Sunday, July 29, 2012

Revolution in Education

Adelman and the ivied walls of Princeton

When my daughter attended Princeton, I was filled with immense pride and a dollop of envy.  The pedagogical experience was awesome - the small classes and individual attention from world class faculty showed the wisdom of her decision to eschew Harvard in favour of Princeton.  

Now I've just registered to take A History of the World Since 1300 from Princeton professor Jeremy Adelman, starting this September.  How, you might ask, is this woman in Toronto taking a course at Princeton?  Coursera is the answer.  Coursera offers online courses from 17 of the world's top universities, free. I certainly won't get the individualized learning experience of an undergrad at Princeton, but I will learn from one of their top faculty.

And that's not all:  I also registered for Healthcare Innovation and Entrepreneurship taught by Bob Barnes and Marilyn Lombardi of Duke, and Critical Thinking in Global Challenges by Celine Caquineau and Mayank Dutia of University of Edinburgh.  The breadth of choice, even at this early stage, is amazing.  To peruse the courses on offer at Coursera is to be a kid in a candy store.

There is one downside - in Adelman's email to me confirming registration, he already handed out pre-reading.  
Thank you for your interest in global history.  This is a course I have taught for many years, and I never cease to find it a source of excitement.  We will be in touch with more details when the class starts.  But in the meantime, you should feel free to start reading the recommended textbook, Worlds Together, World Apart (3rd edition), Volume 2.
Hmm, some things are the same about online education.

This course will run for 24 lectures of 50 minutes each, with regular assignments of map tests and short essays.  The lectures are expected to take two hours, including the embedded assignments, plus two hours for writing and three hours for reading each week.  

In 1997, Clayton Christensen introduced the concept of disruptive innovation in his book The Innovator's Dilemma (named one of the six best business books of all time by The Economist) and Coursera is disruptive innovation at its finest - a product that is "not as good as" that offered at traditional institutions.  At least not by traditional standards.  You can forget the ivy-clad walls, the chance to talk to the prof in person after class, parties, football games, and most importantly, that certificate on the wall saying you're a Princeton grad.  However, it's vastly more convenient and accessible for people who would not otherwise be able to attend university, let alone storied Princeton.  Many advocates argue that, for many topics, online learning is actually better, because of the frequent progress testing, and the ability to proceed at an individualized pace.   And did I mention it's free?  That's what disruptive innovation is all about, less good on traditional attributes, but 'disrupting' an industry through the introduction of some new attribute that overturns our whole view of the industry, in this case the opportunity to take a Princeton course while staying at home in Toronto, doing it on my own time, and doing it for free. 

A typical reaction of people vested in an industry threatened by disruption is to treat the disruptor with disdain.   It's no different in education.   I've met people who sneer at a degree from University of Phoenix, a pioneer in online education and the largest university in the US, and liken it to a mail-order degree.  And an MBA from Athabaska?  Pshaw.  It doesn't hold a candle to an MBA from one of Canada's prestigious programs.  

However, disruptive innovations undergo continuous improvement over time, and ultimately challenge the leading incumbents.  Just look at the universities involved in Coursera, and it's hard to justify disdain: University of California (Berkley and San Francisco), California Institute of Technology, Duke, Ecole Polytechnique National de Lausanne, University of Edinburgh, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Illinois, John Hopkins, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Rice, Stanford, University of Michigan, University of Toronto, University of Michigan, University of Washington.  Then, there's edX, started by Harvard and MIT and recently joined by University of California at Berkeley, offering mostly courses in Computer Science.  Clearly, the big names are jockeying for position in this new arena.  

The limitations of online education are sure to be diminished over time.  New generations find online social media as satisfying as real-life interactions and they may not miss university social life quite as much as the older generation expects them to.  For this history course, Princeton is not offering an official credit, but will provide, with my approval, data documenting my progress and performance.  This is definitely inferior to a course credit or degree from Princeton, for students or potential employers. 

However, it doesn't take much imagination to envision testing centres, similar to those for SAT tests, to enable those taking courses online to get official credits for the courses they take.  How will an employer respond to an applicant who has a full load of course credits, spread over 8 world-class universities, but no degree from a single one of them?  It unbundles the idea of a 'degree' as we've known it.   

Will students get very picky about where they take course and from whom?  Think of a student given the choice between taking a course from a local university, potentially from an unseasoned or just plain weak professor, or taking the same material from a renowned professor who's earned a global reputation for this course?  As a adjunct professor in a couple of MBA programs myself, I can certainly understand the threat of this competitive breeze down my neck.  Teaching faculty could be disrupted as much as the institutions themselves. 

Coursera's founders are from Stanford and they are funded by two Silicon Valley venture capitalists.  It's not been stated what the eventual business model will be - is the initial free offering to be superseded by fee-based courses once the concept is established?  Stanford Department of Engineering was a pioneer in online courses online: a graduate course in Artificial Intelligence last year attracted a remarkable 160,000 students from 190 countries.  

Of course, it's not an either/or decision.  Online courses are already popular with 'regular' college students.   As reported in the Sloan Consortium 2011 report, almost one third of students at college in the US are taking an online course.  Online education can also be a supplement to traditional education.  Perhaps the greatest success story of online education is the Kahn Academy.  Started 'accidentally' by Salman Kahn who was tutoring some cousins at a distance through online lectures - no fancy technology, just a YouTube video of Kahn with his engaging manner and the equivalent of a black board for notes.  Those first efforts have led to a site with over 3,000 videos and millions of views (see Kahn's TED talk for more information about some of the revolutionary techniques being used in K-12 curricula).  

As education costs continue to spiral upward, the cost effectiveness of online education will become even more important - consider that one Stanford prof teaching 160,000 students!  It could also lead to the unbundling of university degrees, the enhancement of the brands and success of the top universities and the erosion of second-rate institutions, the need for much fewer teaching faculty - in short a revolution in education.  It's happened in many other industries.  There's no reason education would be exempt.

Education is in for a revolution.  I'm excited to be a small part of this revolution as a student of my first online course.

No comments: