You can now undertake lifelong learning at Harvard… and at MIT, Stanford, Princeton and many other elite US universities – all for free. You can have access to some of the most famous and smartest people in the world to learn about the cosmos, computer science, philosophy or poetry – or whatever subjects your heart desires. You can be any age and live anywhere. You don’t even need to know English, as web-based translations are available. All you need is an Internet connection, curiosity and hunger for knowledge.
In May 2012, Harvard joined forces with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to launch edX, a massive open online course (MOOC). This is aimed at large-scale participation and open access via the web. Bankrolled with US$30 from each school, edX uses open-source technology platform and offers video lessons and discussion forums, and incorporates virtual labs where students can carry out simulated experiments. Overseeing the launch of edX is Anant Agarwal, the former director of MIT’s computer Science and Artificial Intelligence laboratory.
However, edX is not the first MOOC to be established. There are two other prominent MOOCs; both are spin-offs from Stanford University. They are Coursera and Udacity.
MOOCs first landed in the spotlight last year when, when Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor, offered a free artificial-intelligence course, attracting 160,000 students from190 nations. The resulting publicity galvanized elite research universities across the country to open higher education to everyone. Udacity is Mr. Thrun’s spinoff company, which bills itself as a 21st century alternative to the traditional university.
The success of Mr. Thrun’s online course in artificial intelligence also provided a boost to Coursera, currently leader in the field with 33 university partners, having started in April 2012 with Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, Stanford and the University of Michigan. Leading Coursera are Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, professors of computer science and artificial intelligence at Stanford University. Koller and Ng, like the leaders at edX, believe that online instruction will not only enhance distance learning but will also become a cornerstone of the college experience for on-campus students.
How are MOOCs different from traditional online courses?
Online courses are not new. The Open University in the UK has been offering online courses since 1969 and has enrolled over 260,000 students. Similarly the US-based Phoenix University has been offering online courses since 1976 with some 350,000 enrollees. These numbers, which reflect the success of the two institutions, pale beside the 1.5 million enrollees already achieved by Coursera.
Technology is what makes MOOCs different. It is hardly a coincidence that edX, Udacity and Coursera are all led by computer scientists. To fulfill their grand promise, these MOOCs will need to exploit the latest breakthrough in large-scale data processing and machine learning, which enable computer to adjust to the tasks at hand. Automation is needed to deliver complex classes to thousands of people simultaneously and to replace labor-intensive tasks traditionally performed by professors and teaching assistants. Advanced analytical software is also required to parse the enormous amounts of information about student behavior collected during the classed, to see patterns and obtain insights for further improvement in pedagogy and technology.
The MOOC pioneers believe that such artificial-intelligence techniques will bring higher education out of the industrial era and into the digital age. As edX’s Mr. Agarwal put it: “we are reinventing education; this will change the world”. I would say we are now glimpsing only the beginning of the big change that has yet to come. But for us, practitioners of Sage Vita, the opportunity of lifelong learning is already here, and the future has never looked better.