Saturday, May 05, 2012

Future Of Higher Education

It's been clear for a while that the internet had the potential to revolutionize higher education, and not just by providing students with a vast pool of essays to plagiarize. Early attempts to exploit its potential mostly made the classic error of trying to force the new into the Procrustean bed of the old - essentially just treating the net as a way to deliver lectures at long distance.

The real potential comes from harnessing artificial intelligence to do the scut work of testing and grading. The pioneers of this approach have come from the world of artificial intelligence, and the first really impressive stuff seems to being coming out of Stanford. Udacity and Coursera are now offering online courses with very serious pedigrees. Each offers courses from real experts at an unbeatable price point - free - as well as certificates of accomplishment. MIT's Open Courseware was probably the first offering from a top ranked university, but it seems to have now fallen well behind the power curve, offering only course materials. MIT is clearly trying to play catch-up, and has partnered with another local school - Harvard - to offer more full-featured offerings in something called edX. The two schools will bring serious money, prestige, and hard-to-match faculty to courses like those offered by Coursera.

Coursera has an early start, an impressive course lineup, and its own murderer's row of prestige: Stanford, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, and Michigan. At this point, any top-line school not yet in the game ought to be getting nervous about missing the bus.

The beauty of these courses, aside from the price tag, is the fact that a single course can serve thousands of students, in their homes or wherever, all over the world, simultaneously. The sponsors have a powerful incentive to keep their courses rigorous, and if they do, those certificates might well take on a value comparable to a degree from one of the prestige schools where they originate.