Higher education in the United States is undergoing radical change. Some of the best colleges in the US—including Harvard, Duke, and Yale—are putting large chunks of their course content online, a move which is threatening the traditional model of higher education and, indeed, the notion of “college” itself. As the content of these highly rigorous courses becomes open to students, dreamers, and lifelong learners around the globe, one question becomes immediately apparent: Why on earth is Northwestern moving so slowly at putting their own content online?
On the domestic front, the movement is already fully underway, as top-tier colleges across the nation begin to provide their course content online for free. There is edX, where MIT and Harvard are collaborating to put some classes (and certificates of completion) online. Yale offers some of their courses via their Open Yale Courses portal. Perhaps the most clamored-about provider is Coursera, which has aggregated selected content from over thirty universities (from Brown and Princeton to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). This seismic shift—wherein the education of the elite has become available to the masses—is being aided by entrepreneurs and innovators who are figuring out how to award credit to students who take these courses. Recently, Colorado State announced that they would begin giving course credit to students who take and pass these MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses).
There is an obvious question arising from all of this: why is this movement something that Northwestern should be interested in? The reasons are expansive, and their effects could be wide-ranging. For colleges, it offers an excellent opportunity to showcase their university and its course content to prospective and continuing education students (not to mention lifelong learners) around the world. For students, these courses present an opportunity to take interesting classes in any field from the best professors at the best universities (who wouldn’t want to take Eric Schulz for Microeconomics?). Perhaps more importantly, it provides a route to drive down college costs, potentially bursting the bubble of spiraling higher education costs at state universities. By allowing students to take these free classes, students can spend less on courses at their home institutions, forcing schools to improve their quality and decrease their costs. These incentives will induce more competition between colleges to produce a better product.
Perhaps the largest advantages—and the most exciting opportunities—that online education brings come on an international scale. When Stanford offered an artificial intelligence class last year, it brought in students representing 190 countries; over 160,000 enrolled. This democratization of education is providing people around the world with the opportunity to learn, self-credential, and innovate. The prospects for this revolution to affect economic growth and basic human rights cannot be overstated.
In the meantime, Northwestern has sat passively on the sidelines, allowing our brand to sit idly by while a staggering number of other reputable schools push their name, their history, and their learning experiences into places that two decades ago seemed remote and unreachable. Places where education is neither very good nor very ubiquitous. Places where rigid social structures keep large swaths of society in ignorance. Places where a college education is little more than a daydream. The opportunity for working class citizens around the world to virtually attend Ivy League schools (or their far superior Midwestern counterparts) is representative of the democratization of education that has never been seen before.
In the world of online education, there is a gigantic first-mover advantage. Northwestern could literally reach billions of potential students, innovators, and policymakers all around the world by developing and releasing online content, but this will only be noteworthy if it happens soon. At this point, the farthest that we have gone is forming committees and working on expanding a small collection of online courses provided by the School of Continuing Studies. Northwestern’s reluctance to aggressively embrace this shift is both perplexing and frustrating, a symbol of a reactionary administrative culture that prioritizes following in Yale’s footsteps to leading decisively.