Online education may have arrived at the upper echelons of higher education, but it's not going to make elite colleges any cheaper to attend.
Massive open online courses and other online tools, however, may change many aspects of top undergraduate campuses. That was the conclusion of a private summit, held here on Monday and sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, at which many of online education's heaviest hitters discussed the future of residential higher education, particularly at elite institutions, in a digital age.
After years of standing by while the online wave gathered momentum at lower-tier institutions, MIT and Harvard last year gave online education a $60-million bear hug by collaborating to found edX, a nonprofit MOOC provider that could also serve as a laboratory for studying the dynamics of virtual classrooms.
The universities made it clear then that they intended to use their MOOCs to improve, not supplant, traditional courses.
Monday's daylong conference, which was largely off the record except when permission was granted, featured many of the voices commonly associated with the current upheaval in higher education. They included Clayton M. Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor, who gave a crash course in his influential theory of "disruptive innovation"; and Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, an online-lecture repository, who appeared, Oz-like, as a 12-foot-tall talking head projected on the wall above the stage.
Online tools that track how much students use certain course materials could give professors insight into how they should design their traditional courses, several panelists said.
Professors might be surprised by what the data tell them. Eric Mazur, a professor of physics at Harvard, drew murmurs from the crowd—which mostly consisted of Harvard and MIT faculty members—when he showed research indicating that students at a lecture have brain activity roughly equivalent to when they watch television.
Eric S. Rabkin, a professor of English at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, suggested that professors could direct students to learn the most basic material in a course at their own pace, via online modules. Professors could then use the time saved, he said, on the parts of the course that require more thoughtful, individual attention, such as giving feedback on long essays.
"Maybe we could have 100 people register for a seminar," Mr. Rabkin said. The students could work through the first 12 weeks independently and online, "and that teacher can finish the seminar five different times in the course of a 15-week semester, spending the last three weeks with each of those groups of 20."
Getting Their Money's Worth
Some attempts to use MOOCs to improve the experience of traditional students have not panned out. One panelist said early attempts at his university to foster interaction between learners in the traditional and MOOC versions of a course met with resistance from the tuition-paying students, who wanted a distinct experience for their money.
Those students may eventually come around, but the amount they are paying for a traditional college experience probably will not—at least not at top colleges. None of the institutions represented at the summit is likely to use any revenue or savings from the use of online tools to lower tuition, said one provost. No one at the session disagreed.
It's more likely that online tools will be used to increase value at the same price, said another provost. That means more seminars, more project-based courses, and more mentorship opportunities, he said.
That is a privileged position. William G. Bowen, the former president of Princeton University who has studied the efficiency of online tools, reminded the audience that they occupied "really rarefied air" in deciding how they might want to use online education.
But professors who are serious about reaching the masses online, he said, will have to think about innovation and design with a broader, more diverse audience in mind.
"I would humbly suggest that the kinds of assessment and standards and all the rest that I'm sure are appropriate at MIT and Harvard and so forth," Mr. Bowen said, "have very little relevance for the large parts of American higher education, particularly in the state systems, that are under genuine siege."