School’s Out, Forever

A new online education program from Harvard and MIT is poised to transform what it means to go to college.

edX Online Classes

Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust, former MIT president Susan Hockfield, and edX president Anant Agarwal at the May announcement of the new online higher education program. (Photo by Bill Greene/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Not everyone, however, is happy with the idea of shifting from in-person classes focused on a four-year degree to online tutorials focused on a specific competency. Sylvia Martinez of Generation YES, a nonprofit focused on educational technology, worries that many students, particularly at- risk students, require a more hands-on approach to learning than online lectures provide. She’s also concerned that many people mistake delivering content online with teaching. “People,” she says, “learn through experience, through research and the kinds of experiments they conduct on the MIT campus. You wouldn’t want to go to a doctor who just watched a bunch of videos about open-heart surgery—at least I certainly wouldn’t.”

Another issue is motivation. Martinez and other critics believe that many students need the requirement of showing up for class or the weight of paying a significant amount of money to compel them to do the work. So far, their fears appear justified—online course completion rates have been low. When Coursera, one of the initiatives that came out of Stanford, offered a machine learning class last fall, 104,000 people signed up, but only 13,000, or 12.5 percent, received a certificate of completion. MIT fared even worse. Of the 154,763 students who took the Institute’s electrical circuits course, only 4.6 percent earned a certificate. The rest either dropped out or didn’t pass. (Another way to interpret these numbers is that more than 7,000 people did complete and pass the course—50 percent more than MIT’s entire undergraduate enrollment.)

There’s also a problem with subject matter: EdX’s auto-graders, which are necessary to handle the large volume of students, are currently unable to deal with anything other than objectively right or wrong answers. This works fine for math and science classes, but is problematic when it comes to the humanities. Henry Leitner, an associate dean at Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education, concedes that the technology is not yet good enough to grade essays, but says, “There are a lot of brainstorming sessions taking place right now on how best to do it.”

Meanwhile, if we’re educating the world, there’s a concern that we’re exporting one of the most valuable American assets—our excellent higher education system—and doing so for free. Beyond whatever competitive disadvantages that may put us at, there’s also the potential that developing nations, trying to educate millions of people, will choose not to build costly new brick-and-mortar institutions, potentially undercutting the growth of academic cultures there. Instead, these countries might steer students to the Internet, where they can get a fine education for practically nothing.

And what of all the professors? In June, the education publication Inside Higher Ed and the Babson Survey Research Group released a study showing that 58 percent of faculty members described themselves as more fearful than excited about the future of online education. If one professor can go from reaching 150 students to 150,000, that has the potential to put a lot of educators out of work. And two-thirds of the faculty members surveyed viewed learning outcomes from an online class as generally inferior to those from a face-to-face course. Then again, 80 percent of budget-conscious academic technology administrators said they were more excited than fearful about the new form of learning.

Perhaps most important, the edX experience is remarkably different from the experience of going to college on campus. Agarwal and edX students concede that you lose out on one-on-one time with professors, apprenticeships, mentoring, and research opportunities, not to mention the fun and growth that accompany campus living. Generation YES’s Martinez says she has no doubt that online learning will produce “some favorable outcomes.But will it be the norm? I don’t think so.”


  • Marissa

    Startups like GatherEducation, which is based in Boston, have developed platforms that promote student engagement and mimic the face to face classroom. While online learning might not replace the traditional classroom, there is no reason it should be viewed as an inferior experience.

  • Tchad Rogers

    I wonder how Cuban, Khan, and other employers willing to fill roles with non-degree holding individuals filter their job applications. I agree with the assertion that ability maters more than a degree, but what credible signals can non-degree holding, entry-level applicants include on a resume? I would like to see realistic, actionable recommendations for employers who need to filter through hundreds of applications to fill a few positions, and how to do that without at least partially considering the educational background of applicants. Like it or not, a candidate with a degree from a top-school is almost always more impressive than a better-qualified degreeless candidate (on paper) because assessing that the latter is better-qualified is incredibly difficult to do based on a couple of sheets of paper. Most of the time, I would argue, the latter candidate never even gets the chance to demonstrate ability, because they are not interviewed.

    • anoncambridge

      I disagree — I am a prospective employer so am taking an edx class myself (the biostatistics class). It’s the ‘real deal’. I’m less impressed with fancy schools than with actual difficult coursework (from at least a halfway-decent school). Too many grade-inflated test takers that just don’t cut it. I need people who can think and then who can ‘do’.

  • SirenoftheSea

    Back when I attended a community college part-time while working full time and worked my way up to a management position in my industry, the college grads hired off the campus at job fairs by my huge corporation often came in with a lack of the basics. Many could not write a sentence let alone a paragraph. Everyone wants the “college experience” and to be “college-educated” but many didn’t crack a book their entire lives and will need to have someone else write their essays or will buy them on line. Education is cheapened while being even more expensive by sending everyone ( and just the ones who can afford it but are not college material) to college. In some countries there is a track for training in trades and one for college, in most cases they have the right idea. I love that these courses will be available from these prestigious schools. The next step should be farm systems for all major league sports and schools only being able to give scholarships to athletes who could actually qualify based on their scholarship not just their athleticism. We have turned our colleges into a training ground for the NFL and NBA and the cheating that goes with that atmosphere.


    Billion people. How can this be done.

    In the Digital world. Infinity is the rule.

    One Digital copy can be reproduced to Millions/Billions copies.

    Beatles. Elvis. Michael Jackson. We can listen to their music online.

    There is NO reason we cannot download the lectures or class Notes or class Homework.

    Apple ceo steve jobs: Richest man in cemetary.

    Professor: smartest professor in cemetary.

    Give it All away. None of us can take it to the cemetary.

    No one should the No 1 professor at the cemetary.

    Give it All away. World will be better place. No one can take anything to the cemetary with them.

  • writing services reviews

    That kind of class is really great. They can be able to discuss and do things perfectly easy and handy. Technologies gives its power that make things easier and it’s good that it was being applied in education.

  • Nabila Naorin

    It does not matter if 4.6% students have passed a course.. the thing is some of these students may not even taken this kind of high standard course in their life without edx’s curriculum because it costs a lot of money in real world.. i think it is a great initiative and can transform the way underprivileged people study