I have a front-row seat to the coming revolution. One of the main services I provide to Microsoft and the developer community is bridging the divide between them and academia. As with newspapers, I expect the existing order in academia will be redefined over the next decade, posing enormous challenges and huge new market opportunities for the institutions and people who can grab them.
At the source of the coming revolution is this simple fact: The inflation-adjusted price of college has quadrupled since 1982 (source: cnnmon.ie/bApHLC). Has the value of that education quadrupled, or even doubled? Not that I can see. That artificial price increase has created an academic bubble like the stock and real estate bubbles we’ve encountered recently. Now combine disruptive technology (ubiquitous fast Internet) with the worst economy in living memory and you spark off cataclysmic structural change. The bubble is about to burst.
Some academic institutions are already adapting to this new reality, such as the Harvard University Extension School (extension.harvard.edu), where I have the honor of teaching. We admit everyone, and an undergraduate course costs about $1,000. Many of our courses, including mine on .NET, are available over the Web. You won’t play as much Frisbee or drink as much beer (probably) as in a classic residential college, but how many parents and students today wouldn’t find those economics compelling? And I’ll stake our teaching quality against any challenger, anywhere, any time.
But this model still relies on human instructors delivering live lectures, increasing cost. That’s about to change.
Think back to your freshman calculus class. Was your instructor any good? Every person that I interviewed for this column swore that he’d gotten the world’s worst. I know I did. (Yes, Sue Esch and Robert Nelson, I mean you.)
Imagine taking the world’s 10 best teachers of freshman calculus and paying them each a million dollars for a video. Put them all online at $100 a pop, including exams and problem sets. Capture just 3 percent of the roughly 4 million college freshmen in the United States, and you’ve recouped your investment in the first year.
Wouldn’t students prefer that to paying $12,500 (one-fourth of their yearly bill at a private university) to suffer through an apathetic graduate student boring everyone in a 500-seat lecture hall? Wouldn’t they rather enjoy a far better instructor, watch on their own schedules, re-run confusing sections until they understood them, progress at their own paces, for less than 1 percent of the price? Not just yes, but hell, yes!
Now expand this idea to any large lecture class where the material seldom changes: freshman economics, organic chemistry, English literature, even introductory computer science. It won’t cover everything, but looking back at my own college transcript (painful), it could have replaced about three-quarters of my classes. Quality way, way up; price way, way down.
This leveraged approach can work even for hot current topics. Stanford University announced that its class on artificial intelligence will be available for free online, and 58,000 students registered to take it. I might sign up myself.
This model has some hurdles, but with such huge cost advantages, they’ll get solved. For example, the Stanford online attendees won’t get grades or credit. How long until an enterprising community college offers an exam on the content and credit for successful completion, priced at perhaps $500? Students connecting to other students? Some entrepreneur will open an academic bar, like a sports bar, serving beer with your calculus videos. Asking the instructor questions? We’ll think of something.
The biggest loss would be those few extraordinary teachers who show you the world in a new light. I was lucky to study under Vic Mansfield, who influences my teaching and even my basic thinking to this day. I pay him the supreme compliment, not of imitation, which he would consider a lower form, but of adaptation, taking what he taught me and making it mine before passing it on. (And so do my classmates. See Vic’s obituary at bit.ly/k3qK4A, particularly the comments.) Perhaps we’ll develop some form of mentor classes to fill this gap.
As with all technological advances since fire and the wheel, those who cling blindly to the old ways get trampled. The faculty and institutions that prosper will be those that recognize the coming changes and adapt to them early (see my May and June columns from last year), instead of struggling, futilely, to hold back the tide. I expect to find the landscape radically different when my daughters start college, nine years from now.
David S. Platt teaches Programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.
I believe that colleges and universities are for profit organizations. And they will always seek the most profitable direction. On line education eliminates sports event attendence, dining on campus, housing costs and student lab fees. On line education will never be successfull until it is more profitable to the institution of learning than on site learning.
Yes, the education revolution is already here, but few people seem to know about it. About a year ago, I dropped my decades-old dream of going back to school when I found these sites: http://www.khanacademy.org/ (I never _really_ understood Calculus until I watched his videos) and M.I.T.'s open courseware http://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm which has a bunch of great, free classes. Additionally, if you download the free iTunes for PC, the iTunes University tab has an amazing number of great, free courses. And if you're tired of sitting in front of a computer, get a Roku and you can watch these on your TV (but the selections on Khan Academy and M.I.T. are a little more limited).
Like retierney I too am 57 years old. When I graduated from The Pennsylvania State University in 1980, it cost $2500 a year for room, board, and full tuition for an entire year. If you paid for full tuition you could take as many credit hours as you thought you could pass (I took 5 major courses my last quarter). While I had some great Professors I had more bad ones (i.e. they lectured but they just couldn't teach.) I have been preaching your message since the early eighties. Yet even in our technical profession we haven't been willing to embrace this concept. Try getting an interview sometime without a college degree on you resume. You can have all the Microsoft alphabet soup in the world to your credit but it's still only that diploma that will get you through the gates of HR. It's sad but I don't know when this country will wake and see that not only are most colleges delivering a substandard product compared to 50 years ago, they are also bankrupting families and individuals in the process.
Very good reflection on the evolutionary process of training in the context of new technological developments. I participated in the Introduction to artificial intelligence, led by Peter Norvig and Sabastain Thrun, supported on videoclases with quizzes, homework and two exams. There was a great team supporting the forums to answer your questions. Many participants supported the development of subtitles in many languages and shared very interesting and timely material through the forums. Many prepared lecture notes at the end of all the material provided, which also included feedback from evaluation activities. Teachers responded Weekly Live, the questions most votes. In the end they sent us a statement of compliance, digitally signed by the teachers, indicating the score and percentile correspondiente.Fue a very interesting experience at the highest level, which I shared http://pervys-cienciaytecnologia.blogspot.com/ 2012/01/cursos-gratis-en-la-universidad-de.html. This experience has been extended this year to many other courses, some with support from the University of Berkeley. MIT also announced the program MITx. through which they hope to launch a similar pilot at Stanford, with the possibility of obtaining a certificate that would cost at least not yet been determined. These experiments will resolve the obstacles inherent in the virtual eduación on everything related to the evaluation activiadades. No doubt this is the beginning of the massification of eduación led by the best universities in the world, as also language difficulties will be resolved with the development of technological tools.
A very cogent analysis of the current state of higher education. However the egg was laid decades ago. I don't know how old you are, but I am 57 and when I was in college, I too had both good and bad teachers. I attended college when computer learning was entering its infancy. The worst included a professor who attended the first live lecture and introduced the course and gave us a handout on how to access and use the computer course. We rarely saw him after this. If you had problems understanding the course content, you had a devil of a time getting help. The best used the computer course in addition to live lectures, which were really question and answer sessions. Attendance was optional if you understood the course content. My brother is responsible for setting up and keeping over 1,000 PC's running for the local high school system. He says that computer learning is ubiquitous. I can't help wondering if this has anything to do with why the schools have a D rating? The VERY worst teacher was some Chinese guy who could not speak English well enough to understand. Not a single word! Actually, I think this is intellectual theft. I believe there is an intelligence threshold wherein computer learning will not work. We put a man on the moon using the old-fashioned method; pencil, paper, chalkboard and slide rule. It works and should be used. Computers are a great and necessary learning tool now, but they must not completely supplant the old fashioned method. Thank you!
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