By WGBH News
May 3, 2012
BOSTON — On May 2, MIT and Harvard announced a new $60 million joint initiative offering online classes for free. At the launch, MIT president Susan Hockfield called this era "a moment charged with the most exciting possibilities presented to educators in our lifetimes."
Those are possibilities being taken up by a number of institutions — especially as the cost of a traditional college education continues to skyrocket.
Harvard had already seen a surge in demand for online education through its Extension School, said Henry Leitner, chief technology officer for Harvard's Division of Continuing Education. Initially, the college offered only computer science courses online. Now about 175 of its annual 620 extension courses offer an online option — and they account for a good 40 percent of the school's enrollment. The university has been experimenting with different formats, from the traditional lecture to live, interactive lectures and small-group discussions via web conferencing.
Leitner attributed the popularity partly to the need for flexibility. "We're dealing primarily with adult learners," he said. Even some Harvard employees "will prefer to go home and when they feel ready to receive the knowledge they'll go online and they'll participate in the course." He considered online education an excellent way of reaching nontraditional students.
But the landscape of online ed is changing. At one time, big for-profit entities such as the University of Phoenix and Capella University seemed wholly unlike a traditional college. "There used to be much more of a difference than there might be now," said Mary Carmichael, higher education reporter for the Boston Globe. But now, "it seems like the categories are all sort of breaking down."
edX is an example of the hybrid models that are now meeting in the middle. Other hybrids include Udacity, a spinoff of Stanford professors that's not actually part of Stanford, Carmichael said. Then there's a California-based startup called Minerva, being dubbed "the online Ivy." Minerva is trying to create a traditional university experience with small classes and perhaps even an old-school core curriculum, Carmichael said, "but a lot of it is online and the students don't live together. So where do you even place that on the spectrum?"
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