Two years ago, Sebastian Thrun, a computer science researcher at Stanford, claimed that in fifty years there would be only ten institutions in the world delivering higher education.1 That’s a pretty ambitious statement, given that there are over 9000 universities across the globe today! Thrun’s confidence in his claim stemmed from his recent work in morphing traditional college lectures into Massive Open Online Courses, also known as MOOCs. Instead of restricting knowledge to the privileged few, these courses aimed to bring the highest levels of teaching and scholarship to students everywhere. In a way, Thrun succeeded: instead of his course on artificial intelligence reaching around 200 university students, he was able to digitally distribute lectures and assignments to 160,000 students across hundreds of countries.
Recently, however, MOOCs have begun falling out of favor. Critics have raised questions about the quality of online classes, and several universities which had originally jumped on the bandwagon have quietly cancelled their plans to move courses online. Thrun now states that “we were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product.”2 What caused this abrupt change of opinion? Various academics and teachers have placed blame on a variety of issues, such as high dropout rates and a lack of diversity in student populations, but we can look for answers ourselves by examining the online education of the past.