For the Future Student, Higher Education Will Be Redefined

| December 7, 2012 | 25 Comments
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Not too far in the future, students may be faced with an entirely different set of choices than they do today. No longer might college or career straight after high school graduation be the two only and divergent paths in front of them. No longer may a four-to-six-year commitment to a highly esteemed institution be the fastest way to a fruitful career or a rich network.

With online education quickly gaining momentum, the emergence of massive open online courses (MOOCs) is not only shaking up higher education to the core — its value, its status, its cost — the movement is also changing how young people envision their education and their future.

Sebastian Thrun, whose free, online artificial intelligence class for Stanford last year enrolled more than 175,000 people and launched the MOOC movement, foresees a radically different future for students. Thrun, who founded Google X, the incubator for projects like the Google self-driving car and Google Glass, co-founded Udacity, a free online school that offers higher ed classes computer science classes — everything from Programming Languages to How to Build a Startup.

“Right now you go to college for four, six, seven years, and it’s a big commitment over a long period of time,” Thrun said in an interview earlier this week, which will be shown in an upcoming PBS Newshour story. “But in the future, learning will be lifelong, and it will happen in very small chunks. If you have an interest, a problem, if you need a skill, you’ll go find it and learn it. Things like degrees and classes and so on, will be replaced by entire sequences of achievements in the learning space but also in the kinds of things we can do in the project space.”

“In the future, learning will be lifelong, and it will happen in very small chunks.”

Thrun believes that some kids may not even have to graduate from high school — especially if they know from an early age that they’re interested in a field like engineering. “Probably at the of 13 or 14, they’re already great at engineering, they’re proficient on different systems and they’re able to demonstrate it.”

And rather than having higher education be tangentially related to some future idea of a job, Thrun believes that equation will change.

“I’d love to see a time when job choices we make reinforce education,” he said. “We don’t put education first and job second, but the job begins much much earlier in a way to motivate the education.”

A HEAD START

The founders of Coursera, another MOOC that offers free online courses from more than 30 universities, including Princeton, Columbia, and Duke, believe the existence of MOOCs will give students a head start toward finding their career path and areas of interest before they commit to a major in college.

“They can spend less time wandering around aimlessly looking for what’s right for them both in discipline and difficulty level. They can do risk-free exploration both in discipline and in difficulty level to find the thing that’s right for them,” said Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera. “The biggest opportunity here is to make considerable progress toward a degree before they have to make a commitment to going to school to complete it.”

What’s more, students who typically have an “undermatching” problem — they aim for colleges that are less selective than what they might aspire to and are thus less likely to get a degree — can have the experience of taking classes from top-notch universities and see a different option for themselves.

“They can take these courses and say, ‘Wait a minute, I can aspire to these colleges, to Stanford, Princeton or Columbia, and therefore I’m going to try to apply there.'” Koller said. “We hope it opens the door to a much higher success rate for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

And for students who already have every intention of applying to top-tier universities, these online classes can be used for the college admissions process, said Andrew Ng, another Coursera co-founder. “What better way to prove to a college admissions officer that you’re ready?” he said.

BIG CHANGES

No one can predict what will come of the top-ranked schools with the availability of online classes. But if there’s any hand-wringing about the changes, Thrun said people should consider what’s happening now.

“Go to a high school now, look at how many kids don’t learn math not because they’re not capable of understanding math, but because of the way it’s conveyed to them, the classroom setting, the fixed speed for all — it’s the wrong recipe for these kids,” he said. “Is that what we aspire to maintain? Or should we be creative about this?”

But he’s hopeful.

“I’m a big optimist,” he said. “Especially that in the U.S., every time we engage in a debate if what we’re doing is right or wrong, we end up in a better place. And that better place will strengthen us.”

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  • Jaqueline Biggs

    AS an online educator I have grave concerns about MOOC. Learning is more than memorization–it is a relationship of give and take between students and teachers–something impossible to accomplish with 175,000 students enrolled in a course or subject area. This current trend in supposedly making education accessible to everyone merely disseminates information–it does not guarantee an education or build breadth of knowledge across the curriculum for a truly well rounded, knowledgeable citizen of the world. The world will poorer for this and so will human culture and history.

    • Trena

      What you’re communicating, Jaqueline Biggs, is a concern that the existence and definition of “teacher” is we’ve known it, is being threatened. But the reality is that for the perpetual, lifetime student, there are countless teachers…some paid, some not. We’re greatly expanding our understanding of what it means to teach, and this is an excellent trend! We can be and should be learning from a multitude of sources (teachers) all day every day. “When the student is ready, the teacher arrives.” This is the learning process at its very best, and it’s a gift, bigger than all of us, certainly bigger, also than our antiquated and increasingly redundant “institutions of higher learning”…where students have been learning outside of and, in spite of, their classrooms, for many generations.

    • bsrk7

      I think you mean YOU and other teachers may be poorer for this, as it will shrink demand for teachers. There absolutely is value in the personal relationship between teachers and students, but that is hardly what “makes” the education. If you take a look at the lecture halls of most major universities, you’ll see that there is no relationship between students and teachers anyways. Professors have classes of 100+ and the homework they assign is graded by T.A.’s.

      The world will NOT be poorer for this, and most importantly neither will students. We are saddling too many young people with far too much student loan debt. Our higher education system is dysfunctional as it stands. We need a solution, and this could be part of it.

      • Sarah Kinder

        The education system is dysfunctional in the way you describe only if you choose to go to a major research university as your undergraduate education. There are countless small colleges spread across the country where there is a direct one on one personal relationship between professors and students. You can’t get that online or at a major university.

        That said I think the concept of allowing young people that have a strong interest in a particular area to pursue it rather than forcing them through a standardized system is a good one and should be pursued.

    • Azul Terronez

      It’s interesting that you discuss the concerns about the relationship of students and teachers, and that free open source education will cause the world and human history and culture to potentially be impacted; this is absurd. Is it that you won’t have work if they eliminate the need for online schools?

  • Trena

    This is a very good trend. Because learning IS a lifelong journey. This approach honors and rewards the inward motivation of the student, at the many stages of his/her development, and in keeping with his/her changing circumstances throughout life. It’s very sad to see whole age groups living as though their “student” days are far behind them in the distant past, instead of current.

  • Tom MacKnight

    Certainly online education options will provide learning opportunities for many people. However, there is much to be said for the overall experience offered by a real university experience with a faculty you can talk to face to face. My grandmother went to college. When I left for college she said, “Enjoy you time and soak in the experience. There will be so many more learning opportunities beyond the classroom.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Peter-Melzer/1062739751 Peter Melzer

    Online education remains virtual. If prospective engineers exclusively resort to this kind of learning, they won’t know what it feels like to turn a screw. If a country loses the ability to literally manufacture products, it will be reduced to a sales outlet for foreign products.

  • Bill Reinthal

    Unfortunately, the universities have intellectually anesthesized themselves and are busily, happily, self-devouring, beginning with their own tails. They open, haphazardly, branch campuses to compete for small pools of students, and have been on a building frenzy for 30 years as they have attempted to advertise their “availability” to every new generation of students. Yes, education has become a lifelong endeavor, but those in the ivory tower, who have little knowledge of the real world beyond their cloistered walls, would find it depressing to peek in their bag of dirty laundry. Higher education has become traumatic. For those who take the direct path to a degree, costs have become staggering because the colleges and universities have priced themselves above the mainstream students’ abilities to pay for that experience. And why do you think that is? Massive financial mismanagement, as the infrastructure of higher education competes with itself to see which institution can make its campus “sexier” for those new student populations. Do you really think that all higher education classes will be free as some of the experimental offerings from the likes of Stanford, MIT, and Harvard have recently been? Just wait for the “paywall.” And the universities won’t be much interested in publishing the statistics about the abysmal number of students who have to drop their online classes (and in the future will have to pay for that “experience”). Most of the people who are taking online college classes are close to desperation. The average online student is probably married, or newly divorced; they have children and they have a job with which they are dissatisfied. I would challenge the denizens of that ivory tower to juggle these factors as they blithely extemporize about their utopian vision of higher education in the 21st century. Higher education, beyond all else, requires focus (and community!!), and that is a commodity which people in the real world are allowed precious little of. The time between high school and work (and family!) is that rare moment in a student’s life when she, or he, can focus all energy on classwork, not the distractions and frustrations (and, perhaps, joys?) of everyday life. Finally, let us not forget the “bandwidth” issue. Because there is no governmental prerogative to exponentially enhance our baseline internet’s “wiring,” and commercial entities will only incrementally improve high population density urban bandwidth infrastructure (at the expense of the rural communities), the online university experience will choke in the short term, losing its ability to carry on a quality conversation. We barely have enough bandwidth now to handle a bare-bones small-group discussion online, let alone alone video-conferencing. And this is precisely what we don’t need: further ways to segregate our education system, keeping those with lousy internet connections outside the sanctum sanctorum of higher education’s purported “democratic” palace. Yes, online higher education will be the wave of the future; there is no doubt about that (just ask Polaroid and Kodak about digital photography), but what of all those massive and expensive classrooms which will sit, empty, at the intersection of College and University streets? We only need SO many community centers. Just wait until that tail-upward self-annihilation of the university system finally bites into a vital organ.

  • GenXer13

    The students of today will need to be super efficient filling out forms for government housing, food, electricity, and healthcare.

  • vcponsardin

    MOOCs are great for occasional dabblers. But what we’re finding at my university is that only about 5-10% of people who enroll in these MOOCs actually finish. And, of course, there’s no verification that they’ve actually completed the work, no certificate or degree that comes from doing the online work. More importantly, there’s no way to be sure the person actually learned anything or that the person at the other end of the Internet is the person actually doing the work. What most people tend to forget with the current online education fad is that much of the value of traditional education is the face-to-face experience of studying with a genuine scholar (often a world-class expert) who can then provide the student with personal guidance and even connections to the real world. Learning by example and from direct experience is vital and not something that can happen in a MOOC. Furthermore, personal letters of recommendations are an essential part of higher education. Those are things no ethical professor would ever write for someone s/he has never met. And without a letter of recommendation from an expert, it’s tough to get a job that doesn’t require knowledge of grinding coffee or shoveling fries.

  • Running_Dog

    To ignore the incredible power of information technology and to not take advantage of it it is absurd. Time to revisit the classic concept of the traditional college education.

    Remember those endless minutes that felt like hours just trying to make it though another tedious lecture?

    • Jas Fleet

      And you think that people will be more eager to drag themselves through multiple hours of on-line education? It’s always true that the educational experience can be enhanced. But the underlying implication of this statement is that education is boring. True education can be hard and there are moments of tedium in that.

  • Jas Fleet

    Why are we paying attention to this idiot Thrun? He has a narrow view of the future driven by his self-interest. His MOOC, while providing an interesting opporunity to many, cost a fortune to produce and there is no clear means to get a return on this investment, nor is there a reliable system to validate achievement and competency. In addition, his vision of the future not only accepts but encourages a narrowing of interests.

    Surely education will change in the future. But is this a future we really want?

  • secondlaws

    Pronouncements on the form higher education should take in the future from those like Thrun need to be approached very warily. The model of higher education that he, for instance, suggests, seem colored by experience with, and fantastic success (read,
    wealth) from applying a particular business model that works well for some, but emphatically not all purposes. It is essentially attention deficit disorder as organizing principle: business (and by extension education in the opinion of those like Thrun) is a 50 yard dash from one “new big (profitable) thing” to the next.

    There are many problems with applying this approach uniformly to education.
    Indeed, the education community knows well the pitfalls of this ADD approach formulated as the process vs. content approaches to education. An education that purports to teach primarily through process – e.g., simply to teach critical thinking independent of content – is utterly shallow if there is not at least some depth to the content that is used in the process. It turns out that it’s impossible to think critically if you have nothing to think about.

    In addition to an obscenely compensated CEO class whose “success” is largely built on a base of their ADD business model, a CEO class with a determined blindness (…WHO built it?) to the interdependence of “their” success on the infrastructure (not least of which includes educational investments), an advanced technological society needs – desperately needs – a deep reservoir of expertise and understanding that can be built only through investments of significant time and resources in generating human intellectual capital, with higher education as one of the most significant mechanisms we have ever developed for doing just that. Dismantling that mechanism now is premature at best.

  • margarita

    I’m in my 40’s and currently taking a couple of Coursera courses–though I’d love to take them all. I think that it’s exciting to have access to this type of information. I’ve already used the internet to learn other things like how to knit/crochet, play guitar, cook, build and engineer–why not Differential Calculus, Theoretical Physics, Neurobiology? And the fact that I don’t have to leave my study and that I can do it at my own pace–I love it, I love it, I love it. Maybe college is great for social interaction, but for actual learning, I think there’s a lot to be said for having the time and the freedom to digest things at your own pace. Online forums can provide peer to peer interaction. Why do I need to see somebody’s face? Right on, free online higher education!

  • Tony

    This worldview is unfortunate. I have taken a couple Coursera classes (even apparently breaking the law to do so, thanks state of Minnesota…) and have found them very good, I’ve been able to supplement my graduate education, and personal goals doing so.

    I would agree with the proposed future if I agreed that now, the entire goal of a university is to train you in a specific topic area. Unfortunately, this is not really the goal of even a bachelor’s level education. Perhaps technical school programs in computer programming and web development could be taught entirely online, at the self direction of the student, but I haven’t seen anything that would lead me to believe that these individual courses could contribute to the holistic learning and personal development that a university or liberal arts college provides. Young people grow up on college campuses, much as they do in the Military. Though in different ways, these experiences are formative for our adult lives, in a way that skipping out and taking a string of possibly related online courses won’t likely provide. Best case would be that the 13 or 14 year old would be able to make a strong plan for themself and follow through on it. This assumes a lot, including the fact that someone in their late teens might actually have a good idea of what they want to do with the rest of their life.

  • jsrickly

    Online education can solve many other problem if it is really widely applied, it can reduce the driving and commuting. This can in turn reduce number of cars and fuel used. Plus online education for parents means (at least in our life) that the parent can eat dinner with the children and get back to school instead of being gone all night. Maybe even help throw in a load of laundry- it is a practice response to many daily struggles.

  • mosaic_world

    I’ve been taking MOOC classes. I applaud the access to classes (particularly to other countries) offered by prestigious universities. Mostly what the students criticize is the peer evaluation process (often we get graded by other students b/c the instructor and TA to student ratio is just too small). I believe when classes are offered for free, some students are not going to be invested in watching video lectures, doing assignments, and providing quality feedback on other students’ work. Students learn through applying new knowledge AND by receiving useful feedback. I’ve found that the feedback is usually one-line compliments and typically you don’t get constructive criticism. Many students complain that they don’t know how to evaluate others (or they feel unfairly evaluated). For programming classes, it seems the programming assignment evaluation is done entirely by a computer program so I guess maybe this is better but what if you have further questions about why a train of logic didn’t work or what makes one logic better than another.

  • Anya

    I think online courses are a great possibility. I’m thinking about joining this one: “ThinkTank – Ideal City of the 21st Century”. In teams participants will built their ideal city and the course is led by Daniel Libeskind. You can find more information on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/LeuphanaDigitalSchool

  • Jay Oza

    I have taken MOOC courses and I think they are outstanding. I wished they had existed when I was in my teens..

    I am absolutely convinced that if kids can’t learn the MOOC way, they are going to be at a big disadvantage.

  • Private Schools Australia

    Higher education are not much higher so for future student it will be redefined..As we know that With online education quickly gaining momentum, the emergence of massive open online courses is not only shaking up higher education to the core..

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