High Quality On Line Education Is A Democratic Revolution

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[the-subtitle Soon enough millions will have access to knowledge until now restricted to very few. Tremendous impact on the economy and society]

By Paolo von Schirach

May 10, 2012

WASHINGTON – Dream with me for a moment. Imagine a world in which any student can have access via the internet to the best teachers, providing the best instruction on any given subject. And the instruction is delivered in many different formats, allowing for the different starting skills of the students and individual pace of learning. Imagine that all this is available and provided for free or for nominal charges by dedicated NGOs that want to make education a public good accessible to all who wish to have it. Imagine the tremendous leap forward for many societies that would greatly benefit from having additional millions of educated people. More creativity, more innovation. A better world no doubt.

High quality on line education already available

Guess what: this is no longer just an aspiration. Pioneering innovators like Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy and Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford University Professor who founded Udacity, are clear examples of what can be done and in fact is being done today. Salman Khan started almost by accident, by producing short on line tutorials to teach younger relatives.

Professor Thrun decided to experiment by making his Stanford University lectures available on line. He was a popular professor. He had 200 student attending his class. Much to his surprise, just days after placing his material on line he had an audience of 5,000 that soon turned to 10,000 and then 14,000. After many other changes and different iterations, now through Udacity of which he is a co-founder he reaches 160,000 students around the world. And his subject is about complicated computer science stuff. Khan Academy, whose material is aimed at younger students with tutorials in many more subjects, has more than 140 million views and 320,000 subscribers.

These are staggering numbers.

Just the beginning

And these brilliant pioneers are just the vanguard of an education revolution just beginning to unfold. No doubt there will be more ways to deliver content, more ways to customize it. Given these already astonishing results, I think that in just a few years we shall see the unfolding of a true revolution. And this will be the democratization of high quality education, education being the most valuable capital one can acquire, as it is the precondition for almost anything else in the modern world.

Accessible to all

Think for a moment of the implications of this change. Until now high quality education was considered a privilege for the super smart and the super rich. So, given what we are used to, it is hard to imagine a future world in which one’s principal source of personal and intellectual growth is delivered free of charge or almost free of charge through a computer by some of the best instructors available in the world. Impossible to assess all the implications and the incredibly disruptive impact that this will have on highly structured and mostly mediocre education institutions that deliver average instruction at a very high price.

Education is the most valuable asset

Indeed, we know how valuable a good education is in today’s world and how difficult it is to get it. We know that in today’s highly competitive knowledge economy how well one can master any given subject is the passport to good jobs, great careers, upward mobility and financial success. Within the current system, most highly competent individuals are the products of the best schools and the best universities. And here is the mandatory right track. Admission into a great private school, and then use that diploma as a spring-board to get into a super university. This path is almost universally considered the essential precondition for to making it.

The problem is that this system providing excellent education is restricted to only a small minority of the student population: the really talented who may get scholarships, and the children of the very rich who can afford its extremely high cost. The rest can aspire only to passable, mediocre or bad public education. After that, the truly motivated will go to a decent or so-so college where they will get a so-so higher education leading to a so-so job.

Only few get the best

Therefore, only a tiny sliver of the student population will get a superior education. Many more will get a mediocre education; while the majority of the population is lucky to get a high school diploma. And, despite its mediocrity, the cost of this inefficient apparatus that breeds inequality keeps growing, up a point in which even an average quality college education will become unaffordable for most middle class students.

And bear in mind that here we are talking about the happy few who get to go to college. If you put together all the students who get any type of higher education, superior and average, these are privileged young people living in developed countries who have schools and universities they can attend.

The rest of the world gets little or nothing at all. Even basic literacy is an elusive goal for hundreds of millions.

Democratizing education

But here come the likes of Salman Khan and Sebastian Thrun. These brave visionaries lead the way to a new world in which almost anybody can get a real education, not just a smattering of something delivered by mediocre instructors. Everybody can have access to the smartest, most brilliant teachers who can open up entire universes of new knowledge to any student with a computer and a decent internet connection.

This is a revolution

I am sure that many more will follow this new trend and deliver new education material on line through other innovative modalities. Therefore it is impossible to predict how education will look like 10 or 20 years from now. But one thing is clear. The ability to deliver high quality at a low price to millions is a revolution and its impact will be revolutionary.

In fact, the ability to democratize learning so that it is truly accessible to all those who crave it may be one of the most dramatic and farther reaching transformations brought about by the internet era, with vast consequences for society, the economy, and governance that it is hard to even fathom.

Our thanks should go to the innovators who are leading the way.

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