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Scientific superstars to headline free online edX courses

Some scientific superstars will be headlining online classes offered through edX, the nonprofit that aims to transform education by offering classes online. The lineup of free classes offered by MIT this year includes a biology class taught by Eric Lander, a leader in the human genome project, a class focused on poverty from the economist and MacArthur “genius” Esther Duflo, and electricity and magnetism from legendary physics professor Walter Lewin.

And that is just a taste: Michael Sandel, a government professor at Harvard University, will offer his class on justice, already taken by 15,000 students, to the whole world. There will be a class on the Greek hero from Gregory Nagy, a leading classics professor at Harvard.

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These are charismatic thinkers at the top of their fields. At least one class description refers to the teacher as the “host” of the course, and I have no doubt students will be not only challenged, but entertained. Direct access to such professors is part of the dazzling promise of this sort of online education. Perhaps this is finally the right technological and cultural moment for online education to disrupt and destabilize the college campus.

Some early data from MIT give a preliminary sense of just how big an opportunity this is turning out to be — but also of the challenges to making online education successful. A tremendous number of students — 100,000 — signed up for MIT’s Introduction to Computer Science and Programming last fall. But only 11 percent actively used the course materials. Nearly 30,000 people signed up for a chemistry class, but only about 2,000 people passed. A class on circuits and electronics attracted 46,000 students, but only 6,000 were active participants, and about half of those passed. That is still a lot more than can fit in a typical lecture hall, but it was a drop-off from the first time the class was offered, when it drew a registration of more than 150,000 people, and more than 7,000 passed.

Putting academic star power at the helm of a raft of new classes seems a sure way to break more records, as well as to help with the continuing refinement of the classes. At least one MIT class will experiment with allowing students to earn a special certificate if they take a proctored exam for a fee, which is one solution to the possible cheating problem that arises with distance education.

But some of what people get out of higher education includes intangible things, such as useful connections or an understanding about how to live independently and function in the world. Knowledge is only part of the process, and even when it comes to knowledge, it is not clear yet the best way to impart it using online tools.

Like a lot of potentially world-changing technologies, people are probably both under- and over-estimating the transformation.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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