Any lingering doubts were swept away in May, when Harvard and MIT announced a $60 million partnership to offer free online courses to the public under the edX brand.
Coursera, chief rival to edX, is responding Tuesday by expanding from four institutions to 16. The new partners include Johns Hopkins University, the University of Illinois, Duke University and CalTech.
“I think people are recognizing that this kind of experience is where a lot of the future of higher education lies,” said Koller, a Stanford computer scientist.
EdX and Coursera allow top schools to expand their global brand and share their intellectual capital with the world in the manner of academic missionaries. Perhaps as important, the online laboratories allow each institution to cultivate an internal digital culture.
“Simply put, online learning can substantially improve on-campus learning as well,” said Anant Agarwal, president of edX. “The way we educate students really hasn’t changed much in centuries.”
Some educators suggest that the global online platforms offer more flash than substance, and that financial benefits for schools are dubious.
“There’s no income from it. Nobody’s made a case that there will be any income from it,” said Marva Barnett, director of the Teaching Resource Center at U-Va. “Why is this such a desirable thing?”
Like many of its peers, U-Va. has lacked a central approach to online instruction. Until this month, no one had taken an inventory of the school’s online offerings.
Now, faculty are racing to take stock, and the emerging digital portrait is surprisingly rich. U-Va. offers at least 11 fully online degrees, all at the graduate level, and 15 professional certificates. Scores of undergraduate classes are taught partly online, and nearly every professor conducts at least some class business over the Internet.
“Almost all the faculty at U-Va. are doing it. The breadth and scope are shocking,” said William Guilford, an associate engineering professor who completed a quick tally of the university’s online efforts last week with a 53-member task force.
Sullivan has an ambitious plan to retool introductory courses as “hybrids,” replacing much of the human labor with technology and freeing professors to focus on higher-level classes. Her initiative would go further than most elite universities have dared in replacing human instructors with software.
Partly in response to Dragas, faculty leaders have announced a campus-wide “challenge,” offering $10,000 grants to professors who draw up “technology-enhanced” courses as a way to jump-start Sullivan’s initiative. The deadline is midnight Thursday.