David Brooks (and Harvard and MIT and Stanford) Get Online Education Right


This week, Harvard joined MIT in a new online education venture, a nonprofit called edX. The two schools have committed $60 million to offering free courses online from their best and brightest faculty members. The first course, which MIT kicked off in March enrolled about 120,000 students. 10,000 of them made through the recent midterm. The courses are not for credit, but do offer certificates of mastery.

Meanwhile, Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan are partnering in a for-profit company, Coursera, which has snagged $16 million in venture capital. And Stanford prof Sebastian Thurn boast 200,000 students lined up for the six courses his new company, Udacity, is offering.

New York Times columnist David Brooks comes in for a fair amount of criticism here at Reason. But in today's paper, he gets the future of online education right. As the provision of information and lectures and lab demonstrations become  commodities, the best schools will direct their energies toward figuring out how to help students become better at "the complex social and emotional process" of learning.

What happened to the newspaper and magazine business is about to happen to higher education: a rescrambling around the Web….

The early Web radically democratized culture, but now in the media and elsewhere you're seeing a flight to quality. The best American colleges should be able to establish a magnetic authoritative presence online.

My guess is it will be easier to be a terrible university on the wide-open Web, but it will also be possible for the most committed schools and students to be better than ever.

More Reason on online ed.


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  1. Several people at my work have been taking the Stanford ones. Also we just gave some money to MIT to help fund these.

    1. Relearning my college calculus with David Jerison on MIT Open Courseware.

    2. A lot of my work involves emerging machine vision techniques and the Stanford course on it was simply awesome.

  2. So, gone are the days when Arthur Miller was ostracized for videotaping lectures for Concord Law School?

  3. iTunesU is pretty good as well for individual courses. MIT’s OpenCourseWare is also very good.

  4. OT:…../#comments

    Is this kinda photo-shoppy to anyone else?

    1. Lighting looks wrong! A little too vivid for outdoors.

    2. http://climateconference.heart…..illboards/

      Wait, wait. Turns it out Heartland was actually that stupid to run that billboard.

    3. Those people are clearly morons, but this is rich.

      Warms the heart, it does, to see how low they can sink with good old-fashioned, old-school slime tactics.

      Also, a little PZ Meyers warning next time, please?

      1. Any link to PZ Meyers should be reported to

    4. Heartland isn’t worth the trouble of defending anyway.

      They’re a poor man’s American Enterprise Institute, which is to say, they’re a destitute man’s Heritage Foundation.

    5. You want your organization to NOT be taken seriously? Run idiotic billboards like that and back them by even more idiotic reasoning explaining them.

      I’m glad I never sent those idiots a dime. I’d be eternally embarrassed.

  5. How can they do this without diluting the value for a degree student? It seems to me if 100,000 can easily “pass” a course, then prospective employers are idiots for hiring degree students.

    1. This assumes that the elite universities continue to act as employment gatekeepers forever. Employers may have to find some other way to narrow down multitudes of job applicants with liberal arts degrees.

      If a particular skill is that easy to obtain, then it doesn’t serve as much of a benchmark for employers.

      High level math/science/engineering courses naturally weed out the less talented in those fields, regardless of how/where the course is taken. It’s interesting that the Harvard/Yale snob factor is less important in those fields.

  6. Free courses attract students. Now there’s some news.

    Get back to me when they figure out the grading issue. (How to effectively grade large numbers of participants without resorting to multiple choice exams.)

  7. Really exciting stuff happening with on-line education. The real interesting moment will be when someone cracks the nut of certifying an on-line education to the satisfaction of potential employers (or, when relevant, to higher-levels of education).

    Speaking of certification, an industry in reviewing and evaluating the quality of on-line courses should evolve, expanding beyond saying such-and-such professor is good to evaluating any on-line course. Meaning brilliant people could post stuff from the comfort of their own home without any university affiliation.

    1. It may be that you gain mastery online but have to prove it practically. That is show up, in person somewhere and prove you’ve got the knowins’.

      There might even be a ladder that folks can climb. The more mastery proven the more valuable the person. So people can stop at the point they want to instead of having to face an all or nothing type challenge.

      1. Sure. The real key will be showing that you know what you need to know. Since employers want some sort of triage process, whatever certification there is will have to be good enough for them to hire you with that certification instead of the university degree proxy.

  8. Online ed kills the idea of schools completely.

    Why should a bunch of kids all go to one place and rotate through a bunch of instructors who all give the same lecture to the various groups of kids who come through their classroom when the course work can be recorded once and accessed as needed?

    Kids who don’t get will be able to access supplementary material or tutors at their own pace and those that do get can move through the course and get it finished without having to be stuck in the class with all the slower folks.

    The need for having a whole gaggle of teachers, administrators and classified staff is almost over. And good fucking riddance.

    1. There will still be a need for trade schools since learning how to safely and effectively operate machinery requires a n=hands on approach and private schools can take care of that easily.

      1. Yes, n does equal hands on. The more you know!

    2. It doesn’t kill the research aspect, which is where universities will still have sway–focusing on obtaining research grants and free their professors from the pretense of being good teachers. Overseeing grad students is one thing, but having Dr. Genius teach Chemistry 101 is a waste of his time, not to mention the fact that he’s probably not very good at it.

      In essence, “universities” become “institutes” in this scenario.

  9. Sometimes you jsut have to throw your hands up in the air and cry, Whos your daddy!

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