The Boom in Online Courses

Last month on the Daily Show, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty predicted the rise of “iCollege,” a Web-based model of higher education that students could download for $199 rather than “haul their keister” to class. Many academics snarled back (“pedagogical dystopia,” one Cornell professor called it), since the idea seems to minimize the role of live student-teacher exchanges. But Pawlenty’s vision already has some lofty adherents. Pennsylvania’s university system is considering making its language courses online only; Indiana recently added an “affordable” Web-based campus; and Yale Law School is sharing resources with the University of the People, a pioneering “global college” that’s tuition-free and totally online.

Now my own school, New York University, is trying to become the first to fully marry 18th-century standards with 21st-century technology. We’re developing interactive video courses with recorded lectures, pop-up definitions of obscure words, and live links to primary sources. Rather than minimize the professor-pupil dialogue, the idea is to free professors from lecture requirements so that they can become broader intellectual curators—modern-day Oxford dons who pull students out of their duct-taped beanbag chairs and into university life for discussion sections, guest lectures, and, especially in New York, real-world exhibits. For more traditional dialogues, of course, office hours are always available.

Conley is dean of social sciences at NYU.

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