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Harvard wants me.
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So now I can go to Harvard, MIT, Stanford or Penn. I can go for free. I don’t even have to apply. Or leave my kitchen table. Or change out of my jammies.

I’m exaggerating a bit, but technology is opening the door to elite universities and it’s pretty interesting.

Called MOOCs, an acronym that stands for “massively open online courses,” an open-source technology platform is used to deliver material through self-paced learning, online discussion groups, wiki-based collaborative learning and online labs.

The first universities participating aren’t just any universities – they’re the names every mommy and daddy wants as bumper stickers on their cars. And it’s not just a collection of canned lectures – it’s an interactive experience including homework, exams and grades. Harvard and MIT have teamed up to create the not-for-profit EdX, while Stanford, Penn, Princeton and University of Michigan have launched Coursera. So far 1.5 million people have signed up for Coursera and EdX classes. And 104,000 students enrolled in a machine learning course taught by Andrew Ng, an engineering prof at Stanford. To master the extremely large student base, instructors depend on social media tools to foster collaborative, participatory and peer-to-peer learning. The learning can be energetic and non-linear with multiple data streams from discussion boards, Twitter, Google+ and Ning. Hold onto your seats.

So I checked them out. The Coursera site had a Netflix feel to it. Not at all scary egghead, but simple and inviting – if courses with names like Probablistic Graphical Models or Intro to Genome Science sound inviting to you. EdX doesn’t look like it’s quite as fleshed out. I could sign up for email notifications about upcoming classes, but that was pretty much it.

So what are the implications from a big picture perspective? Looking down the road…

• Can a MOOC be used as an outreach tool for College Admissions to boost future enrollment? Let prospective students sample before buying.

• If a professor is really great, think about the buzz. Superstar teachers are born. Supersized egos to follow. A Guinness World Records challenge of who taught the biggest class ever.

• How might this change our perception of the value of a 4-year college degree?

• If I can go for free, and a college degree can cost as much as $250,000, why wouldn’t we all revolt and go online? We could self-style our own education from 2-3 universities and then package ourselves as progressive, neo renaissance-(wo)men.

• How do current students feel about it? If I’ve mortgaged my future (or my parents’) to pay for my degree, do I want to be subsidizing someone else’s?

• Will ambitious high school seniors start to audit classes at Harvard or Stanford, get a certificate and a leg up in the frenzied admissions process? Get MOOC badges as a way of going one better than the traditional AP class.

• Could EdX charge recruiters for access to their database and students’ performance? Recruiters can cherry-pick the best and the brightest.

BTW, I just signed up for “History of the World since 1300”. It’s a Coursera-run class taught by a Princeton professor and goes for 12 weeks. While I can’t get credit for the class, I still have bragging rights to having completed coursework at a very prestigious institution. I will report-out my grade if it’s a B or above.

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