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The New Yorker: Laptop U — Has the Future of College Moved Online?

Posted by The New Yorker May 20, 2013.

By Nathan Heller

Gregory Nagy, a professor of classical Greek literature at Harvard, is a gentle academic of the sort who, asked about the future, will begin speaking of Homer and the battles of the distant past. At seventy, he has owlish eyes, a flared Hungarian nose, and a tendency to gesture broadly with the flat palms of his hands. He wears the crisp white shirts and dark blazers that have replaced tweed as the raiment of the academic caste. His hair, also white, often looks manhandled by the Boston wind. Where some scholars are gnomic in style, Nagy piles his sentences high with thin-sliced exposition. (“There are about ten passages—and by passages I simply mean a selected text, and these passages are meant for close reading, and sometimes I’ll be referring to these passages as texts, or focus passages, but you’ll know I mean the same thing—and each one of these requires close reading!”) When he speaks outside the lecture hall, he smothers friends and students with a stew of blandishment and praise. “Thank you, Wonderful Kevin!” he might say. Or: “The Great Claudia put it so well.” Seen in the wild, he could be taken for an antique-shop proprietor: a man both brimming with solicitous enthusiasm and fretting that the customers are getting, maybe, just a bit too close to his prized Louis XVI chair.

Nagy has published no best-sellers. He is not a regular face on TV. Since 1978, though, he has taught a class called “Concepts of the Hero in Classical Greek Civilization,” and the course, a survey of poetry, tragedy, and Platonic dialogues, has made him a campus fixture. Because Nagy’s zest for Homeric texts is boundless, because his lectures reflect decades of refinement, and because the course is thought to offer a soft grading curve (its nickname on campus is Heroes for Zeroes), it has traditionally filled Room 105, in Emerson Hall, one of Harvard’s largest classroom spaces. Its enrollment has regularly climbed into the hundreds.

This spring, however, enrollment in Nagy’s course exceeds thirty-one thousand. “Concepts of the Hero,” redubbed “CB22x: The Ancient Greek Hero,” is one of Harvard’s first massive open online courses, or MOOCs—a new type of college class based on Internet lecture videos. A MOOC is “massive” because it’s designed to enroll tens of thousands of students. It’s “open” because, in theory, anybody with an Internet connection can sign up. “Online” refers not just to the delivery mode but to the style of communication: much, if not all, of it is on the Web. And “course,” of course, means that assessment is involved—assignments, tests, an ultimate credential. When you take MOOCs, you’re expected to keep pace. Your work gets regular evaluation. In the end, you’ll pass or fail or, like the vast majority of enrollees, just stop showing up.

Many people think that MOOCs are the future of higher education in America. In the past two years, Harvard, M.I.T., Caltech, and the University of Texas have together pledged tens of millions of dollars to MOOC development. Many other élite schools, from U.C. Berkeley to Princeton, have similarly climbed aboard. Their stated goal is democratic reach. “I expect that there will be lots of free, or nearly free, offerings available,” John L. Hennessy, the president of Stanford, explained in a recent editorial. “While the gold standard of small in-person classes led by great instructors will remain, online courses will be shown to be an effective learning environment, especially in comparison with large lecture-style courses.”

Some lawmakers, meanwhile, see MOOCs as a solution to overcrowding; in California, a senate bill, introduced this winter, would require the state’s public colleges to give credit for approved online courses. (Eighty-five per cent of the state’s community colleges currently have course waiting lists.) Following a trial run at San Jose State University which yielded higher-than-usual pass rates, eleven schools in the California State University system moved to incorporate MOOCs into their curricula. In addition to having their own professors teach, say, electrical engineering, these colleges may use videos by teachers at schools such as M.I.T.

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