The background of this post were three recent news items that points to a trend in higher education industry in particular, but that also applies to the entire education sector more broadly. The first was the announcement of a Stanford University professor starting a new company (Udacity) offering online courses for free. Another article, A Potential Academic Future, published by Inside Higher Ed paints a bleak picture of the effects of a potential bursting of the higher education bubble in about 15 years time; this in light of falling state subsidy and increasing tuition fees that is pricing out many potential students, and an over-supply of unemployed and underemployed but entrepreneurial PhDs willing to experiment with alternative models of teaching carreers. More recently, BBC reported MIT’s announcement of the launch of its first free “fully automated” course. (MIT Open Courseware has been offering some of its course materials online for free for many years but it did not previously offer an accredited certificate of completion to those following a course online.)
These are exciting developments that have the potential to radically alter the way the education industry operates. It promises to make high quality education accessible to anyone who is motivated to learn and has access to broadband Internet. At the same time, these changes can mean trouble for those in the education industry who do not recognize these medium and longer term trends. I am still trying to understand the implications but below are some of my quick thoughts. I hope the readers of this blog will join me in thinking on this subject.
1) These trends have the potential to challenge the way elite universities maintain their lead in the league table. When the best universities are moving towards offering their education freely more widely, they are sending a message that its not the value of tuition fee from students that will help them maintain their global rankings. What will keep them ahead of others are their continued ability to identify and attract the best minds. My guess is that by offering the highest quality of free (or near-free) education to people around the world, these elite institutions are increasing their catchment area from where they intend to identify and recruit graduate students, researchers and future academics.
2) These trends promise to increase vastly both the quality and efficiency of education for a vast number of students from around the world. Imagine, Amartya Sen or Stephen Hawking offering parts of their “codified” knowledge in the form of academic courses online to millions of interested students globally where repetitive tasks of instructions, feedback and evaluations are automated.
3) Credentialing and accreditation will have to change radically to accommodate these trends. The idea of “Badges” offer a lot of promise as suggested by the piece from Inside Higher Ed.
4) We can expect hyperspecialization in the education industry. (If you are interested in nanorobotics, go to university x.)
5) There will still be a need for geographically focused courses and institutions (i.e. those that will not be competing globally) that caters to the a specific geographic community sensitive to its specific local and regional issues.
6) Developments in online education so far only makes “codified” knowledge accessible to students. There is still significant “tacit” knowledge that students gain by interacting among themselves and with their instructors in and outside of their classrooms in conventional brick-and-mortar universities. Models are yet to emerge that would make at least part of this tacit knowledge available to a wider audience.
[Addition to this post on 03/05/12: Yesterday the New York Times published an article on the subject that suggests a new way to generate revenue for such online courses – charging employers for identifying talent. “So if a recruiter is looking for the hundred best people in some geographic area that know about machine learning, that’s something we could provide, for a fee.” My observation #1 above is another way of looking at it. The more general view of this is that the competition and the challenge is no longer in innovating models of online teaching; the competition is now in fostering innovation in automated processes to best identify top talent from a very large pool of self-motivated learners from around the world. This is akin to what standardized tests such as SAT, GRE and GMAT have been doing for years on a general level (not at the level of specific skills).]
[Addition to this post on 04/25/12: I just read this article about yet another ambitious online education initiative to set up the Ivy League equivalent online university.]
[Addition to this post on 5/4/12: Now Harvard and MIT are teaming up to offer free online college level courses under the brand name edX.]
[Addition to this post on 07/02/12: Also see Bill Gates’ views on this and related topics.]