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Internet Access Is Only Prerequisite For More and More College Classes

Less than a week into Yale's video launch of seven introductory courses, philosophy professor Shelly Kagan had gotten enthusiastic, inquisitive e-mail messages from people who had watched his classes.
Less than a week into Yale's video launch of seven introductory courses, philosophy professor Shelly Kagan had gotten enthusiastic, inquisitive e-mail messages from people who had watched his classes. (Yale University)
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By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 31, 2007

Berkeley's on YouTube. American University's hoping to get on iTunes. George Mason professors have created an online research tool, a virtual filing cabinet for scholars. And with a few clicks on Yale's Web site, anyone can watch one of the school's most popular philosophy professors sitting cross-legged on his desk, talking about death.

Studying on YouTube won't get you a college degree, but many universities are using technology to offer online classes and open up archives. Sure, some schools have been charging for distance-learning classes for a long time, but this is different: These classes are free. At a time when many top schools are expensive and difficult to get into, some say it's a return to the broader mission of higher education: to offer knowledge to everyone.

And tens of millions are reaching for it.

For schools, the courses can bring benefits, luring applicants, spreading the university's name, impressing donors, keeping alumni engaged. Virginia Tech, for example, offers some online classes free to its graduates.

As the technology evolves, the classes are becoming far more engaging to a broader public. (Think a class on "Bioinformatics and Computational Biology Solutions Using R and Bioconductor" sounds a little dry? Try reading the lecture notes, alone, on a computer screen.) With better, faster technology such as video, what once was bare-bones and hard-core -- lecture notes aimed at grad students and colleagues -- is now more ambitious and far more accessible.

With video, you can watch Shelly Kagan, the well-known Yale philosopher, asking students about existence and what makes someone's life worthwhile.

"If death is the end, is death bad?"

The focus is sharp enough to see the sticks of chalk at the blackboard, the laces on his Converse All-Stars. You can watch his black eyebrows fly up and down as he makes points. You can see which books are on the syllabus and get the assignments online.

Just don't ask him to grade the papers.

* * *

Some professors try this on their own, on a small scale. Schools are feeling their way, experimenting with different technologies; some use Utah State University's eduCommons on the Web; some post to free sites such as YouTube and the Apple university site iTunes U. Other schools have plunged right in: MIT has 1,800 classes online, virtually the entire curriculum free and open to all.

"The idea was to have a broad impact on education worldwide and make a statement at a time when many schools were launching for-profit distance-learning ventures," Steve Carson of MIT OpenCourseWare said, "trying to redefine the role of the institution in the digital age."


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