The challenges faced by higher education around the world are daunting and cannot be met by the traditional institution-based education system. For the current model to meet the needs of future generations, we would need to build and fund thousands of new universities. And yet the past ten years have demonstrated that there is another way. Scalable education on the web is increasingly possible, largely through the use of commodity software that is easy to use and available freely or at low cost to anyone.
Consider: Stanford and MIT recently started offering free online courses, and both universities enrolled more than 100,000 users. In one Stanford course, on artificial intelligence, 25,000 users completed all required homework assignments and received a certificate for their participation.
Not only is online learning beginning to scale massively, but it is also beginning to do so at almost zero marginal cost. The expense of adding an additional student in a campus setting remains relatively stable. In online learning, however, the cost of adding one more user is often so close to zero that it can be ignored. Even the issue that seems to resist low-cost scaling the most—meaningful assessment, certification and recognition of learning—is starting to change. The Stanford artificial intelligence course offered certificates for those who completed the course work. MIT announced it will set up a separate organization, called MITx, to offer certificates for online learners. The Mozilla Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, Peer 2 Peer University, and others are hard at work on developing a system of portable online “badges” that would help learners to demonstrate and share evidence of what they have learned in informal or formal settings.
We are approaching a tipping point where education and educators can use technology to reach almost every person on the planet inexpensively. However, the result may not look like the conventional university experience we recognize today. These are exciting times for educators, but it remains to be seen how these developments will change the structure of education, influence the purpose of institutions, and shape the role of the professor. These developments may feel threatening, but they also offer exciting opportunities to reach a much larger and broader audience with our lectures, to spend more time advising and mentoring students, and to improve the overall learning experience for all.
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