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The log-on degree

Digital technology can make college cheaper without making it worse, says Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University (ASU) in Phoenix and co-author of “Designing the New American University”. This idea is not new. For a few years now, massive open online courses (“MOOCs”) have enabled universities to beam lectures to wide audiences for a tiny marginal cost. The problem has always been that taking a MOOC is not the same as attending college in person. ASU seeks to mix online and face-to-face instruction in a way that makes both more effective. For example, one reason why college costs so much is that many students fail to graduate on time. Only three-fifths finish a four-year degree within six years. This may be because they are ill-prepared when they arrive: shaky numeracy leads many to drop out of courses that require maths. ASU uses technology to diagnose and address such shortcomings. All students are tested on arrival and given remedial help if they need it.

Teachers cannot keep an eye on all their charges, so the university’s “eAdvisor system” nags them instead. Since 2008 it has given all freshmen an online achievement plan, including a constantly updated dashboard that shows whether they are on track or drifting towards the exit.

Online introductory courses, full of prompts and explanations, ensure that teachers do not have to keep going over the basics in seminars. This frees time to teach the more difficult stuff. Data analytics allow tutors to identify which students are stuck and arrange the right response.

Early results look good: ASU has almost doubled undergraduate enrolments since 2002, to 82,000, kept its degree costs reasonably low ($10,000 a year for in-state applicants) and increased the share of students who graduate after four years from under one-third to half.

As well as chivvying laggards, software can make courses more fun. One of the most popular at ASU, on space exploration, offers nifty interactive sessions, allowing students to learn astronomy by way of a quest to find out what a habitable extraterrestrial world might be like.

Providing more of its coursework online also helps a university to serve students far away. Phil Regier, the dean of online studies at ASU, says that the number of students who study remotely is growing fast.

This works out well for the university, which can educate more fee-paying students without building bigger lecture halls. Extra sources of income are handy at a time when the state of Arizona is cutting funding for higher education. Mr. Crow is quick to spot opportunities: ASU has linked up with Starbucks, a coffee chain, to provide online degrees for company staff.

The notion that online degrees are inferior is starting to fade. Top-notch universities such as Pennsylvania State and Columbia now offer them in many subjects. Georgia Tech has had an online-only master’s degree in computer science since 2014, which it considers just as good as its campus version. Minerva, a “virtual” university based in San Francisco, offers online seminars to students who hop from city to city gaining work and cultural experience.

Even Harvard, long a digital resister, has softened a bit. From this year, its master’s course in public health can be done full-time, part-time or in intense bursts. For much of it, students do not need to be present on campus, so long as they gain the required course-credits. That touches on another idea that could change the way other courses are taught, paid for and accredited: the SPOC (Small Private Online Course).

Whereas the mass-market MOOC is aimed at large numbers of people with different levels of knowledge and commitment, SPOCs are focused on particular groups of students who are qualified to take the course and ready to interact with others while learning. Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government runs a popular SPOC on American security policy: alongside the campus students in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 500 more take the course online. They are required to dedicate time to it and do lots of homework, but so far they can receive no formal credit for it.

Adapted from The Economist, 14 March 2015  print edition: United States

Comprehension and interpretation

Answer the following questions by using complete sentences and your own words.

  1. What is Michael Crow’s idea about digital technology?
  2. What advantages do MOOCs bring?
  3. What does Arizona State University (ASU) employ technology for?
  4. What is the “eAdvisor system”?      
  5. Explain who “chivvying laggards” (line 21) are by referring to the text.
  6. What does “This” refer to? (line 27)
  7. What main advantage does online teaching represent for universities?
  8. What constitutes a proof that the bad reputation of on-line degrees is changing?
  9. Explain what SPOCs are?
  10. Explain the relevance of the title of the article by referring to the whole text.


Choose one of the following questions.

Number your answer clearly to show which question you have attempted.


Have you ever experienced on-line teaching and learning? Would you like to? Discuss the advantages and challenges of on-line teaching and learning in a 300-word paragraph.


According to the article “Digital technology can make college cheaper without making it worse”. Do you agree with this statement? Why? Why not? Express your views on the topic in a 300-word paragraph.

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