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Internet takes education to new level: Will universities make the grade?

Dozens of elite institutions are now partnering with start-up companies such as Coursera, Udacity and edX, to deliver massive open online courses. NBC's Rehema Ellis reports.



More and more universities have made a place for the Internet in today's educational offerings, but will universities still have a place in tomorrow's educational environment?

"We're about to undergo a tectonic transformation in education," Caltech astrophysicist George Djorgovski, a pioneer in scientific applications for virtual worlds, told me on Wednesday. "This is the start of an 'S' curve, and universities will be unrecognizable in a decade or two."

The rapid rise of next-generation distance education, and what it means for educational institutions, is our theme on "Virtually Speaking Science," an hour-long talk show that goes out to listeners on BlogTalkRadio and to a live audience in the Second Life virtual world. Djorgovski is my guest beginning at 9 p.m. ET Wednesday. If you miss hearing the show live, don't fret: You can always catch up with it as a podcast on BlogTalkRadio or iTunes.


Djorgovski has had years of experience in virtual worlds, thanks to his role as the director of the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics. MICA closed down last year, but Djorgovski is still involved in virtual-reality projects — including the first class that he taught as a massive open online course, or MOOC. "Galaxies and Cosmology" was offered over the Internet via Coursera, one of several MOOC ventures.

"It took way more work than I thought," Djorgovski recalled.

More than 28,000 students signed up online, and 2,000 stayed on for the whole course. One of the students was an 80-year-old Caltech alumnus. "I was impressed and surprised by just how dedicated these online students are," Djorgovski said. "This was not a goofball pretty-picture class, this was a serious course with differential equations."

Djorgovski set up a Facebook page for the course and kept office hours in Second Life. Although most of the students interacted through Coursera's discussion forums, about a dozen of them sent their computerized avatars to visit "Curious George" in his virtual office. "All of those who did were absolutely delighted," Djorgovski said. "They thought this was the greatest thing."

Second Life / Courtesy of George Djorgovski

Caltech astrophysicist George Djorgovski, a.k.a. Curious George, holds office hours for his cosmology course in the Second Life virtual world.

No money changes hands, and no college credits are given for completing the course. Nevertheless, the experience showed Djorgovski that "there is this great need or desire for extended education in some novel sense." For many of the international students, MOOCs provide the only way to get the kind of knowledge that America's universities can offer.

But MOOCs also raise deep questions for universities. "Now everybody's thinking, how are they going to do this?" Djorgovski said. "You can get 80 percent of higher education online for free, so why would you spend $300,000?"

Djorgovski said he's less interested in the business aspects, and more interested in the long-term effects on academic institutions. He wonders whether the research and the educational functions of a university will become decoupled, particularly at the undergraduate level. And he wonders whether educators will adapt. The idea of forcing educators and students to be in the same physical location may seem terribly outmoded in the year 2033.

"We will not be firing 99 percent of the professors, but I think their jobs will change," Djorgovski said. "It may be an even more painful transition than it has been in other fields. If we are lucky, it will be as mild as journalism or the music industry. If we are not lucky, it will be like buggy whips."

Do you agree? Tune in "Virtually Speaking Science" on Wednesday, join the audience in Second Life, or download the podcast later.

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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.

"Virtually Speaking Science" airs on Wednesdays on BlogTalkRadio, with a live audience in the Exploratorium's Second Life auditorium. In addition to Alan Boyle, the hosts include Tom Levenson, director of MIT's graduate program in science writing; and Jennifer Ouellette, science writer and "Cocktail Party Physics" blogger.