The Decline of the Brick-and-Mortar Classroom

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Common Dreams

The Decline of the Brick-and-Mortar Classroom

The following is excerpted from Jeremy Rifkin's latest book, The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism, and appears here with the kind permission of the publisher.

The escalating cost of higher education has created a crisis with millions of students increasingly unable to pay for a four-year college degree, which can cost up to $50,000 a year in the elite not-for-profit colleges and universities and as much as $10,000 per year in publicly funded institutions of higher learning. Students who are able to secure college loans -- even with government assistance -- face the prospect of massive debt that will burden them well into midlife.

Colleges and universities strapped with ever-higher costs have increasingly turned to corporate sponsors for endowments and operating revenue. In return, the commercial sector has chipped away at the "independence" of these institutions of higher learning, requiring that more of their operations be privatized, from food services and resident and guest accommodations to general maintenance. Corporate advertising is rampant, with Fortune 500 logos adorning sports stadiums and lecture halls. University research facilities, especially in the natural sciences, are increasingly jointly managed, with companies leasing laboratories and contracting with academic departments to conduct proprietary research under various nondisclosure agreements.

Knowledge has been enclosed behind the walls of academic institutions whose price of admission excludes all but the wealthiest. That's about to change. The Internet revolution, whose distributed, collaborative, peer-to-peer power has begun to knock down the walls of once seemingly invincible enclosures across the societal spectrum, has unleashed its full fury on the academic community. The thrust of the assault is coming from inside the academy itself and has been ignited by the same combustible that is tearing asunder realm after realm -- the implacable logic of a multifaceted technological revolution that's driving marginal cost to near zero everywhere there is vulnerability to exploit.

The revolution began when a Stanford University professor, Sebastian Thrun, offered a "free" course on artificial intelligence (AI) online in 2011, one similar to the course he taught at the university. Around 200 students normally enrolled in Thurn's course, so he anticipated that only a few thousand would register. But by the time it commenced, 160,000 students from every country in the world -- with the exception of North Korea -- were sitting at their computers in the biggest classroom ever convened for a single course in all of history. "It absolutely blew my mind," said Thrun. Twenty-three thousand of those students completed the course and graduated.

Although thrilled that he was able to teach more students in one virtual course setting than he could reach in several lifetimes of teaching, Thrunwas struck by the irony. While Stanford students were paying $50,000 or more per year to attend world-class courses like the ones he taught, the cost of making the course available to every other potential student in the world was nearly nothing. Thrun went on to launch an online university called Udacity, with the goal of providing a top-quality education for every young person in the world, especially the poor in developing countries who otherwise would never have the opportunity to be exposed to learning at this level. And so began the stampede to online learning.

Two of Thrun's computer-science colleagues, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, who participated with him in the online course experiment, set up a competing for-profit online university website called Coursera. While Udacity is developing its own courses, the Coursera founders have taken a different path -- rounding up some of the leading academic institutions in a collaborative consortium to offer a full curriculum taught by some of the best college professors in the world.

Coursera's founders brought on the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, Princeton, and the University of Michigan for starters, giving Coursera the academic heft to build out their vision. Coursera was followed by edX, a nonprofit consortium put together by Harvard and MIT. Coursera now has 97 participating universities as of this writing. EdX has also expanded to more than 30 universities. This new education phenomenon is called MOOCs, which, as mentioned in chapter 1, stands for Massive Open Online Courses.

The Coursera model, which is similar to the others, is grounded in three foundations. First, the course is made up of five- to ten-minute video segments presented by the professor and accompanied by various visual and graphic effects and even short interviews and news items to bring the experience alive and make it more appealing and vital. Students can pause and replay the lectures, allowing them to review material and absorb the work at their own pace. Students are also provided with preparatory materials in advance of each virtual-classroom session and optional material for those who are interested in diving deeper into the subject matter.

The second foundation is practice and mastery. After each video segment, students are required to answer questions. The system automatically grades students' answers on the quizzes, giving them immediate feedback on how they're doing. The research shows that these pop quizzes are powerful incentives to keep students involved -- turning the course into more of an intellectual game than a drudgery to be endured. There are homework assignments after each class and grades are given out weekly. Courses that require human eyes to do the grading are evaluated by fellow students in a peer-topeer process, making the students responsible for each other's performance.

The idea that students learn by judging the performance of their fellow classmates has gained traction within the online academic community. To assess the accuracy of peer-to-peer grading when compared with the grades the professor might give, Mitchell Duneier, a professor at Princeton University who teaches Introduction to Sociology at Coursera Online University, ran a test. He and his teaching assistants graded thousands of midterm and final examinations, compared their scores with the peer-to-peer grading, and found a correlation of 0.88. The average peer score came in at 16.94 of 24 possible points while the professors' score was 15.64 -- very close.

The third and final foundation is the formation of virtual and real life study groups that are established across political boundaries and geographic terrains, transforming the learning process into a global classroom where students teach each other as much as they are being taught by a teacher. Universities that participate in edX augment their study groups by asking their own alumni to volunteer as online mentors and discussion group leaders. Harvard professor Gregory Nagy recruited ten of his former teaching fellows to help serve as online study group facilitators in the MOOC based on his popular course, Concepts of the Ancient Greek Hero. Upon graduating the Coursera and edX courses, the students receive a certificate of completion.

The crowdsourcing approach to learning online is designed to foster a distributed, collaborative, peer-to-peer learning experience on the Commons -- the kind that prepares students for the coming era. By February 2013, Coursera had approximately 2.7 million students from 196 countries enrolled in hundreds of courses.

EdX's first course, in 2012, had an enrollment of 155,000 students. Anant Agarwal, edX's president and formerly the director of MIT's artificial-intelligence laboratory, noted that enrollment in the first virtual course nearly equaled the total number of MIT alumni in the university's 150 years of existence. Agarwal says he hopes to draw in a billion students in a decade.

World-class universities are taking a gamble that the global reach and visibility that MOOCs give their "rock-star" faculties will draw the best and brightest students to their admissions offices. Like their counterparts in the commercial arena, they are hoping to grab hold of the long tail and profit by offering the courses free online to millions of students and corralling in a tiny percentage of those students to their campuses. Their rationale is that by giving their intellectual gifts away for free, they will be helping millions of online students who ordinarily couldn't afford such an education, while capturing a sufficient number of the best students to maintain their own brick-and-mortar operations.

The problem is, when the best education in the world can be delivered at near zero marginal cost and made nearly free online, what's to prevent any accredited university from accepting a MOOC's certification for credits for a very small fee so that students can be accredited with a college education? While employers might be skittish early on about credits from MOOCs, as more colleges and universities come on board, their doubts are likely to recede. Indeed, employers might look more favorably on credits obtained by graduating from MOOCs taught by some of the world's leading academics, rather than traditional credits earned by attending and passing courses taught by less renowned professors at undistinguished colleges.

Kevin Carey, policy director for the Education Sector, a think tank headquartered in Washington, D.C., got to the core of the dilemma facing colleges and universities in an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He wrote:

All of this points toward a world where economies of higher education are broken down and restructured around marginal cost. The cost of serving the 100,000th student who enrolls in a MOOC is essentially zero, which is why the price is zero, too. Open-source textbooks and other free online resources will drive the prices of supporting materials toward the zero line as well.

What Carey is talking about is patently obvious. Whatever "marginal value" elite universities might exact on the long tail by providing free education to hundreds of millions of students is paltry compared to the loss of revenue to the brick-and-mortar system of higher education as a whole, when the marginal cost of teaching online is nearly zero and the courses are nearly free. Does any academic or social entrepreneur really believe that the traditional, centralized, brick-and-mortar education will survive as we know it in a world where the best education money can buy is made free online? The traditional colleges and universities will increasingly have to accommodate the MOOCs approach to learning and find their place in an ascending Collaborative Commons.

Jeremy Rifkin

Jeremy Rifkin is author of The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism, one of the most popular social thinkers of our time, is a bestselling author whose 20 books have been translated into 35 languages. Rifkin is an advisor to the European Union and to heads of state around the world and a lecturer at the Wharton School's Executive Education Program at the University of Pennsylvania. For more information please visit

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