“Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty – by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems. And nothing has more potential to enable us to re-imagine higher education than the massive open online course, or MOOC, platforms that are being developed by the likes of Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and companies like Coursera and Udacity.”
– Thomas Friedman, author of “The World Is Flat”
It started as a tremor many years ago but now is progressing to seismic strength on the education Richter scale. Some professors are already constructing protective bunkers in their comfortable academies of higher learning to fight it.
We’re talking about “distance learning,” which, we can assure you, is not your mother’s “correspondence course.” Think of it as an education-delivery system on Lance Armstrong-performance steroids which could (the operative word is could) transform traditional education in the Cayman Islands and, indeed, for hundreds of millions of students – both youngsters and life-long learning adults – worldwide.
Not to tell Education Minister Tara Rivers how to do her job, but we would suggest hiring or assigning at least one full-time employee to focus on how this phenomenon can benefit the Cayman Islands. A quick examination of the education “model” at the college or university level will illustrate its dysfunction:
Using the United States as an example, post-secondary education is enormously expensive – and the annual costs are increasing at more than twice the rate of health care.
The “best” schools and professors are available only to those of substantial means or to students whose education is subsidized through various forms of financial aid, including scholarships and student loans. One year at Harvard, for example, including room, board and tuition, costs approximately $55,000. Princeton, too, costs more than $50,000. The average cost for one year of undergraduate study at private nonprofit institutions in America is $36,300 – unaffordable to most.
In addition to cost and access, much (some would argue most) time spent at university is simply wasted. Students are often weighted down with questionable required courses, while at the same time being offered an array of choices that include these no-brainer options: History of Surfing (University of California at Santa Barbara); Brothel Management (University of Nevada at Las Vegas), How to Watch Television (Montclair State University) or, the ever-popular in-depth study of The Phallus (Occidental College). These education-lite offerings give credence to the adage that “some ideas are so absurd that only an educated mind would consider them.”
Further (especially?), the most in-demand schools, whose courses are taught by professors minted in the antiwar movement of the 1960s, have indoctrinated their students with a liberal, anti-establishment, anti-capitalism orthodoxy. Many parents, even those who can afford to send their children to these institutions, are reluctant to place their children in such toxic environments.
In short, traditional education is built on the model of elitism and exclusion: a small number of world-class universities with a small number of world-class professors teaching a small number of privileged students.
All of this is about to change as “brick and mortar” businesses are being replaced with more cost-efficient and convenient delivery systems of goods and services. A few examples: The venerable publication Newsweek recently abandoned its print magazine and now is available only online. Books are being replaced by e-book purveyors such as Amazon and Apple (Barnes and Noble just announced it is closing one third of its stores); and retail chains such as Sharper Image have shuttered their physical stores and reinvented themselves as digital-only outlets. iTunes killed the traditional music store model, and video stores and even movie theaters are falling by the wayside as Netflix continues to flourish.
This fundamental shift is now at the doorstep of traditional educational institutions, and the consequences will be transforming. The classrooms of tomorrow will be Internet-driven computers, iPads, smart phones, and other high-speed wireless devices still to be invented. It’s already happening. Consider this:
Last August, two computer science professors at Stanford University launched an online education company called Coursera offering free – that’s right, free – college courses over the Internet. Some 70,000 new students per week are signing up for more than 400 courses and, as of this writing, 4.5 million students worldwide have enrolled. Coursera is growing faster than Facebook.
Starting out small at Stanford, the professors, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, convinced a few colleagues to allow their classes to be filmed and broadcast over the Internet. A lot has happened since then. They raised $22 million, crisscrossed the country and signed up many of the finest faculty members at 34 elite universities, which agreed to make their courses available to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. Participating schools include Brown, Columbia, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, and Rice universities as well as the universities of California, Edinburgh, Florida, London, Maryland, Michigan Pennsylvania, Toronto and Virginia – all world-class schools with world-class professors.
The New York Times reports that “the Coursera co-founders have become oracles of higher education, spreading their gospel of massive open online course at the World Economic Forum in Abu Dhabi, the Web Summit in Dublin and the Aspen Ideas Festival.” They describe how free online courses can open access to higher education to anyone with an Internet connection; liberate professors from repeating the same tired lectures and jokes semester after semester; and generate data, because the computers capture every answer right or wrong, that can provide new understanding of how students learn best.
In an article titled “Instruction for Masses Knocks Down Campus Walls,” The Times recently reported:
“Welcome to the brave new world of Massive Open Online Courses – known as MOOCs – a tool for democratizing higher education. While the vast potential of free online courses has excited theoretical interest for decades, in the past few months hundreds of thousands of motivated students around the world who lack access to elite universities have been embracing them as a path toward sophisticated skills and high-paying jobs, without paying tuition or collecting a college degree. And in what some see as a threat to traditional institutions, several of these courses now come with an educational credential.”
The Times goes on: “Consider Stanford’s experience: Last fall, 160,000 students in 190 countries enrolled in an artificial intelligence course taught by [Sebastian] Thrun and Peter Norvig, a Google colleague. An additional 200 registered for the course on campus, but a few weeks into the semester, attendance at Stanford dwindled to about 30, as those who had the option of seeing their professors in person decided they preferred the online videos with their simple views of a hand holding a pen, working through the problems.
“Mr. Thrun was enraptured by the scale of the course, and how it spawned its own culture, including a Facebook group, online discussions and an army of volunteer translators who made it available in 44 languages.
“‘Having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again,’ Professor Thrun said at a digital conference in Germany in January
. ‘I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill, and you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.’”
Although Coursera is leading the charge in providing high-quality online free education, it is spawning other high-end entries into the field, including Udacity, founded by Professor Thrun after his initial success with Coursera. Another, edX, was founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University, each contributing $30 million to the venture, which also will provide high-level university courses to the world at no charge.
Predictably, pushback and resistance to the MOOC movement has already begun. Professors and administrators at traditional four-year institutions are beginning to view quality online learning as an economic threat to themselves and their campuses. As MOOCs continue to expand, as they most certainly will, we can expect the resistance from the “establishment” academies – especially the mid- to lower-tier institutions – to increase.
This threat to academia’s traditional model took on heightened significance about a month ago when Georgia Tech announced it would offer a master’s degree in computer science through a MOOC delivery channel. The on-campus price: $45,000; the MOOC price: $6,600.
The Georgia Tech development is made even more significant because the computer science department at the school is ranked among the top 10 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Until now, the “missing link” in the MOOC movement is that online courses did not lead to an accredited degree.
John Backus, CEO of Atlantic Ventures, which invests in higher-education companies, asks an obvious question: “Why would you go to XYZ college, pay three to four times the amount, when you can get a master’s degree more cheaply and from a better school?”
Online education is even reaching down to the high school level. In Idaho, the state legislature recently passed a law requiring students to take some online courses as a requisite for graduation. The New York Times reported that “teachers have been in open revolt. They marched on the capital last spring, when the legislation was under consideration . . . some teachers have also expressed concern that teaching positions could be eliminated and their raises reduced to help offset the cost of the technology.”
Others have pointed to online course-taking as devoid of the socialization experience that one acquires at a traditional four-year university. There may be some validity in this argument, but spending four years at an expensive, far-away college campus is simply not an option for the majority of people in the world. They’ll have to get their “socialization” elsewhere.
Also, purists point out that the primary purpose of an educational institution is to educate – not to offer opportunities to become proficient in dribbling a basketball, swinging a bat, or tooting a trumpet or trombone.
In Cayman, the benefits of MOOC learning are literally at one’s fingertips. Registration to study without cost in the classrooms of some of the world’s finest professors is only a few computer clicks away. Millions worldwide have already enrolled – and there is unlimited space for billions more. Get started by perusing the websites of the three top MOOC providers: Coursera at www.coursera.org, Udacity at www.udacity.com, and edX at www.edx.org
This article is adapted and updated from a piece David R. Legge wrote for Grand Cayman Magazine, a sister publication of the Caymanian Compass.