Stephen Smith: From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary.

Computers and the internet are changing college in America.

Voice 1: This is the beginning of the revolution.
Voice 2: And things are moving extremely, extremely fast.
Voice 3: There's going to be the invention of lots of low-cost universities now.

From data-driven classrooms to Ivy League professors teaching for free online.

Voice 4: Udacity is trying to make great education available to the entire world.
Voice 5: When has it ever happened that a single professor could teach 100,000 students?

It's happening now. I'm Stephen Smith. In the coming hour, "Keyboard College: How Technology is Revolutionizing Higher Education." First, this news.

Part One

In the fall of 2011, three Stanford University professors tried an experiment. The outcome could revolutionize higher education around the world. That fall semester, Daphne Koller, Sebastian Thrun and Andrew Ng each offered a Stanford online computer science course that anyone, anywhere could join for free.

Daphne Koller: These were the machine learning class, the database class and the artificial intelligence class.

Sebastian Thrun: And we sent a single email announcing it would be available online for free.

Koller: And each of those classes had an enrollment of, you know, around 100,000 students or more.

Thrun: So we spent day and night building up the technology platform and also recording ourselves and making lots of quizzes and exercises for the students in this online class.

Andrew Ng: The majority of the online students have actually been overseas. About 40 percent U.S., 60 percent international.

Thrun: Most of the students left. But a good 23,000 of them stayed all the way to the final certificate -- which meant we taught more students artificial intelligence than all the professors in the world combined.

Koller: The uptake on that was just so mind blowing. I mean, when was the last time that a single professor -- when has it ever happened that a single professor could teach 100,000 students?

What happened next looks like a watershed moment in higher education. Sebastian Thrun quit teaching at Stanford to start a free online university. Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng took a slightly different path. They got Stanford to team up with more than a dozen other existing American schools to start their own free learning website. And soon after that, Harvard and MIT announced a plan to put scores of their classes online for free. Suddenly -- with the click of a mouse -- you have a virtual place in the Ivy League. And no entrance exam is required.

Terry Moe: And right now, this is the beginning of the revolution.

Terry Moe is a Stanford political scientist who writes about education reform.

Moe: You know, everybody can't go to Stanford, everybody can't go to Harvard. But now, truly high quality materials can be made available at very low cost to anybody, wherever they are, whatever their class, whatever their race. This really is the democratization of education to an extent that's never been true before in human history.

[Music: "Jungle Wisdom" - Lonnie Smith - Jungle Soul - Palmetto Records]

From APM, American Public Media, this is an American Radioworks documentary: "Keyboard College: How Technology is Revolutionizing Higher Education." I'm Stephen Smith.

The sudden burst of these massively open online courses, as they're called, is one of the most visible ways that digital technologies are reshaping American colleges and universities. Over the coming hour we'll look at three different chapters in a story that's being written right in front of us. It's the story of how computers and internet connections can deliver college classrooms to people down the block and around the world. It's also a story about computers making real bricks-and-mortar classrooms more interesting, more effective, and possibly more affordable.

[Sound of people talking in an office]

Chapter One begins at the headquarters for an online start-up called Udacity. It's just down the road from Stanford's campus in California's Silicon Valley. Udacity's office has the hastily-furnished look of a political campaign headquarters. There are computers and cables everywhere. Inscrutable equations and color-coded action plans cover the whiteboards. A kitchen in the corner offers free fuel: cereal, snacks and energy drinks.

David Stavens: So we have about 30 people who work at Udacity. This pod right here is our video editing pod where talented video editors and producers take raw footage from our faculty members and they edit it and splice it together into the great content that appears on our site.

David Stavens is the president of Udacity, which calls itself a "21st century university."

Stavens: Udacity is trying to make great education available to the entire world. Right now great education is available to a few tens of thousands of people in great institutions in the U.S., and parts of Europe and Asia, and South America. But there are still millions, if not hundreds of millions of people who still cannot get access to education.

Video of Sebastian Thrun: Statistics is a discipline that makes you understand data and make decisions based on data…

This is the introductory video for the Udacity class Statistics 101, taught by Sebastian Thrun. He's sitting behind a colorful pile of Lego building blocks. He picks up a few Legos and snaps them together.

Thrun (on video): Data comes in different shapes and sizes and colors. If you are Google, these might be web pages. Or in finance these might be stocks and bonds, going up and down. [Sounds of Legos] I will teach you lots of basic things…

Sebastian Thrun and his partners created Udacity after the success of the free, online artificial intelligence class that Thrun taught at Stanford. One hundred sixty thousand people signed up for that class. The experience prompted Thrun to declare he could never teach at Stanford again.

Thrun: If we look at the United States, college education is expensive. The costs have been going about 6 percent per year since 1982. It's now really expensive. The national debt, college debt alone exceeds $1 trillion. I felt, look, there's a model here that's fundamentally different. We can make high-quality education really, really inexpensive -- in fact, free. So everybody can get it. We can democratize education.

Sebastian Thrun is Udacity's visionary and the charismatic front man for the team. He's a 45-year-old native of Germany. He still has a research post at Stanford, and he is also a research fellow at Google. Thrun helped create Google's Street View mapping service and its self-driving robotic car. In the opening video for his Udacity class on artificial intelligence and robot programming, Thrun sat behind the wheel of Google's invention.

Thrun (on video): So right now I'm in Google's self-driving car -- the car that my team and I have been building up over the last couple of years. I'm going to hit the button [Sound of car navigation starting up and voice: "Auto driving."] And the car is driving itself. The steering wheel moves by itself; the gas; the break; it's sheer magic. In seven weeks in this class you will learn how to do this…

Udacity courses are aimed at helping people get tech jobs. The subjects are all about computers, engineering, mathematics and such. Most classes are made up of a series of short instructional videos, just a few minutes long. Many of the videos are loose and playful -- even in a class on algorithms.

Instructor (on video): Oh, how many friends do you have on Facebook?
Woman: Uh, like 435.
Instructor: And you know everybody? All those people?
Woman: I do. They're all -- I only add people I know.
Instructor: How many friends do you think your dog would have?
Man: Uh, probably more than me. [Laughter]

In a lot of the videos the instructor writes on the screen with an electronic pen while narrating the lesson. It's a 21st century chalkboard.

Instructor (on video): Here I've redrawn our finite state machine for A+ 1+. Let me just highlight one of these. This particular edge…

And there are frequent quizzes to keep students engaged, like in this class on writing code for websites.

Instructor (on video): OK. So, quick quiz: take the phrase below, or take the words "my favorite" from the phrase below, and make those words a link to

Thrum: When you enter a Udacity class you'll be surprised. You will be finding [a] quiz almost instantaneously. And you the student have to work. So we don't just tell you how to solve problems; you experience how to solve problems. And the reason why I believe this is important is because I believe the most fundamental type of learning is when people do it themselves. A student who tries to solve a problem and finally gets it solved is just proud. It's a big event. It's empowering me to be able to solve a problem. It's much more empowering than say, listening to a long university lecture.

[Music: "Sophisticated Cissy" - The Meters - Very Best of the Meters - Rhino]

Udacity is one of two, big new education experiments directly sparked by those massive open online classes taught at Stanford. Professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng teamed up to create a different online education site called Coursera. Where Udacity claims to be a new, 21st century university, Coursera is a collaboration of 16 long-established and distinguished names. The group includes Stanford, CalTech, Princeton, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania. Enrollment is free, and more than a million students from some 200 countries have already signed up. Daphne Koller:

Koller: There are parts of the world where the vast majority of the population just has no access to any kind of decent higher-quality higher education. And yet the kinds of jobs one would like to have in order to make a better life for one's self or one's family are ones that require higher education. And even in the United States where we pride ourselves on the quality of our educational system, for many people, higher education is becoming unaffordable because of the increasing cost of higher education.

Coursera offers a wide range of online classes -- more than a hundred -- in business, the sciences, mathematics and the humanities.

Video 1: Welcome to my Coursera course, an introduction to operations management.

Video 2: I just want to have a few words about what our course is about and what physiology is about.

Video 3: The course is called Think Again: How to Reason and Argue.

Video 4: In this course, we'll look at the fundamental issues that underlie sustainability and we'll find some hidden connections.

Video 5: I'm going to pitch a class to you, which is this introductory class to world music and culture.

Video 6: So what we're going to do in this course is we're going to talk about vaccines. We're going to talk about what they are; we're going to talk about…

Coursera's classes are made up of videotaped lectures that run five or ten minutes to nearly an hour.

Scott Klemmer: The first thing we're going to do is check and make sure both the camera and the microphone are working…

In a makeshift basement studio on the Stanford campus, computer science professor Scott Klemmer prepares to tape segments for his class on designing websites. It's called Human/Computer Interaction or HCI.

Klemmer: The fundamental goal of the HCI class is to teach students how to design with human needs, goals and values as the foremost activity.

Klemmer gets in position at a desk with a video monitor behind his shoulder. He can see himself on the screen of a laptop propped on a wobbly stack of cardboard boxes next to the camera.

Klemmer: The whole project definitely has a real, skunkworks, or DIY feel, where, as you can see in the lighting here, we've repurposed a couple of electronics lights that we used to use for circuit boards. And we have other stuff that we found around. I think one of these is probably left over from somebody's dorm room. You can see the cable stringing throughout the room. They probably wouldn't pass fire code. But it definitely feels really homemade and that's a lot of fun. And I think the students appreciate that, too.

Klemmer presses a remote control and the small video camera across the room blinks to life.

Klemmer: In this video we're going to talk about running experiments online. The Web has offered tremendous power in terms of being able to do experimental work…

Once Scott Klemmer's course goes online it is segmented in 30 separate short video lectures. Quizzes and tests pop up along the way. The computer system does most of the grading. But for tests that include essay questions, Coursera is experimenting. It has created a way for students to grade each other. Daphne Koller says each piece of writing is reviewed by a number of peer graders.

Koller: They are told how they are supposed to grade the work of another student. And they're also given the opportunity to train themselves up in that by practicing on a few pretend assignments. And then after that they can go and grade work of other students. And we believe, based on work that's been done in other areas, that we also draw on the idea of what's called crowd-sourcing, where the work of multiple people -- if you aggregate it together -- can actually be as reliable as the work of a single expert, such as a teaching assistant, for example.

Now if you take a Coursera class from, say, a Duke University professor, you won't get Duke credit. Nor can you get a bachelors or a master's degree directly from Coursera. But new ways of documenting academic achievement may coming, says Coursera cofounder Andrew Ng.

Ng: Credentialing is an interesting question. So far, many of our courses have had associated with them a certificate or statement of accomplishment. And already we have seen many students proudly list these certificates in their resume and successfully use them to get raises and get better jobs, and so on. I think the world is moving towards less formal forms of accreditation? And I think we will increasingly see students take these certificates and use them in their resumes, to get better jobs.

In Boston, an education researcher at MIT named Yoav Bergner enrolled in a Coursera class on machine learning. At first he just wanted to see how the course was designed.

Yoav Bergner: I didn't go into the Coursera system thinking that I was going to full-fledgedly immerse myself in the course. But I, but it turned out to be just too good to resist.

Bergner finished the machine learning class and he got a certificate. He says that for workers in the tech world, a resume showing a successfully-completed software engineering class from Berkeley or a course on computer architecture from Princeton may really stand out from the crowd.

Bergner: You know I hear about tech companies all the time that are trying to hire developers and they can't get them fast enough. So that's kind of amazing that there exists this training mechanism that's available to almost anyone for free.

Across the globe, Nitul Mehta is taking two Coursera classes from his home in southern India. One is Intro to Finance, the other is Game Theory. Not long ago, Mehta completed Coursera's commerce course taught by a professor at Princeton.

Nitul Mehta: When I saw that a professor from Princeton was actually sharing information with the whole world, I thought, OK if he's sharing and the information is definitely free, why not take it up? I'm learning a lot, and growing as a person and being a better thinker.

Nitul Mehta is 24 years old. He works with an IT company in India. He says the free classes have helped him at work, and at home. Mehta used tools he learned in his business course to calculate whether it was worthwhile to take a job in a different city. It was, and he moved.

Mehta: I'm very happy because I was able to make that life decision. I learned it from Intro to Finance. I was able to think better because of the knowledge that was shared.

[Music: "Ease Back" - The Meters - A Message From the Meters - ATOM]

You've probably been wondering: If Udacity and Coursera are giving their classes away free, how can they stay in business? These are both for-profit enterprises. And they might make money in two different ways. Coursera's Daphne Koller says classes should always be free, but maybe not the proof that you successfully completed the course.

Koller: So the certification might be something people pay a modest amount for. And because of the scaling of this effort, even the modest amount, when you multiply it by numbers of people that we're talking about can bring in a nice revenue stream.

Coursera and Udacity also plan to offer a service where each will charge a fee to connect successful students with firms that are hiring. Both companies have won the backing of Silicon Valley venture capitalists. Daphne Koller says even though the business model is still a work in progress, a massively open course can attract a massively big number of students who come back day after day.

Koller: The ethos currently in Silicon Valley is that if you build up a website where millions of people like to come and spend time, and they recruit their friends to come and spend time with them, that eventually they found a way of bringing in revenue.

The venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates invested 8 million dollars in Coursera and got another VC firm to match that amount. Scott Sandell is with New Enterprise Associates.

Scott Sandel: We look for things that change the world. Change the way people work, they way they play; that do something really revolutionary. Because those sorts of things are the best way to create really big companies, in our experience. You know we like to say that we invest in really large markets that don't exist yet. And this seemed like an obvious one.

The non-profit universities participating in Coursera say they're not in it for the money, but to deliver on their core mission: the creation and spread of knowledge. Still, Kevin Kinser says higher education is a competitive business. Kinser is an expert in online education at the State University of New York at Albany. He says that with millions of potential customers out in cyberspace, a growing number of universities feel they have no choice but to join the massive course experiment.

Kevin Kinser: This is sort of one of the hallmarks of a bubble, where everyone is getting in because people think that eventually something like this is going to hit. And you want to be in the game. You want to be an early person in the game so that you can come out on top when the model finally strikes.

[Music: "Native Sense" - Chick Corea - Native Sense - Stretch Records]

Soon after Udacity and Coursera got underway, a third big player showed up in the game. In the spring of 2012, Harvard and MIT announced a joint project called edX. The 60-million-dollar plan will make scores of Harvard and MIT courses available for free online. Harvard already has more than a hundred online classes in its extension school. And for a decade, MIT has be putting much of it raw courseware -- the lecture notes, quizzes and such -- online for free. EdX hopes to reach a billion people around the world.

Anant Agarwal: This is the year of disruption for education.

That's MIT computer scientist Anant Agarwal. He's the president of edX.

Agarwal: Things are being disrupted in a big way. And things are moving extremely, extremely fast. The time is right, because computing technologies are finally here. The Internet is available in large parts of the world. Computers and tablets have become relatively low cost, so people around the world customarily have one of these devices and have a connection over the Internet. I also think that open courseware created a mindset -- created a movement -- where people are comfortable putting doing all sorts of courses online for free, so I think that started a movement 10 years ago. But that was 10 years ago.

EdX wants to reach a lot of people with free education. But Agarwal says an equally important mission is learning how to improve teaching -- both one line and face-to-face.

Agarwal: We have not applied computing technologies to education in a big, concerted way. We still do lectures in large classes with chalkboards and things of that sort. We really haven't had much, you know, dramatic progress. You know, using PowerPoint is one of the bigger advancements over the past many decades.

Because online education platforms can capture and store a user's every word and mouse click, edX promises to be a massive, deeply granular experiment in how people live, study and learn with computer technology.

Agarwal: You know, we are finding that most students watch videos between 12 and 2 o'clock at night, OK, but we still make them come to lectures early in the morning. OK? And the number of students that come to lecture are not surprisingly, oftentimes towards end of course, 20, 30 percent of the entire student body. They're just not going to lectures. And so by making available online videos with interaction built into that, we can now make learning be available at any place any time to anyone. And that can significantly improve the whole learning experience for either on-campus students or students worldwide.

EdX president Anant Agarwal expects both MIT and Harvard to test a variety of ways to blend new technologies in their conventional classrooms.

Agarwal: But that said, I think it will be some time before done we've done the research and gathered all the data that proves that this is indeed better than the usual bricks-and-mortar experience. So many faculty will still need to be convinced of the value of this for on-campus use.

[Music: "Native Sense" - Chick Corea - Native Sense - Stretch Records]

The elite universities experimenting with massive open courses do not expect their free online programs to cut into existing demand for the traditional, on-campus undergraduate experience. Plenty of students will still want to live in dorms and meet their professors in classrooms.

Josh Kim: When I think about what an authentic education is, I think about what goes on around a seminar table.

Josh Kim is director of learning and technology in a health care graduate program at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. He blogs about technology and higher education and is skeptical of the massive open courses.

Kim: When you have learners who are really grappling with issues and grappling in a way through dialogue with each other, with the faculty, and there's a give and take? That's what I want for my kids when I think about what I think that they will need to prepare for the 21st century workforce. I don't think that's possible in a course with 150,000 students.

Education experts say massive open courses are unlikely to threaten America's elite schools. But the same can't be said for middle-tier state universities and community colleges. Many of these schools struggle to teach more students at a time that state legislatures are giving less money. Schools are looking for ways to cut costs. Stanford political scientist Terry Moe speculates that mid-tier colleges may tap into the free courseware from leading universities to offer more and better classes to their students.

Moe: Suppose you have some Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who's a fantastic lecturer on the Civil War? Why should they take pot luck, you know, and walk into some classroom and they get a professor who probably is not going to be nearly as good as this person? OK, well it's that kind of thing but applied across the full range of subjects.

Moe says local professors or teaching assistants, could run discussion groups built around the super-star lectures from prestigious universities, while using the free courseware for quizzes and tests. He says fewer professorss could handle more classes and more students.

Moe: It's really important to recognize how expensive labor is. So if universities can cut back on the number of people they have to hire, the sheer amount of salaries they have to pay, and benefits, um, and rely instead on a mix that involves fewer people (and less labor expense) but also more technology, this is just a much less expensive, uh, way -- a bigger "bang for the buck" way of providing kids with a quality education.

Labor costs are only one part of the tuition picture. In fact, studies show that the cost of new technology is a huge factor in driving up the cost of college. Now, in addition to the problem of high tuition, college loan debt is also a big issue. American students owe more than a trillion dollars -- more than the debt owed on credit cards. Massive course movement may offer a partial solution by encouraging a whole new kind of online university to emerge in the U.S.. That's according to education technology expert Michael Horn of the Innosight Institute, a Silicon Valley education think tank.

Michael Horn: There's going to be the invention of lots of low-cost universities now, that take these component parts from Coursera or from an edX and assemble it together in coherent degrees that'll cost a thousand, two thousand dollars, something like that, with no loans associated with it.

Horn says these low-cost, online programs would be a "grave danger" to middle-tier colleges and universities in the U.S. -- those schools that are not particularly well-known, nor especially affordable.

Horn: Because why would I go to an institution that has very little brand for $15,000 a year for an education, and come out with debt, when I could go to a low-cost model and be taking the best of the best from MIT, Dartmouth, Harvard, wherever? Uh, that I think is going to challenge things quite a bit in the years to come.

[Music: "Watermelon Man" - Herbie Hancock - Watermelon Man - Columbia/Legacy]

The experiment in massive open online courses appears to have staying power. Big institutions are investing serious money. But it remains uncharted territory. How will free classes pay for themselves over time? What kinds of new academic credentials will get invented? And fundamentally: is online learning face-to-face? Research on that last question is still being done. The early answer is, maybe.

[Music continues]

This is Stephen Smith. You're listening to "Keyboard College: How Technology is Revolutionizing Higher Education," a documentary from American RadioWorks. Coming up:

Voice: I'm essentially buying the degree. I mean I've got the experience. I'm passing all the courses primarily based on that experience. I'm not really having to do any studying.

To find out more about massively open online courses and to read essays about other ways technology is changing higher education, visit our website, While you're there you can sign up for our weekly education podcast. That's Support for this program comes from the Spencer Foundation and Lumina Foundation. "Keyboard College" continues in just a moment from APM, American Public Media.

Part Two

[Music: "Paper Tiger" - Lonnie Smith - Boogaloo to Beck - Scufflin Records]

From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary: "Keyboard College: How Technology is Revolutionizing Higher Education." I'm Stephen Smith. Our story is about colleges being built in cyberspace, and about computers changing the way students are taught on real-life college campuses. Here's chapter two.

[Sound of students in class]

Anna Dollár: The first thing I would like, as usual, for us to go on the learning dashboard and see how you're doing on Module 18…

Professor Anna Dollár starts out her Tuesday afternoon engineering class at Miami University of Ohio by projecting a computer display on the wall. It's called a "learning dashboard." It shows students how well they did with an online assignment due the night before. The software scores how each student is learning, and what concepts they're struggling with. Anna Dollár teaches in a data-driven classroom. Proponents say this approach produces deeper learning in less time than the standard textbook-and-lecture format. To get an idea how it works let's first remember how class is typically taught.

Archival Tape: Constitutional contracts, marriage contracts, historical contracts, French contracts, African tribal contracts…

You can hear the old-school approach in this film: you read the textbook, you come to class for a lecture, go do some homework or take a quiz, and then wait several days or even weeks for the results. Now, for the students in Anna Dollár's engineering class, that process is flipped upside down.

Onye Mora: They normally start with some general background and usually like a walk-through...

On the couch in his apartment, Junior Onye Mora leans in to his laptop to study an equation that he's supposed to solve. His engineering textbook -- in fact the entire curriculum for the class -- is online. Mora studies a section of the course by drilling through interactive exercises that are called "learn-by-doing."

Mora: And if I get to a point where I'm getting a lot of the answers right, you know, and I feel like, you know, I have this, I'll skip to the next topic. And if I can't figure out where I'm actually going wrong I can hit the "hint" button.
Smith: Yeah, up in the upper right corner there's a green little section called "hint." A pop-up screen or a pop-down screen says, "Find the points at which the subsystem or section has been separated by cutting through the members."
Mora: It doesn't exactly tell you what the answer is, but it does kind of hint to where the answer is. And seeing that hint, check the answer again, and I got it right.
Smith: Ah, and it says "good job" and you get a little green check mark. [Laughter]

But if Onye Mora gets the first hint wrong, there are several more hints that can guide him to the answer. Before Mora goes to his next class, he and all his fellow students take a quiz which is automatically graded and sent to Professor Dollár. She then sits down at her computer about two hours before class to see the results.

Dollár: Every click, every move of the student is being recorded and analyzed by this learning dashboard.

So in addition to quiz results, the dashboard gives Dollár an up-to-the-minute snapshot of how many exercises students worked through, how many hints they used. Students also write Dollár direct feedback on what was easy and what was hard about the assigned work.

Dollár: And then I think about devoting class time to only the topics, concepts, skills that need elaboration -- that need reinforcement.

Professor Anna Dollár developed her engineering class with colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative is an effort to bring 21st century computing and internet technologies to college classrooms that are still using 19th century-style textbooks and lectures. Candace Thille directs the Open Learning Initiative -- or OLI. She says American college faculty are under pressure to teach larger classes. And many students are showing up less prepared for college than in years past.

Candace Thille: Faculty are trying to figure out how do I reach all those students with this greater diversity, so where do I target my lecture? Because if I've got all these students in there and half are getting it and half aren't, what do I do?

Thille says because of the way college classes are generally organized, it's easy for students to miss out on key issues and get left behind.

Thille: In a paper-and-pencil classroom, I as a learner try something, I write it down on paper, I turn it into my instructor; my instructor collects it, looks through it, maybe gives me really robust, helpful feedback but gives it back in two weeks, or in one week. And in two weeks or one week, I'm thinking about something completely different.

In the data-driven classroom, students get instant feedback on problems and quizzes. Ken Koedinger is a professor of human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon. He says online courseware has an advantage over the conventional professor-student teaching model because many different kinds of specialists come together in a team to create the lessons, the hints and the quizzes. This overcomes a big roadblock to teaching and learning that Carnegie Mellon researchers call the "expert blind spot." Psychology Professor Marsha Lovett is part of the OLI team with Ken Koedinger.

Marsha Lovett: There are a few things that experts have difficulty with in translating and communicating with students. One of the things experts do is they do things automatically.

Koedinger: If you're a car expert you see things other people don't see. If you're a chess expert, a chess board looks differently than otherwise. The same is true for physics and other academic topics.

Lovett: They have automatized a lot of the steps of problem-solving or reasoning so it's hard for them to unpack that.

Koedinger: I coined this term "expert blind spot" to get at the notion that as we develop expertise in something -- a teacher of algebra knows those equations well -- we start to, we have a blind spot for what's hard about that for students, right? Easy for us, must be easy for them.

In designing the OLI courseware, Lovett, Koedinger and the Carnegie Mellon team worked with experts to overcome the "blind spots" -- to break each piece of knowledge into its building blocks. They deconstruct the patterns so students can rehearse putting the pieces back together. And because the OLI software captures every click of every student's mouse, massive pools of "clickstream" data help the OLI team tease out what kinds of lessons and exercises lead students to master their subjects most effectively.

Koedinger: I guess one of the big surprises in this data set, at least for me, is when you look at the learning process from task to task, it takes a long time for kids to get better at specific content, whether it's math or science or language learning. The progress we see is steady but it's slow. And you know, that's one of those things about learning we often forget -- how much repetition and practice is critical to becoming an expert in some area.

So if lots of practice makes perfect students can practice with an online OLI program at any hour, day or night. Candace Thille says preliminary research shows that OLI students finish their courses in about half the time it would take in a regular textbook-and-lecture class. And they need about half as many hours of direct contact with the teacher.

Thille: So it really is about making everyone's time more effective. The faculty member, the time that they're spending with students in class is more productive because they can target what the students really need. The students are using their time more effectively because time they're spending outside of class they're spending it in supported practice -- where they're practicing, they're getting feedback, they're refining their practice -- instead of just trying stuff and practicing stuff that perhaps isn't helping them move towards their learning outcome.

Thille says colleges and universities using OLI programs may be able to save money by employing fewer professors -- a trend that many observers expect to happen anyway in America's cash-strapped schools.

Anna Dollár (in class): The average grade of the quiz is 76 percent, uh, which is not bad….

Back at Anna Dollár's engineering class at Miami University in Ohio, the learning dashboard indicates where students need more help and which ideas they already seem to get. So Dollár calibrates her class time accordingly. Sitting in the back row, sophomores Jason Ina and Sam Henige are not sold on this process.

Sam Henige: We have to show up to class because attendance is taken. But the lectures that go on in class aren't much different than what is talked about online.
Jason Ina: Unless you really have a problem when you're going over it online that's something you just can't figure out, the class just gets repetitive.

Junior Onye Mora was a skeptic of the online system at first. Now he appreciates all the guided practice the software allows.

Onye Mora: Even if you don't realize it you're seeing the same concept multiple times. This is one of the classes where I studied less going into actual examinations, but performed better.

[Music: "Mississippi-Mali Blues" - Taj Mahal - Kulanjan - Ryko/Rhino]

Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative offers 20 online courses ranging from biochemistry to statistics to French. Most are free. So far, more than 130 colleges and universities have used the courseware on their own campuses.

[Music continues]

You're listening to a documentary from American Radioworks: "Keyboard College: How Technology is Revolutionizing Higher Education." Our last chapter is about a university that's been growing fast, but still hasn't built a single classroom. And never will.

[Sounds of people lining up for graduation]

Man: OK let's start number one right here and them let's go down this wall and then down that wall and back this way…

It is graduation day for Erin Gann. She's about to be awarded a masters degree in education. Gann and her fellow students are lining up in a conference center on Seattle's downtown waterfront. Gann is fussing with her blue commencement gown.

Erin Gann: This was the most awkward thing to iron and figure out how to put on…
Woman: Alright, when it comes time to go up on stage to get your, uh, degrees you will actually exit your seats to the right…

[Sound of string quartet]

Jean Floten (at podium): So honored graduates, mentors, families and loved ones, I'm Jean Floten, chancellor at WGU-Washington. And it is one of my proudest honors to convene the first-ever commencement ceremony for WGU-Washington. [Applause]

Man (on stage): Erin Gann, Master of Arts in Teaching, Elementary Education, Olympia WA. Tanya Vivier, Master of Education…

This is the first time that Erin Gann has laid eyes on anyone else from the school she's been attending for the last three years. Western Governor's University is an entirely online school. Gann worked full-time while she did her WGU coursework in off-hours.

Gann: Finally done. And I think just feel like I worked so hard for this. It was well earned. I'm proud of myself (laughs).

Western Governors is like no other non-profit American university. It's designed to meet the needs of working adults who want to further their education but don't have the time to attend a conventional community college or university. It was created in 1995 by a group of western state governors who wanted to meet a growing demand for higher education at a time of limited public funding.

Kevin Kinser: The origin of the place came from this recent development in the mid-90s -- you may have heard of it -- called the World Wide Web.

Kevin Kinser of the State University of New York at Albany has been studying WGU since its founding.

Kinser: What the governors of the western states decided was this was a silver bullet that was going to change the access to higher education problems they were having. They felt like they had more students that wanted to come to college and they didn't have the resources to devote to building new campuses. And thought that distance education through the World Wide Web, online education -- brand new thing at the time -- was something that would solve their dilemmas for them.

When 26-year-old Erin Gann decided to get a master's degree to further her career, she couldn't find a bricks-and-mortar program that would fit her schedule. So she started to nose around on the internet.

Gann: And then I found WGU that had an online-only university. It was affordable. It had a good program. It was accredited. And I thought, "Hey I don't have to quit my job. I can go to school and get my degree and it was perfect."

Perfect, but not easy.

Gann: There were times I would study in my car while my stepdaughter was doing soccer practice. There were times I studied in the storage room at work during lunch. I would do it late at night after kids were in bed. If I had 15 minutes, I studied [laughs].

Seattle businessman Gary Horsfall enrolled in WGU because he was having a hard time getting a job. Like millions of Americans, Horsfall never finished college. Even so, he built a successful and varied business career, until the Great Recession hit in 2008. Academic credentials matter more in a tight economy, and less-impressive applications get an express trip to the recycling bin.

Gary Horsfall: When there's a lot of people in the market who have bachelor's degrees and MBAs, I know there's a lot of resumes that I send out that people don't look at because they check off the degree box and they never get around to looking at the background.

WGU was especially attractive to Gary Horsfall because it awards degrees based on a student's mastery of his or her chosen field. This is called a "competency-based" model. So, much of what Horsfall needs to know for his bachelor's in business management he already learned in 30 years on the job.

Horsfall: I'm essentially buying the degree. I mean I've got the experience. I'm passing all the courses primarily based on that experience. I'm not really having to do any studying. You know, I have to do research in order to meet requirements for some of the papers. But I know the material pretty much down. I can go through it relatively quickly.

Most colleges and universities grant degrees on the basis of course credit hours -- what's also called "classroom seat time."

Bob Mendenhall: Where we're really different is that students aren't required to be in class.

Bob Mendenhall is president of Western Governors University.

Mendenhall: They basically can come in, if they have the competencies they can demonstrate them. If they don't we have curriculum to help them learn the competencies. But every student learns at a different rate. And knows different things. And so it's much more flexible with the student's time to make it relevant for the student.

WGU says it doesn't care where you learn or who teaches you; just what you learn and that you learn.

Jean Floten: How many universities can say that every student that leaves at the end has mastered all of the competencies required?

Jean Floten is Chancellor of WGU's Washington State branch.

Floten: You know, you can sit in a lecture hall of 500 other students and maybe get a C-minus and you may not have learned everything that was in that course to learn. In our model you have to learn it in order to progress.

The school offers what it calls "workforce degrees." Its programs are limited to business, information technology, health care professions and teaching. WGU students must enroll full-time but the courses are self-paced. The flat-rate tuition is about $6,000 per year.

Mendenhall: The average time to graduation is two-and-a-half years. And so, we intend to get students in and help them to learn and to graduate and move on with their careers and their lives.

A BA in two-and-a-half years at Western Governors costs about $15,000. A four-year program at a conventional public university can easily run more than twice that. WGU was designed to be a low-cost university. Its headquarters are in Salt Lake City, but there are no classrooms, libraries or athletic fields. Online education expert Kevin Kinser notes there are also no professors, in the conventional sense.

Kinser: In a traditional university, what you have is a faculty member who designs a curriculum, teaches that curriculum, evaluates students on how well they've learned that curriculum and then assigns a grade to it. It's all done by one person. What Western Governors has done is they have disaggregated that faculty model.

WGU divided the professor's job three ways. All incoming students are assigned a student mentor who advises them throughout their WGU careers. Then there are course mentors for each specific class. And finally, a separate cadre of evaluators whose only job is to grade student performance. Also, WGU creates virtually none of its own curriculum. It buys or licenses existing online course materials from education companies and other colleges. All of this is meant to keep costs down by making the parts interchangeable and easily updated. Again, President Bob Mendenhall:

Mendenhall: At WGU, we're really using the technology to do the teaching. Which allows it to be individualized to every single student. But it changes faculty role from delivering content to really leading discussions, answering questions, providing guidance and direction, but not spending time lecturing and doing content delivery. So whether that technology is serving ten students, or 10,000 students or 100,000 students the costs are essentially the same.

Connie Ozmer: My name is Connie Ozmer and I'm a student mentor for Western Governors University. Um, my average workday is, I'm on the phone a lot.

Ozmer (on phone): Hi Juan, it's Connie…
Juan: Hello, hello…

As a student mentor for WGU, Connie Ozmer keeps track of 88 bachelor's and master's degree students. She's more of an academic career coach than a college prof. Juan is pursuing a BA in information technology. He lives in Florida.

Juan: So I'm going to be working on reasoning and problem solving because I wanna take everything that's not technology I want to take that first, so you have a more constant pace afterwards.
Ozmer: So what you want to do for that class first is you want to take the pre-assessment first.
Juan: The pre-assessment first.
Ozmer: Yeah. Just like you did for the math class?

Like all WGU students, Juan is required to check in with Connie on a regular basis.

Ozmer: The main thing I do is help my students say motivated, stay focused on goal of helping them get their degree -- whether it's their bachelor's degree or master's degree. Um, you know, the biggest thing in an online school is accountability? We get caught up in day-to-day lives and then school is always the first thing to go. What I do for them each week is I help them, you know, set goals, I help them, you know, put their home life in perspective maybe for the week and just help them progress through program.

Connie Ozmer does her student mentoring from a desk in the bedroom of her townhouse, an hour south of Seattle. Ozmer is married with two young kids. She has a background in information technology and a master's in education. Today she's helping Juan schedule an exam.

Ozmer: You can go ahead and try and put a time in for Saturday, and if they can accommodate you, they will.
Juan: I get home, I get home from work around six to seven, so to be safe let's put eight.

Cheating on exams is a major concern at most colleges and universities, and would seem even more vexing at a school where no one ever meets face-to-face. WGU has a solution for tests. Some of them are taken at proctored test centers. And other exams can be taken online at home.

Ozmer: There's a camera that we ship them. And it's positioned where we can see them taking the test. And there's rules. They can't be talking, you know, because we can't see the whole room so they don't allow things like that. They do get like one piece of scratch paper-kinda thing.

Ozmer: All right Juan, is there anything else?
Juan: Uh, I'll talk to you two week from now when you get back, alright?
Ozmer: Alright, well you have a good week.
Juan: You, too.
Ozmer: Bye.

[Music: "Chameleon" - Herbie Hancock - Head Hunters — Columbia/Legacy]

Western Governor's University has more than 34,000 students nationwide and has been growing at about 30 percent per year. In the states of Indiana, Texas and Washington, WGU has been adopted as a quasi-official state school. The faculty at Washington's public colleges and universities opposed WGU becoming state-recognized, even though it gets no direct state money. English Professor Bill Lyne is president of United Faculty of Washington. Lyne says the state should be investing more in its public schools. Washington state's high-tech economy is hungry for more college graduates. But the public colleges and universities can't keep up.

Bill Lyne: We only have six state universities. There's more state universities in South Dakota than there are in Washington. We're 48th in the country in participation rates at our four-year state universities. Declaring Western Governors a state university creates this illusion that suddenly we're generating that many more Bachelor of Arts degrees without the state having to spend any extra money.

In recent years the state of Washington actually cut by half the money it spends on state colleges and universities. So more students are competing in Washington for space in the classroom.

Lyne: What you're creating is a class system where people who can pay for it are going to continue to get the education provided by professors at major universities. And everybody else is going to be teaching themselves online.

Washington is hardly the only state facing an education crisis. Across the country there's been a collapse of state spending on higher education. Some observers, including Bill Lyne, fear that one of America's key avenues of upward mobility is being threatened.

Lyne: What I'm worried is that this country is losing the giant engine that drove democratization and middle-class mobility and industrial capacity of the United States in the 20th century, which is big public state universities. Where regular people could pay nominal fees and go get the same kind of education that rich people could get at Princeton, Harvard and Yale.

[Music: "School Boy Crush" - Average White Band - Cut the Cake - Rhino Atlantic]

There's a theory in the technology and business world called "disruptive innovation." It says that a disruptive innovation allows a whole new group of consumers to get a product or service that used to be available only to people with a lot of money or skill.

Michel Horn: It's been breathtaking the pace of innovation right now.

Michel Horn of the Innosight Institute says online learning -- especially the massive open courses offered by Stanford, Harvard and the others -- is disrupting the higher education market. It's not just that laptops and the Internet are everywhere, he says. There's actually a new kind of consumer demand.

Horn: With college costs continuing to rise, needing to get skills to get into employment with the current economic conditions, people are hungry for it right now, in a way that wasn't true maybe a few years ago.

It's often said that colleges and universities, though, are slow to change. Schools across the country have spent heavily on so-called "smart classrooms" that are geared up for digital teaching, but fewer than 10 percent of class lectures are being captured on video for students to use. And there have been a number of times in recent decades that education visionaries predicted technology would overhaul higher education. But it didn't.

Bill Tierney: The initial foray of traditional institutions into online education was pretty much an abysmal failure.

Bill Tierney is a professor of education at the University of Southern California. He studies education and technology. He points out that a decade ago, back in the slow internet days of the dialup modem, a number of big name schools like Yale and Columbia first tried to set up online classes.

Tierney: They thought this was a gold mine. It was going to be very cheap and we could get lots of students. And what we saw was most of these places failed abysmally.

But Tierney says both the Internet and the people who use it have changed since then. Today's undergraduates are digital natives.

Tierney: And the customer, the student, is no longer willing to sit still in the age of social media where people are getting messages left and right. And, you know, multi tasking... So the traditional model no longer is viable. And we can hunker down, we can be the ostrich in the sand, but it's gotta change.

[Music: "Chameleon" - Herbie Hancock - Head Hunters — Columbia/Legacy]

Bill Tierney points out that mobile devices and the web have up-ended other knowledge-based industries. Take journalism…where tradition-bound publications are struggling to adapt to the digital age.

Tierney: We look at what happened with the newspaper industry. Why would we not think -- those of us in traditional colleges and universities -- that something like that is going to happen to us as well? Why would we think that the traditional teaching and learning model is not going to go through a revolution?

[Music continues]

You've been listening to an American RadioWorks documentary: "Keyboard College: How Technology is Revolutionizing Higher Education." It was produced by me, Stephen Smith, and edited by Peter Clowney. The web producer is Andy Kruse. The American RadioWorks team includes Emily Hanford, Suzanne Pekow, Ellen Guettler, Craig Thorson, Jeff Johnson, and Frankie Barnhill. Special thanks to Grace Fredrickson, Zack Shlachter and Rajesh Kapur.

At our website you can see photos of the Udacity headquarters and the engineering class at Miami University. You can also find links to a variety of online courses and experiments, and read essays about other ways technology is changing higher education. That's all at While you're there you can download and share the audio for this program. You can also send us feedback, and sign up for our weekly education podcast. You can like us on Facebook at American.RadioWorks and you can follow us on Twitter at @AmRadioWorks.

Support for American RadioWorks comes from Lumina Foundation and the Spencer Foundation. And by Josh and Ricka Kohnstamm and the staff of Kohnstamm Communications.

One final note of disclosure: the Lumina Foundation has also supported Carnegie Mellon University and Western Governor's University.

This is APM, American Public Media.

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