online learning is reinventing college

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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?

It's a question arising with increasing frequency from Cambridge to California. Online learning, once considered the Yugo of higher education, is now sweeping through American academia faster than anyone thought conceivable just five years ago. Almost every week, some elite private college or public university announces plans to put professors on camera and beam lectures to students half a mile or half a world away. For the schools, the technology is a way to reach people they might not otherwise engage and to experiment with a tool that could transform how they dispense knowledge in the future.

For those tuning in – often thousands, ranging in age from 9 to 90 – it is a way to brush up on a subject, prepare for a course they may one day take on campus, or just learn from a professor they otherwise would never have access to, like a godfather of the Human Genome Project.

The candid question behind the camera is where this is all leading. Some people, like Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, predict that in as little as 15 years half of the colleges in the United States will be in bankruptcy, upended by online learning and the move to hybrid models in which only select classes are taught in person on campus. Others see more incremental shifts, with virtual learning remaining a tool rather than a transformative technology in higher education.

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