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A Digital Revolution on the Horizon?

One of the trends within higher education that has always most interested me is the utilization of online technologies to offer free access to courses and institutional knowledge. Recently, more and more universities have begun to embrace this, and several have done so for some time, such as MIT’s OpenCourseWare offering access to free courses across disciplines, Stanford’s popular Engineering Everywhere and UC Berkeley’s extensive offering of course audio and videos.
If you’re a knowledge junkie like me, this is a great way to dig a bit deeper into subjects that interest you, or just spend a lazy afternoon trying to teach yourself something new. However, one of the questions that has always kept coming to my mind is “in what ways does the institution benefit from this?” Obviously, it generates greater awareness about universities with which I have had no previous affiliation and builds a reputation as a “giver” of free knowledge, if you will. But I’ve always wondered how universities could harness this into something more, such as offering certifications or some other acknowledgement of partaking in these resources.
I was very excited then to read an article a couple of weeks ago in the New York Times by Thomas Friedman about Coursera, the brainchild of two Stanford professors that “builds an interactive platform that will allow the best schools in the world to not only offer a wide range of free course lectures online, but also a system of testing, grading, student-to-student help and awarding certificates of completion of a course for under $100.”
So far, Coursera offers 40 courses in six categories from Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan and Stanford University. I can only assume that the number of universities as well as course offerings will expand in the future—Friedman predicts that in five years this industry will be “huge.” Why is that? As Friedman notes, “…thanks to the spread of high-speed wireless technology, high-speed Internet, smartphones, Facebook, the cloud and tablet computers, the world has gone from connected to hyperconnected in just seven years. Finally, a generation that has grown up on these technologies is increasingly comfortable learning and interacting with professors through online platforms.”
I’m very eager to continue following this trend, and of course find new things to read and learn about as new universities enter into this realm. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go choose which course to join in on!