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Surprising Science

Getting Hooked on Free Online Education

How important is motivation in education? As the nation's top universities begin to offer free online courses, will developers need to make them more like video games to retain students?

What’s the Latest Development?

Yale, Stanford and MIT now have free online education platforms where certain undergraduate courses are offered to anyone, anywhere. When Stanford offered one of its courses through the iPhone, Anthony Kosner was one of over a million people who signed up. But Kosner, presumably like many others, never finished the course. “Just making the coursework available for free, of course, doesn’t make people use it, no matter how good it is,” says Kosner. How much can entirely self-motivated learning really achieve?

What’s the Big Idea?

Absent textbooks, professors, diplomas and lecture halls, will the masses form good enough study habits to tackle the curricula of the nation’s most elite universities? Would universities be wise to design their courses like video games so that students become ‘addicted’ to high performance? “Good games know how to be addictive and developers…know how to use the habitual spaces created by them in people’s brains to facilitate learning.” Kosner says habit formation will be necessary for free online education to succeed. 

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