Feature Story

Online Education and the Virtual Classroom

by Eric Rabkin

Online education is tearing down the classroom walls, making way for new ideas and business opportunities.

Sometimes the best inventions happen by accident. One of the world's great storehouses of biological knowledge is the Animal Diversity Web. In 1995, University of Michigan biology professor Philip Myers decided to use the new medium of the World Wide Web to engage his students in producing the textbook he thought his course needed but did not exist.

The tasks of researching, writing, checking, and posting information about animal species and their habitats could, Myers reasoned, not only teach students about animal diversity but also help them better understand the science involved.  He was right.  What he had not foreseen, however, was that ADW would spawn a set of overlapping worldwide communities. Today over half a million users consult ADW each month, many engage not only in borrowing from this crowd-sourced resource but augmenting it.  It serves as a key tool in elementary and secondary education in schools worldwide and motivates research in over 50 universities and colleges.  ADW continues to grow and has created whole new studies in how one learns and teaches. Myers's success went well beyond the walls of his university.

The most famous intramural project to burst beyond its original walls is Facebook. The story, told in the widely admired 2010 film The Social Network, began as an attempt to facilitate dating at Harvard. Today Facebook counts membership over a seventh of the total human population of our planet.  The effects are widespread, and often surprising. 

The Social Network, based on a 2009 book, by Ben Mezrich The Accidental Billionaires, points to the frequent connection on the web between accidental community formation and economic opportunity.

Forrester Research did a study last year which noted the rising importance of "accidental entrepreneurs." These may be tech-savvy white collar professionals, or stay-at-home spouses. But they understand the new economy and are driven by profits, not passion. "Accidental entrepreneurs" see opportunities to offer better products and services, and then take advantage of those opportunities, often using consumer technology.

Although correspondence courses have existed since Englishman Isaac Pitman began teaching his new shorthand method by mail in the 1840s, the World Wide Web has enabled an explosion of educational options.  To date, most have mimicked so-called "residential courses."  The Art Department is a born-digital art school in which six to twenty students per course, who may live in a dozen different time zones, meet in real time via educational software, discuss their and their fellow students' artwork, and receive individual instruction from live staff.

Recently, however, born-digital education has taken a quantum leap in magnitude and a qualitative leap in methods.  Udacity, Coursera and edX all host MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that, so far, are free for the taking and also free of admissions criteria.  They are just beginning to experiment with ways to validate credentialing and to develop models for economic support at least partially supplied by students, their employers or school districts.  Individual MOOCs range from tens of thousand to well over a hundred thousand "students" per course.  Such education must depend on automated processes, crowd-sourcing, or both.

To the extent that crowd-sourcing is involved, MOOCs facilitate the development of accidental communities.  In my MOOC, "Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World", as with ADW, I encountered the unexpected.   Native Portugese speakers formed their own online study group, finding comfort in discussing the English-language texts among themselves in their mother tongue.  After the MOOC finished, I received a thank you note from a Latin American woman who reported that a global group of about 75 of my "students" had formed their own online book club.

Accidental communities breed accidental entrepreneurs, some of which are controversial.  We Take Your Class offers to do just what its name implies—for a fee—while "you get an A."  Actively Learn, however, instead of undercutting learning in the online community, aims to enrich it by selling a tool that allows instructors to embed questions in e-texts and monitor individual distant-learners' responses.  In economic terms, both enterprises arise because education is going beyond traditional schoolroom walls.  There is no doubt that MOOCs point to a still-undefined revolution in education.  The public, however, will determine which models of education, and which of a host of accidental entrepreneurs, enjoy extra-mural success.


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