Education Innovation
Online Ed 2.0

Online education has not upended the academic establishment as quickly as many expected during the height of MOOC fever in 2012 and 2013, but new high-tech educational experiments are still popping up left and right, often with considerable amounts of (preliminary) success.

The latest: French billionaire (and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fan) Xavier Niel is opening a Silicon Valley campus for his unorthodox, Paris-based engineering academy, called “42”. Bloomberg View‘s Leonid Breshidsky reports on the school’s educational model:

It’s easier to name what 42 doesn’t have than what it does. There is no tuition; no educational prerequisites for entry; no teachers; no academic calendar, and no formal diploma. It does have a long line of people wanting to get in, 1,000 powerful iMacs and a super-fast Internet connection. […]

Niel’s school has 15 staff members, but they are not teachers, exactly. They administer the program, which should last three years and consists of a set menu of modules that a student must complete by doing individual or group projects. The school is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It has done away with the idea of imparting knowledge: Why focus on that if all information is stored and accessible somewhere? Students get no help beyond occasional advice on a web forum — they’re supposed to hunt for solutions on the Internet. All they have in the way of support is each other; projects are graded by peers, not staff.

42 is similar to the Minerva Project, another Bay Area-based educational experiment, in that it relies heavily on online learning, but doesn’t simply expect students to go it alone, as they might if they were watching lectures on Udacity from the solitude of their apartments. Instead, the program retains key aspects of the old-fashioned university model: geographic proximity to and collaboration with other people in a similar course of study. This amplifies the pressure to learn, and gives students access to what is (for good or ill) one of the most valuable parts of a traditional college education: a social network.

Can a 42-style institution ever compete with or even replace the lecture-hall university by offering a comparable product at much lower cost? It’s too early to say. One valid concern is that many students aren’t sufficiently self-motivated to take advantage of this kind of learning model. But even if these schools are not for everyone, they can productively provide alternatives to the overpriced bureaucratic mess of the traditional university, and help test out ideas for cost-cutting reforms that have previously been neglected in the Ivory Tower.

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