Online courses evoke original spirit of Web

To the editor:

In the past two years there has been a sudden explosion of “massively online open courses” – virtual classrooms in cyberspace – with many of the most prestigious universities in the world providing open access to their classes for everyone. There is nothing fringe about them. These professors are often among the biggest names in their fields.

In principle, there was no reason this could not have started a decade ago. It was only recently that Harvard and MIT chose to launch their own open-source platform, edX, turning their existing “open courseware” initiatives into a structured format where thousands of students could simultaneously learn and earn certificates to prove it. Coursera, a for-profit vendor with optional fees, was founded at almost the same time by artificial intelligence experts at Stanford.

Why would they do something so terribly irrational? Most of these schools are elite. So elite, in fact, there is no risk in it. It will not hurt their brand names at all. There are even classes being offered by institutions like the IMF and World Bank. In spite of all the hype surrounding them, most of the backlash is unwarranted. In the past year I have finished more than 50 “MOOCs,” and most of them are the real thing. Some are more than legitimate; they are graduate level.

What they are trying to do is spiritually aligned with an older form of the Internet. It was first invented to facilitate communication between computers at universities, national laboratories and other major institutions. The “World Wide Web” itself was designed for the use of particle physicists 20 years later. The sheer amount of noise and misinformation on the Web today can be counter-balanced by this kind of high-quality control on knowledge.

I would advise students who are in high school now to try one of these courses in their spare time, though they need to take the prerequisites seriously. Since there are usually on-campus equivalents, you can check their “level” by looking them up. But these courses are really for everyone, at all levels. The majority of people who actually get passing grades already have college degrees.

What you really find in them is networking over shared interests, becoming current, acquiring specialized skills and being informed on policy. You see people broadening themselves in the traditional liberal arts sense. It is a way for teachers to learn the state of the art in a subject and bring it back into their own classrooms.

Sometimes, it might even be a way of pushing yourself over a barrier, which you would not have been motivated to do on your own. To illustrate this, one of my friends will be learning as much relativistic quantum field theory as possible with me over the summer, so we can try to pass a very advanced course in the fall on the physics used at the Large Hadron Collider.

The Web is starting – in that limited sense, at least – to come full circle.

Robert Schnibbe

Saranac Lake