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Low tech at the high court

Reporters run with the U.S. Supreme Court's health care decision on June 28, 2012 in Washington, D.C.

If you followed CNN yesterday as the Supreme Court broke its big news, you might have read the wrong headline. The network initially reported that the court struck down President Obama’s health care law. Wrong. The mix-up may have been abetted by the High Court’s sluggish approach to basic modern technologies. No electronic devices are allowed in the court room.

Court watcher Jeffrey Rosen of George Washington University Law School says that leaves journalists to puzzle out rulings on the fly. "The justices begin reading their decision from the bench. And not until both the majority and the dissenters have finished speaking does the court release an electronic version of its opinion. At same time, press aids walk around press room and distribute Xeroxed papers of the physical opinion. The health care decision was no fewer than 193 pages, that's a lot of Xeroxes. But it's a vestige from the days when there was no Internet. The paper opinion was all that there was. So, as much by tradition as anything else, it's still distributed."

Rosen says the justices keep it old-school, in part, to maintain the majesty and dignity of the nation’s highest court. While the justices don’t blog or tweet in their spare time, some have copped to playing video games and using e-readers.

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Exclusive schools are exclusive because most of us can’t get in. But a number America’s most prestigious universities are rushing to offer their courses free, to everyone, online. In Silicon Valley, professors from Stanford University have set up two competing online programs that offer lecture courses by big-name professors to millions of students around the world.

Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun says education is a basic human right that far too few people enjoy. He says, "The access to higher education is so insanely limited through cost, through really hard admissions procedures, you have to be the right age, you have to be from the right socio-economic status and so on. In doing so, we eclipse ourselves of a huge number of highly gifted and skilled individuals that would really shine under another model."

Thrun is a co-founder of Udacity, an online program that, for now, offers mainly computer science and related courses. He says: "The most fundamental type of learning is when people do it themselves. We don't just record lectures and put homework assignments online. We really turn the attention to the student exercise. So when you enter a Udacity class, you'll be surprised. You will be finding a quiz almost instantaneously. And you, the student, you have to work. So we don't just tell you how to solve problems, you experience how to solve problems."

The other Silicon Valley startup is called Coursera, a collaboration among Stanford, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton. Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller says that online lectures can be more effective than a standard classroom lecture. "You sit there passively in a somewhat dark auditorium, looking at the professor. Even if the professor pauses to ask a question, 80 percent of the students are still scribbling the last thing the professor said and 15 percent have totally zoned out or are on Facebook. And most of the students don't really get to interact in meaningful ways."

Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun says his program is aimed at helping people get jobs and better their careers. "As we go about our professional life, we have to learn new skills. The world changes. There will be new technology, new platforms. So, anybody who got a college education ten years ago, couldn't have learned that at college. So what I hope to achieve is that we change the entire education model to make it more flexible, so people can keep learning, and keep learning for free, as they go through life."

Meanwhile out east, Boston neighbors Harvard and MIT recently announced plans to offer many of their courses online for free in a program called edX. There’s no word yet on whether any of these online schools plan to have a mascot -- maybe it should be a robot wearing a beanie.

About the author

Stephen Smith is the executive editor and host of American RadioWorks, the highly respected documentary series from American Public Media.
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