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May 31, 2012

Digital Revolution Shakes Colleges

by Jim Randle

Advancing digital technology is bringing major changes to higher education, after upending journalism, the music business, manufacturing and many other industries.  In a few cases, this digital revolution means tens of thousands of students can sign up for one class taught by top professors.  The pace of change in higher education is getting faster, and will affect teaching, student evaluation, and access to knowledge.

Imagine a university class with 160,000 students sitting at computers all around the world, all learning from the same professors.

It is not science-fiction.  It is a class at Stanford University in California taught by Sebastian Thrun.

"We are teaching this class at Stanford and now we are teaching it online for the entire world," said Thrun. "We are really excited about this."

The class in artificial intelligence by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig can be found on YouTube.  It's free, and proponents say it shows that top scholars can efficiently teach some subjects to anyone, anywhere.

Universities have been slow to change, according to Professor Rita McGrath at Columbia University in New York.

“The basic business model of our higher education has not changed since the age of Socrates. It is some guy standing in front of a group of people talking," said McGrath. "The advanced version is they ask questions."

McGrath tracks industries undergoing rapid change.  She says digital technology has improved and is about to spark major changes. Those change including how teachers teach, according to University of Maryland Professor Spencer Benson.  

"It's changed, in part, the role of the teacher or the role of the professor from being the content delivery unit to being the person who helps students find and evaluate and utimately be able to use content," said Benson.

Another change is the way a student's progress is measured.  Rob Hughes is the president of TopCoder, a company that awards on-line credentials to students.  
   
"Certainly code, software development, mathematics, algorithms, computer science; those things lend themselves very well to objective and automated testing systems," said Hughes.

More difficult to assess is student progress in literature, history and other nontechnical fields.  

One solution is to use online classes to present material, but still have an instructor to assess a student's understanding.

That is something Professor George Siemens has done at Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada.  

"It really is a very exciting time to be in education, but it is a little unsettling because we are asking big questions, about will the university survive, and if it does, what is it going to look like?" said Siemens.

While education leaders think many future classes will be online, some students at the University of Maryland have concerns.  
 
"It just seems it would be a little alien and harder to learn that way," said Cooper Gilbert.

"Late night studying with friends in the dorm was, like, really crucial for grades and classes," said Chuma Obineme.

These students liked the idea that online classes could be cheaper than traditional courses and available to people outside the university.

While some scholars say universities will resist change, others insist that massive online classes are just part of a digital revolution that will soon bring dramatic changes to the ways knowledge is gathered and shared.