Obama’s Great Course Giveaway

Clues to a grand online-education plan emerge from the college and the experts that may have inspired it

Logan Stark’s classmates scramble for courses with professors who top instructor-rating Web sites. But when the California Polytechnic State University student enrolled in a biochemistry class on the San Luis Obispo campus, he didn’t need to sweat getting the best.

It was practically guaranteed. That’s because much of the class was built by national specialists, not one Cal Poly professor. It’s a hybrid of online and in-person instruction. When Mr. Stark logs in to the course Web site at midnight, a bowl of cereal beside his laptop, he clicks through animated cells and virtual tutors, a digital domain designed by faculty experts and software engineers.

By the time Mr. Stark steps into the actual lecture hall, the Web site has alerted his professor to what parts of the latest lesson gave students trouble. That lets her focus class time on where they need the most help.

Mr. Stark’s class is one of about 300 around the world to use online course material—both the content and the software that delivers it—developed by Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative. If the Obama administration pulls off a $500-million-dollar online-education plan, proposed in July as one piece of a sweeping community-college aid package, this type of course could become part of a free library available to colleges nationwide.

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Christopher Wofford is Digital Media Producer and host of WebSeries at eCornell.
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