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Online Ed Tsunami Gaining Momentum

The revolution in online education is gaining steam. In the past few months alone, new programs like Coursera and EdX have made remarkable strides in attracting the attention of major universities, and they are now beginning to experiment with new ways of monetizing their products. What’s the next step?

In a new piece in the FT, Christopher Caldwell maps out some of the questions online ed entrepreneurs are trying to answer and points to how their answers could give the online ed “tsunami” an unstoppable momentum:

Certain questions of how to make online education pay have been solved, too. Now online educators are giving their courses away free. Google Books did the same when it was photocopying the world’s libraries. Bringing old institutions into the digital age can be a raw deal for those who hold a stake in the legacy technology. Once the consortia begin charging for the cyber product, recriminations and resistance will result. It is wiser not to start charging until habits, dependencies and institutional ruts have made online education indispensable.

A great consolidation of personnel must be the result of this technological shift. Once courses are online, best practices will emerge. The US will no longer need hundreds or thousands of organic chemistry professors. Network effects will bring a stampede of students to the courses of the best universities. Students will abandon even excellent professors at excellent universities to learn code-writing the “MIT way” or the “Stanford way”, if they believe that is the idiom their future bosses are most likely to speak in.

It’s still far too soon to say how much of this will come to pass. There have been many surprises so far, and there are doubtless many more to come. But our chief hope is that at least some of these surprises will make education more affordable and do something to relieve the already crushing burden of student debt. (And WRM for one hopes that American foreign policy will be one of the last subjects where worthy professors are rendered obsolete by harsh technological change!)

Read the whole thing.

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  • Mick The Reactionary


    “Online Ed Tsunami Gaining Momentum”.

    Tsunami is pretty awesome by itself. If it gains momentum it becomes a horrible heading.

  • Joe

    What are the skills kids today need to take advantage of the tidal wave of knowledge at their fingertips?

    As a parent who would have loved these options when I was in school, I keep wondering what skills my kids will need to take full advantage of that which is offered. They won’t learn by osmosis.

  • John Barker

    I think that AI is the world’s best online university and it may play a role similar to the Economist in the 19th and 20th centuries–offering the best writers and thinkers to a large audience in a timely manner.

    Currently, I am enrolled in three online courses: informal reasoning, modern poetry and world history. Whole new worlds are opening up to me.

    I remember when professors considered themselves to be teachers and seriously read our immature papers.God, I loved those wonderful and honorable men and women. Online education may offer similar experiences by giving us the opportunity to publish our ideas to an online audience of mature fellow students.

    Interested people learning from each other in a class structured by geniuses is what the online world offers.

  • Corlyss

    Don’t s’pose we could get a thread on Joe Biden’s presenting symptoms of senility, could we?

  • Corlyss

    “legacy technology”

    Ah, legacy systems. The term almost makes me nostalic for my days at IRS, where, when I left in 1998, they were beginning their 4th decade of trying to replace their legacy systems. Maintaining them (because the entire agency would fail if they dumped them at once in 1968) ensured that every commissioner could and did promise the National Treasury Employees Union that no one would EVER lose his job to automation. So the agency has never been able to enjoy the benefits of the computer revolutions that occurred since 1968, 1980, 1995, or 2007. Legacy systems might be slow. They might be painfully limited. They might not be able to make use of modernization or the creative destruction wrought by constant innovation and capitalism. But they do one thing supremely well: they keep lots and lots of people employed compensating for their shortcomings. Amen.

  • Joe

    @ Joe #2

    The first requirement is curiosity, the second requirement is a desire for the education. Beyond that, ‘skills’ are secondary–I’m sure they know how to use a computer. It’s just a question of where you spend your time while using the computer.

    There’s a tidal wave of ignorance available at kids’ fingertips too, and that’s the one that most people are going to see when they use the internet. There’s a lot of interesting and intelligent stuff out there, but it takes a little bit of searching to find it.

    That said, I have no idea how to foster these values in kids. If you figure out the magic sauce, bottle it up and sell it, you’ve solved America’s biggest problem.

  • RedWell

    I’m reminded of predictions made when VHS became widespread: no more books in school!

    There is something deeper and perhaps truly revolutionary going here, of course, but I’m surprised at the galloping predictions and optimism. As this recent piece at the Chronicle of Higher Ed points out, the implications of the most optimistic forecasts are nearly Orwellian:

    Another issue rarely discussed is the separate but equal logic, here: yes, you can get MIT training online, but it’s hardly optimal relative to the standard. This is precisely the case the NAACP made decades ago in order to integrate law schools: sure, you can learn law by studying in the basement, but there is an intangible socialization that occurs when you interact with faculty and students.

    As WRM offers, online learning may hopefully lower the cost of traditional higher ed, but I shudder to contemplate a world in which it replaces that experience.

  • Kris

    RedWell@7, leaving aside the merit of the article you link to, I frankly don’t understand your “Orwellian” and “separate but equal” arguments at all. Could you elaborate?

  • teapartydoc

    The money will end up in testing and certification, almost everything else will be free. People may have to go to labs for hands-on experiences, but virtual labs will prepare the participants better than the old method of reading about how an experiment is done. If you go through the tutorials for BLS and ACLS that the American Heart Association offers on-line, these would give you a taste of how any practical experiment could be reproduced. It’s just a matter of time–someone may have already done it. This is a bigger BFD than Obamacare. Nobody realizes it, yet, though.

  • chris

    The current/legacy certification system can not separate the brick and mortar classroom instruction from the need for testing evaluation. Therefore, all money comes to that institution. But, now there will be a gradual shift in certain appropriate subjects where the instructional materials are migrated away from the testing materials. This occurs in sports where your training (studies, classwork, courses) occurs locally, but your worth (testing scores) comes from a competition in an off-site location amongst athletes who trained under many disparate systems.

    An early form of a new educational system might parallel adult night school where there is much independent and offsite study and work, but the social stimulation and interchange occurs once per week in a brick and mortar class. Eventually, wider use of real time online classes could become more widespread and thus provide even a substitute for bodily once per week presence. This might greatly increase the efficiency of faculties and facilities, and may downsize the need for both. And a new business plan for by-subscription online course work mentoring, perhaps likened to college Teaching Assistants, could assist the many students who rely on that assistance. But here, the online TA involvement would migrate even down to the grade school level.

    An evolving system could sort out a means to distinguish payments for the education materials from payments for the certification. There needs to be yet further hybridization and diversity in the accessing of instruction materials. The greatest need will be the creation of a suitable means to test and certify the student that is as recognized as an established brick and mortar institution. Perhaps that can be likened to the current and established means to challenge and test-out of a required course. It seems that there must somehow be a realtime visualization of the student during the certification so that one can judge the understanding of the student’s knowledge and ability, without the possibility of notes and teleprompters.

    Much of education is now enjoying the last “Kodak Moment’. That last Kodak Moment is the one which preceded the digital era, which Kodak did not recognize early enough, and from which came the Kodak demise. Legacy education has time to adapt, but most of the educators deny the demise that is upon them. It will not be a total change, for there will always be a brick and mortar need, but there is a massive sea change occurring and they do not want to recognize and react to it. The need is for a dependable educational certification that is negotiable much like a national currency. That certification need has not changed. That which is changing is all that precedes the certificate.

  • chris

    Re #2 Joe question above:

    The discussions above address the evolving educational means to impart certifiable mastery of knowledge.

    Your question re what skills to teach your children is largely not addressed in education, in my opinion.

    A certification is presumed to verify that which should be the outcome and expectation of all education, which is usefulness. However, usefulness is overlooked, or downgraded to the level of trade education, whereas I find that it is the critical ability, much more so than the certification. Perhaps it is so disparaged from the modern “Liberal Arts” infiltration of education, which emphasizes the worth of their studies without a need for usefulness. As I have found no reliable ‘usefulness’ certificate, and no reliable coursework, permit me to ramble.

    From studying my family and my work environment, those who are useful often garnered that within their family from childhood responsibilities of assigned chores and assistance to others. These childhood responsibilities are a mild form of adversity that must be overcome. In that overcoming, skills, and thereby usefulness develops. Another wellspring of useful persons is amongst the many ex service personnel. A component of usefulness is curiosity to find a solution for a need that most others chose to ignore. Perhaps a current corollary term is the ‘multitasker’.

    It is increasingly difficult to direct a young person into paths to garner usefulness as the simple out of the home work experiences at the gas station, the grocery store, the paper route, the lawn cutting jobs, the Boy Scouting experience, the Christmas tree lot, the paper drives, the summer camp work, the youth volunteering opportunities are now few. And there is less youth peer support to so engage. And automation in all facets of life is eliminating the learning opportunities. But, it is possible to craft opportunities. In our community my wife and daughters take their ballet classes regularly to the seniors, they regularly participate in the local historical site in period dress and period activities for the public, they serve in their church, and the children have some chores at home. Other learning venues are the local search and rescue, the state and federally funded emergency training, and community service. Practiced skills are necessary for usefulness.

    I believe that inculcating the attitude of enjoying voluntary service is important in creating usefulness. And usefulness also applies to one’s attitude, it being a corrective tonic to one’s own harmful speech and inadequate self esteem. You cannot scorch others and be useful, nor belittle yourself too much if you know that you are useful. It can sustain you when your certification is not enough.

    Usefulness. I have not looked for it in course offerings, but suspect it is not suited for course catalogues as it is not something that has caught the attention of educators, and perhaps it is ill suited for higher education. It must be started in the home. It is the skill that extends and elevates the value of certification.

  • RedWell

    @Kris#8 (if you’re still around).

    By Orwellian (a loaded term, though draws the reference from the article), I simply mean that the some of the leading lights in this movement predict consolidation down to a handful of providers at the Ivy Leagues. At first, that might seem great because everyone, in theory, is getting a top-level education. But the trade-off is that only a handful of institutions and individuals would be setting the intellectual tone of higher ed. “Orwellian” may be overstating the danger, but I think most of us agree that democracies benefit from expanding, not diminishing, the number of ideas and voices in circulation.

    Similarly, if we have some elite students able to actually attend college or university in person while everyone else is learning online, it’s creates a clear two-tier system. Certainly we have this kind of hierarchy today, but imagine that we have two comparable students who basically learned the same material in college but one worked exclusively online. All things being equal, most employers will prefer the former; further, by interacting with peers, facing faculty in person (even if not always directly or one-on-one)and, in general, being immersed in a unique and challenging environment, the student who actually attends college will be better situated and socialized to succeed in a world where technical competence can only get you so far. African Americans argued that “book learning” alone was insufficient for a decent law education. At a more general level, online learning alone is also insuficient.

  • Kris

    Redwell, thanks for the clarification.

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