By Alison Smale
DAVOS, Switzerland — She may not have been the youngest speaker ever at the World Economic Forum in Davos, but Khadija Niazi, 12, was certainly captivating.
Hundreds of the conference’s well-heeled attendees listened intently as Khadija of Lahore, Pakistan, described her experience with massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, that are spreading rapidly around the globe.
MOOCs are vastly extending the reach of professors at some of the world’s best universities, particularly at Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Yale, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and Duke.
Khadija has been taking courses, free so far, from Udacity and Coursera, two of the earliest providers of this new form of instruction. Her latest enthusiasm is for astrobiology, because she is fascinated by UFO’s and wants to become a physicist.
Education has long played a part in the annual deliberations here. But this time, many participants may have detected what Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s president, described as “a lot of attention.”
The fast rise of MOOCs is one reason. Coursera, at Stanford, for example, has existed just a few months and now has 214 courses attracting 2.4 million students from 196 countries.
Stanford, in Silicon Valley, has been the starting place for many well-regarded technology efforts, perhaps most notably Google. Still, questions swirl over the economic model that eventually might emerge to finance these online courses, which so far tend to be offered free in what amounts to a global test-marketing phase.
There are many other unanswered pedagogical issues, too — can such courses teach the humanities, or ever grade a creative writing piece? — in envisioning the potential for further educating millions who previously had no access to this caliber of teaching.
“We don’t know where the next Albert Einstein is,” said Daphne Koller, a computer science professor at Stanford who, with a colleague, Andrew Ng, introduced Coursera last spring. “Maybe she lives in a small village in Africa.”
Sebastian Thrun, another Stanford computer science professor who introduced Udacity after seeing more than 160,000 students sign up for an online class on artificial intelligence in the fall of 2011, predicted that this kind of learning would eventually upend American and perhaps other Western academic institutions.
In a discussion after Khadija’s presentation, Lawrence H. Summers, the economist and former Harvard president, was more cautious. He acknowledged the potential for the courses “to be hugely transformative.”
But “what it means for American students is the smallest part of it,” he said. “This is going to take a lot of working out.”
Peter Thiel, an early investor in digital technology, said online learning meant that the best professors would eventually need to focus even more on their role as mentors to students they worked with in person.
That is one reason Thiel and others emphasized that elite universities, the incubators of the long-term research essential to most major discoveries, would still exist.
Faust, in an interview, also emphasized the role of research and new ideas. Corporations are valuable sources of innovation, she said, but “they are living under the tyranny of quarterly reports and stock prices.”
A university expands thinking and research in ways “that may be unpredictable and may be long,” she said. But the cumulative effect of each new postdoctoral, graduate or undergraduate student attending a university like Harvard, whether physically or virtually, is accumulated wisdom and experimentation, she said.
Enterprising academic institutions have taken the lead in online learning. Harvard and MIT, for instance, worked together to introduce EdX, which offers free online courses from each university, last year. About 753,000 students have enrolled, with India, Brazil, Pakistan and Russia among the top 10 countries from which people are participating.
Also at Davos were officials from the new Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Russia. The institute, also known as Skoltech, recruited a longtime MIT professor, Edward F. Crawley, to aid its efforts to rival research institutions around the world and has welcomed its first 75 graduate students.
China’s best universities were also advertising their courses, although Chinese academics said that outside elite institutions in Beijing and Shanghai, the Chinese emphasis on rote learning could not compete yet with more interactive education in the West.
Koller said the value of a postgraduate education, no matter where it was gained, was shifting fast. “We have passed the stage in history,” she said, “where what you learn in college can last you for a lifetime.” After 15 years, she added, that learning is “obsolete.”
Top British universities like Oxford and Cambridge are also experimenting with online courses, which they promoted here.
Because government financing plays a large part in European institutions, both Andrew Hamilton, the vice chancellor of Oxford, and Leszek Borysiewicz, his counterpart at Cambridge, emphasized the paramount need to sustain long-term research.
In medicine, Borysiewicz argued, the span from the germ of a new idea to the bedside is typically about 17 years.
That requires long-term thought, akin to the studiously elite admissions policies and research skills that have kept Britain’s top two universities among the world’s best for hundreds of years.
But at Stanford, Koller is thinking in days, not centuries. Asked about the economic viability of Coursera, she outlined three potential sources of income: students paying an optional low fee ($59, for example) for a completed course; smaller colleges licensing the courses devised by the bigger universities; and employers subsidizing courses for their workers to bridge skill gaps.
When pressed on the likelihood of each model, she said: “Get back to me in two weeks. That’s when the sign-up for the student model ends.”