Courtesy of Forbes
In recent months, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT, Princeton, Cal Tech, Penn, Edinburgh and dozens of other elite universities have jumped into the market for online education, signing up anyone, anywhere who wants to sign up for free Web-based courses. Some are developing their own distance learning technology, while others are partnering with such companies as Coursera and Udacity.
The business strategy behind this digital gold rush was captured by a California State University official: “We don’t want to be Blockbuster when Netflix is coming in.” As high-end creators and distributors of knowledge, universities fear the Internet will disrupt their business models, much as newspapers, record companies and movie and TV studios have been disrupted.
This tectonic shift in higher education is being met by vigorous protests – many, ironically, by university faculty members who may eventually benefit in multiple ways from distance learning. Typical of the critiques is a July 19 New York Times OpEd by University of Virginia English Professor Mark Edmundson, who asks, “Can online education ever be education of the very best sort?” and answers in the negative because, among other problems, “Online education is a monologue not a dialogue” that can’t replicate “learning as a collective enterprise…a collaboration [where] students and teachers come together and create an immediate and vital community of learning.”
In my view, such criticism misses the point in two fundamental ways. First, no one is arguing an online course, no matter how brilliantly designed for immersive interactivity and engagement, will ever equal sitting in a Harvard seminar with a senior faculty member. Blessed with admission to Harvard and the time, proximity, and money to attend in person – privileges accorded an infinitesimal slice of the global population – the smart move is to be in the room. But for the rest of knowledge-starved humanity worldwide, is it better to be excluded entirely from that seminar, or to attend virtually in the most collaborative, learning-rich manner possible? The answer seems obvious.
What, after all, is the true purpose of a college or university? Do universities exist, as Thomas Frank contends in the August 2012 Harper’s, “…to man the gates of social class, [charging students] princely tuitions to obtain just one thing: the degree, the golden ticket, the capital-C Credential [to] coveted spots in that gilded, gated suburb in the sky”? Or, in a world where leading-edge knowledge equals power more than ever before, should a university strive to equip people everywhere to raise the quality of their lives and their standards of living? That answer also seems obvious.
The second way critics miss the point is in underestimating how effectively the virtual learning experience can promote the “collaborative, collective community of learning” Prof. Edmundson says is lacking. True, much online learning today is a “monologue, not a dialogue,” little more than YouTube-like videos of lectures “assessed” by simplistic post-lecture quizzes that measure engagement and comprehension when it’s too late to deliver what students missed.
Online learning is moving beyond this primitive, one-to-many broadcast model to become a social, collaborative, personalized and interactive experience that generates two powerful, mutually reinforcing success accelerants: first, the long-term desire to learn, to better one’s position in the world; and, secondly – crucially – the moment-by-moment pleasure of participating in a learning experience that’s continually exciting, rewarding and creates a valuable sense of social connection.
Some of the best thinkers are basing these new learning technologies, believe it or not, on such popular-to-the-point-of-near-addiction interactive online games as World of Warcraft. The next generation of online learning will use such game-inspired ideas as putting personal avatars of each learner in a 3D virtual room with the instructor and fellow students, making it possible for learners to “talk” with the instructor or with one another one-on-one or in groups. Assessment of learning won’t take place after the lesson, but while the student is actually learning, measuring engagement, identifying areas of focus and generating predictive analytics-based projections of retention – all monitored, adjusted and enriched in real time. These techniques are already in use at such leading places as MIT’s Sloan School of Management and TEDxBoston.
Online university education will never be exactly the same as sitting in the room, on campus, with instructors and fellow-learners. But the experience will be close enough to promote real learning, and to personalize instruction to each learner more precisely than any in-person seminar possibly could. As top-quality knowledge becomes the world’s most precious resource, hoarding it in towers of ivory or behind gilded gates for a privileged elite is a disastrously self-defeating mistake. Spreading that knowledge via engaging, compelling interactive technology will ennoble humanity and help the best thinkers and teachers fulfill their destinies on geographic and numerical scales few ever imagined.