Having just finished my very first online lecture on the history of the internet, I am both heartened and dismayed by the experience. Heartened that 34,077 students can enroll in a class taught by a single professor, but dismayed that education (online or otherwise) continues to push learning-by-rote and a lecture based knowledge-transmission model. One thing remains clear – this is only the beginning of the disruption of higher education as we know it.
It has ever been a great contradiction in education that the very institutions that further education also perforce restrict its access to a relative handful. Esteemed universities like Cambridge, Paris/the Sorbonne, and Bologna (commonly held to be the first university in the western world in 1088, preceded by even earlier ‘madrasas’ in eastern civilizations) have held themselves to a high standard of excellence, yet relatively few have been able to attend them due to lack of mobility, resources or perceived ability. Over the millennia, tradition has given way to change - women can now educate and be educated, and books and technology are the medium. Yet the basic knowledge-transmission model of an older, more experienced teacher ‘lecturing’ to students remains the same. And while e-learning is all set to revolutionize access to education, it remains unclear how it will impact this traditional knowledge-transmission model. This post is an attempt to break down shifts in higher education today, and predict how it will change in the next 5-7 years (admittedly, I am no educator – yet this evolution is a collective exercise and I am heavily invested in it).
Recent changes in higher education
First and most obviously, a 100% of universities in the U.S. are using some form of social media to encourage school spirit, entice potential students, and share learnings materials, with the universities below emerging as the winners.
Next, universities are increasingly testing distance learning and participating in e-learning programs. What’s driving this adoption? A strident demand from the public for greater access to learning. It started with Sal Khan posting videos for his cousin back in 2006. This evolved into the Khan Academy that has posted more than 3,300 videos to 6 million distance learners a month. More recently, MIT, Harvard and UC Berkeley introduced Edx – an open source platform for self-paced online learning that offers 7 courses (as of 7/28/12). Then there is Udacity, a similar online learning platform launched by a Stanford professor that offers 11 courses. However, Coursera offers the widest selection and the most esoteric courses by far, and arguably has met with the most success, having signed on 12 major universities that collectively offer 100 free online courses that run the gamut from programming to poetry.
What’s behind their growth? On-demand access to learning for passion learners i.e. ordinary people like you and me who are interested in learning more about a particular topic out of sheer curiosity. No one is looking over our shoulder, we can learn at our own speed.
A prediction of what we’re likely to see in the next 5-7 years
Columbia University recently announced the appointment of Sree Sreenivasan – a well-respected fixture in NY media – as their Chief Digital Officer to lead their online education program, signaling their commitment to online as a medium for teaching. Columbia is not alone. Many U.S. universities are exploring hybrid learning environments. Others are testing teleconferencing and distance learning platforms that employ streaming video and discussion forums to heighten engagement online. What will stick?
1. Hybrid learning environment: Some will rely on a hybrid environment that combines online and offline instruction, while others will focus on virtual environments and may lose almost all offline instruction. Udacity founder goes so far as to predict that in 50 years, there will only be 10 universities left in the world. Whatever the actual number, its highly likely that there will eventually be a massive consolidation of higher learning institutions. After all, why have several average courses available online, when one great course would suffice? Read what the marvelous Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, has to say about this -
Will there still be universities? Likely, but not certain…[there is] the idea that our current educational system, start to end, is built for an industrial era, churning out students like widgets who are taught to churn out widgets themselves. That is a world where there is one right answer: We spew it from a lectern; we expect it to be spewed back in a test. That kind of education does not produce the innovators who would invent Google.
2. Elite Tier 1 universities will continue to flourish: According to data released by The Department of Education, an undergrad at a private 4-yr college costs $35,500 a year vs. $18,900 at a public 4-yr college. Think a Harvard education is out of reach now?
It will only get worse – education at select elite universities will become a privilege of a few, and they will retain at least some aspects of their offline, in-person instruction. Why take away the one sure thing that Tier 1 college alumnus benefit from the most in their career progression – a top notch network best cultivated in person?
3. A role for the Humanities: This may be wishful thinking on my part but rapid innovative thinking seems to demand less formulaic thinking, and effective execution often arises from a coming together of several disciplines. This paper (an oldie but a goldie) lays out arguments in favor of a liberal arts education much better than I could.
4. Certifying skill level: Today, the expected outcome of most higher education is a degree and a broad grade (although not in most online learnings programs as of yet). Given the sheer volume of students going through the courses, online universities or hybrid programs will begin to certify knowledge and different skill levels as a way to better specify competencies for future employers.
5. Passion-based learning and continued education / re-education: For most of us, learning does not stop at graduation. We continue to learn about subjects we are interested in, or learn new competencies we hope to pick up as market practices change and industries are disrupted. Expect online learning to encourage individual, passion-based learning by students from diverse ages, countries and professions.
6. Honor code and peer assessment: Online learning by its very nature relies heavily on the honor code, expecting students to enforce self checks on cheating. Online programs like Coursera use a combination of automated assessment tools and peer-based assessment to grade assignments. For now, this makes sense – course enrollees are learning because they want to and are not as interested in taking shortcuts. Eventually, problems like student gaming will need to be considered, especially as courses begin to be certified at different competency levels.
There is every indication that online learning works. Think-tank Ithaka S+R conducted a study on learning outcomes when students are taught online vs. face-to-face instruction. Both groups did equally well, although the online students appeared to learn the material faster. So while there is no question that the disruption of higher education is inevitable, what remains to be seen is how fast it will progress. Wouldn’t you just love to fast forward five years to learn what universities will eventually come out at the other end?