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Why America's Top Colleges Offer Free Classes Online

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Elite universities are throwing open their classrooms’ doors to anyone with an Internet connection—for free.

Why are colleges offering free classes?

They don’t want to be left behind in the digital revolution that has already transformed the way we consume news, music, and books. Stanford, Duke, Princeton, and Johns Hopkins are among the 16 universities that have partnered with a newly launched company called Coursera to offer more than 100 free online courses this academic year; MIT, Harvard, and the University of California, Berkeley, are following suit through a nonprofit venture called edX. Now people anywhere in the world can take Stanford’s “Introduction to Mathematical Thinking,” learn the “Principles of Obesity Economics” at Johns Hopkins, or have Duke University behavioral economist Dan Ariely lead them through “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior”—all without paying the $50,000 usually required to attend these world-class universities.

More than 1 million people from scores of countries have already enrolled in the free classes, which some believe could transform the mission and model of higher education. Anant Agarwal, president of edX, calls it “the single biggest change in education since the printing press.”

What’s in it for colleges?

Prestige now, and possibly profit later. Schools say they’re willing to give their product away for free so they don’t miss the chance to be among the first to develop new forms of education. “The potential upside for this experiment is so big that it’s hard for me to imagine any large research university that wouldn’t want to be involved,” said Richard DeMillo, director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Tech. One day the schools will likely try to make some money, too, possibly by charging students for credits or allowing companies to sponsor courses. But universities recognize that they could be jeopardizing their hard-won reputations and their time-tested business model, said Jason Wingard, a vice dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “You run the risk of potentially diluting your brand.”

How do the classes work?

Much like a typical college lecture course, but with an audience in the tens or even hundreds of thousands. At a time of their choosing, students watch videos of lectures by respected professors, and complete interactive quizzes and regular homework to prove they grasp the material. The Web videos incorporate graphics and virtual games, and students can pose questions and debate one another in online discussion groups. Professors say it’s thrilling to reach so many students at once, from teenagers in India to baby boomers in Indiana. Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng, a Stanford computer science professor, recently taught an online class to more than 100,000 students. To reach that many people, Ng said, “I would have had to teach my normal Stanford class for 250 years.”

Are the classes effective?

Some educators doubt that virtual classes can match the experience of face-to-face learning. Online education “tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue,” said University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson. There’s also an extremely high attrition rate: Of the 160,000 people who enrolled in a Stanford artificial intelligence course last year, only 23,000 finished the work. But the feedback that could improve these courses is just beginning to roll in, and there’s already some evidence that students who stick with online courses learn just as much as those in conventional classes. “This is the Wild West,” said Agarwal. “There’s a lot of things we have to figure out.”

Will this trend make college cheaper?

There are grounds for hope. Since 1985, U.S. college tuition rates and fees have grown by 559 percent. In theory, online courses could cut costs by enabling universities to outsource coursework to the Internet and do away with or share some academic departments. Fewer students would need campus housing and other services. Universities have so far opposed giving credit for free classes, instead conferring certificates that don’t count toward a degree. But that’s already starting to change, with the University of Washington offering credit for Coursera classes this fall.

Could the Web replace universities?

Not anytime soon. “Why do people pay $50,000 a year to attend an institution like Caltech?” Ng said. “The real value is the interactions with professors and other equally bright students.” Still, even a remote dose of elite education can have great value to students who have no chance of setting foot on an Ivy League campus. And lessons drawn from the courses could reshape how colleges approach teaching, turning the ability to offer a mix of online and face-to-face learning into the new gold standard for top-notch educators. Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford research professor who offers free online computer science classes, predicts that there will be only 10 higher-education institutions in the world in 50 years. “It’s pretty obvious that degrees will go away,” he said. “The idea of a degree is that you spend a fixed time right after high school to educate yourself for the rest of your career. But careers change so much over a lifetime now that this model isn’t valid anymore.” In the future, he says, people will return to college throughout their lives, updating what they know through online courses.

Every so often, we'll reprint something from our sister publication, The Week. This is one of those times.

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8 of the Weirdest Gallup Polls
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Born in Jefferson, Iowa on November 18, 1901, George Gallup studied journalism and psychology, focusing on how to measure readers’ interest in newspaper and magazine content. In 1935, he founded the American Institute of Public Opinion to scientifically measure public opinions on topics such as government spending, criminal justice, and presidential candidates. Although he died in 1984, The Gallup Poll continues his legacy of trying to determine and report the will of the people in an unbiased, independent way. To celebrate his day of birth, we compiled a list of some of the weirdest, funniest Gallup polls over the years.

1. THREE IN FOUR AMERICANS BELIEVE IN THE PARANORMAL (2005)

According to this Gallup poll, 75 percent of Americans have at least one paranormal belief. Specifically, 41 percent believe in extrasensory perception (ESP), 37 percent believe in haunted houses, and 21 percent believe in witches. What about channeling spirits, you might ask? Only 9 percent of Americans believe that it’s possible to channel a spirit so that it takes temporary control of one's body. Interestingly, believing in paranormal phenomena was relatively similar across people of different genders, races, ages, and education levels.

2. ONE IN FIVE AMERICANS THINK THE SUN REVOLVES AROUND THE EARTH (1999)

In this poll, Gallup tried to determine the popularity of heliocentric versus geocentric views. While 79 percent of Americans correctly stated that the Earth revolves around the sun, 18 percent think the sun revolves around the Earth. Three percent chose to remain indifferent, saying they had no opinion either way.

3. 22 PERCENT OF AMERICANS ARE HESITANT TO SUPPORT A MORMON (2011)

Gallup first measured anti-Mormon sentiment back in 1967, and it was still an issue in 2011, a year before Mormon Mitt Romney ran for president. Approximately 22 percent of Americans said they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate, even if that candidate belonged to their preferred political party. Strangely, Americans’ bias against Mormons has remained stable since the 1960s, despite decreasing bias against African Americans, Catholics, Jews, and women.

4. MISSISSIPPIANS GO TO CHURCH THE MOST; VERMONTERS THE LEAST (2010)

This 2010 poll amusingly confirms the stereotype that southerners are more religious than the rest of the country. Although 42 percent of all Americans attend church regularly (which Gallup defines as weekly or almost weekly), there are large variations based on geography. For example, 63 percent of people in Mississippi attend church regularly, followed by 58 percent in Alabama and 56 percent in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Utah. Rounding out the lowest levels of church attendance, on the other hand, were Vermont, where 23 percent of residents attend church regularly, New Hampshire, at 26 percent, and Maine at 27 percent.

5. ONE IN FOUR AMERICANS DON’T KNOW WHICH COUNTRY AMERICA GAINED INDEPENDENCE FROM (1999)

Although 76 percent of Americans knew that the United States gained independence from Great Britain as a result of the Revolutionary War, 24 percent weren’t so sure. Two percent thought the correct answer was France, 3 percent said a different country (such as Mexico, China, or Russia), and 19 percent had no opinion. Certain groups of people who consider themselves patriotic, including men, older people, and white people (according to Gallup polls), were more likely to know that America gained its independence from Great Britain.

6. ONE THIRD OF AMERICANS BELIEVE IN GHOSTS (2000)

This Halloween-themed Gallup poll asked Americans about their habits and behavior on the last day of October. Predictably, two-thirds of Americans reported that someone in their house planned to give candy to trick-or-treaters and more than three-quarters of parents with kids reported that their kids would wear a costume. More surprisingly, 31 percent of American adults claimed to believe in ghosts, an increase from 1978, when only 11 percent of American adults admitted to a belief in ghosts.

7. 5 PERCENT OF WORKING MILLENNIALS THRIVE IN ALL FIVE ELEMENTS OF WELL-BEING (2016)

This recent Gallup poll is funny in a sad way, as it sheds light on the tragicomic life of a millennial. In this poll, well-being is defined as having purpose, social support, manageable finances, a strong community, and good physical health. Sadly, only 5 percent of working millennials—defined as people born between 1980 and 1996—were thriving in these five indicators of well-being. To counter this lack of well-being, Gallup’s report recommends that managers promote work-life balance and improve their communication with millennial employees.

8. THE WORLD IS BECOMING SLIGHTLY MORE NEGATIVE (2014)

If you seem to feel more stress, sadness, anxiety, and pain than ever before, Gallup has the proof that it’s not all in your head. According to the company’s worldwide negative experience index, negative feelings such as stress, sadness, and anger have increased since 2007. Unsurprisingly, people living in war-torn, dangerous parts of the word—Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Syria, and Sierra Leone—reported the highest levels of negative emotions.

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11 Times Mickey Mouse Was Banned
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Despite being one of the world’s most recognizable and beloved characters, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Mickey Mouse, who turns 89 years old today. A number of countries—and even U.S. states—have banned the cartoon rodent at one time or another for reasons both big and small.

1. In 1930, Ohio banned a cartoon called “The Shindig” because Clarabelle Cow was shown reading Three Weeks by Elinor Glyn, the premier romance novelist of the time. Check it out (1:05) and let us know if you’re scandalized:

2. With movies on 10-foot screen being a relatively new thing in Romania in 1935, the government decided to ban Mickey Mouse, concerned that children would be terrified of a monstrous rodent.

3. In 1929, a German censor banned a Mickey Mouse short called “The Barnyard Battle.” The reason? An army of cats wearing pickelhauben, the pointed helmets worn by German military in the 19th and 20th centuries: "The wearing of German military helmets by an army of cats which oppose a militia of mice is offensive to national dignity. Permission to exhibit this production in Germany is refused.”

4. The German dislike for Mickey Mouse continued into the mid-'30s, with one German newspaper wondering why such a small and dirty animal would be idolized by children across the world: "Mickey Mouse is the most miserable ideal ever revealed ... Healthy emotions tell every independent young man and every honorable youth that the dirty and filth-covered vermin, the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom, cannot be the ideal type of animal.” Mickey was originally banned from Nazi Germany, but eventually the mouse's popularity won out.

5. In 2014, Iran's Organization for Supporting Manufacturers and Consumers announced a ban on school supplies and stationery products featuring “demoralizing images,” including that of Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, Sleeping Beauty, and characters from Toy Story.

6. In 1954, East Germany banned Mickey Mouse comics, claiming that Mickey was an “anti-Red rebel.”

7. In 1937, a Mickey Mouse adventure was so similar to real events in Yugoslavia that the comic strip was banned. State police say the comic strip depicted a “Puritan-like revolt” that was a danger to the “Boy King,” Peter II of Yugoslavia, who was just 14 at the time. A journalist who wrote about the ban was consequently escorted out of the country.

8. Though Mussolini banned many cartoons and American influences from Italy in 1938, Mickey Mouse flew under the radar. It’s been said that Mussolini’s children were such Mickey Mouse fans that they were able to convince him to keep the rodent around.

9. Mickey and his friends were banned from the 1988 Seoul Olympics in a roundabout way. As they do with many major sporting events, including the Super Bowl, Disney had contacted American favorites to win in each event to ask them to say the famous “I’m going to Disneyland!” line if they won. When American swimmer Matt Biondi won the 100-meter freestyle, he dutifully complied with the request. After a complaint from the East Germans, the tape was pulled and given to the International Olympic Committee.

10. In 1993, Mickey was banned from a place he shouldn't have been in the first place: Seattle liquor stores. As a wonderful opening sentence from the Associated Press explained, "Mickey Mouse, the Easter Bunny and teddy bears have no business selling booze, the Washington State Liquor Control Board has decided." A handful of stores had painted Mickey and other characters as part of a promotion. A Disney VP said Mickey was "a nondrinker."

11. Let's end with another strike against The Shindig (see #1) and Clarabelle’s bulging udder. Less than a year after the Shindig ban, the Motion Picture Producers and Directors of America announced that they had received a massive number of complaints about the engorged cow udders in various Mickey Mouse cartoons.

From then on, according to a 1931 article in Time magazine, “Cows in Mickey Mouse ... pictures in the future will have small or invisible udders quite unlike the gargantuan organ whose antics of late have shocked some and convulsed others. In a recent picture the udder, besides flying violently to left and right or stretching far out behind when the cow was in motion, heaved with its panting with the cow stood still.”

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