Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Learning to change

We were just discussing online education in the last post. And this morning in the NYT Thomas Friedman talks about the education revolution.

Andrew Ng is a Stanford Professor the founder of Coursera, a new online education company that is offering certificates taught by professors from the leading schoools .


I normally teach 400 students,” Ng explained, but last semester he taught 100,000 in an online course on machine learning. “To reach that many students before,” he said, “I would have had to teach my normal Stanford class for 250 years.”

That is one heck of a leap in productivity.

Of course, it ought to mean that teachers have more time to do the higher value activity like small classes or one-to-one discussion. But it may also mean something like the kind of process Clayton Christensen describes in other industries , as we were discussing in a recent post. A relatively inferior product appears at the bottom end of a market, and then slowly improves and chews its way up through the rest of the market.

Serious change in third level education is probably still at least ten years off, however. This is going to follow the hype cycle of expecting too much too soon. For comparison, it ought to have been easier to transform academic publishing, with its absurdly high prices for journals. But the institutional momentum of existing reputations and brands is very strong. Most serious researchers still want to publish in the top referreed journals in their field.

The soaring cost of college education will be an immense force for change. But until there is solid evidence over many years that a Coursera certificate counts for something in the labor market, people will still choose to go to four year colleges if they can. It takes much longer to alter human institutions than to create technological possibilities.

And it could actually reinforce the position of the top schools. Recall the way technology meant that financial markets actually consolidated into the key centres of New York, London, and Tokyo at the expense of many small markets. If everyone has access to most of the same information, every last little edge that you get from being near the center of the action becomes ever more important.

However, it also means the basic content of the best education will be vastly more widely available as well. The courses, exams and access to the university library could be just as easily offered in a town in rural Kenya as Palo Alto.


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