Increasing the flow of information – the rise of new forms of education on a new scale

The printing press dramatically transformed our world, and so now the Internet is doing the same right across many industries. Information that was once locked away is starting to flow out to all of us. Today’s example of this is an educational one. MIT-Harvard was once the exclusive preserve of those rich enough to gain entry, but thanks to a  $60 million MIT-Harvard effort to stream a college education over the Web, free, the game is changing. Imagine teaching, not 20 but a billion students, MIT Technology Review reports …

The Most Important Education Technology in 200 Years
Students anywhere are being offered free instruction online. What will that do to the trillion-dollar education business?

Most important in 200 years … really! Now that’s a bold claim, so what exactly is going on here? Is this just a bit of MIT hype to push their new agenda? Apparently not, it is not just about the MIT edX …

“Massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, offered by new education ventures like edX, Coursera, and Udacity, to name the most prominent (see “The Crisis in Higher Education”) will affect markets so large that their value is difficult to quantify.

What is happening here is that when faced with the alternative of nothing at all because you can’t afford it, then this is indeed something new, it is a disruptive technology.

We have seen the sudden rise of organizations such as Khan Academy, the nonprofit whose free online math videos have won funding from Bill Gates along with a heap of adoring attention from the media. Khan gained its first foothold among parents who couldn’t afford $125 an hour for a private math tutor. For them, Salman Khan, the charming narrator of the videos, was a plausible substitute.

Khan’s simple videos aren’t without their critics, who wonder whether his tutorials really teach math so well. “We agree 100 percent we aren’t going to solve education’s problems,” Khan responds. But he says the point to keep in mind is that technology-wise, “we’re in the top of the first inning.” He’ll be pouring about $10 million a year into making his videos better—already there are embedded exercises and analytics that let teachers track 50 or 100 students at once.

The coming challenge here for the more traditional forms of education is that with that degree of funding, Khan’s free stuff will be as good or better than anything anyone is charging money for.

Khan’s videos are popular in India, and the MOOC purveyors have found that 60 percent of their sign-ups are self-starters from knowledge-hungry nations like Brazil and China. Nobody knows what a liberal application of high-octane educational propellant might do. Will it supersize innovation globally by knocking away barriers to good instruction? Will frightened governments censor teachers as they have the Web?

The eventual goal isn’t to stream educational videos, but to perfect education through the scientific use of data. Just imagine software that maps an individual’s knowledge and offers a lesson plan unique to him or her.

If they succeed and we are indeed watching the rise of something truly different, then it will indeed have been an innovation that will both disrupt and also transform.

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