By Eric Hellweg
The advent of massively open online classes (MOOCs) is the single most important technological development of the millennium so far. I say this for two main reasons. First, for the enormously transformative impact MOOCs can have on literally billions of people in the world. Second, for the equally disruptive effect MOOCs will inevitably have on the global education industry.
While at Davos, I was fortunate to attend an amazing panel — my favorite of the conference — with a murderer’s row of speakers. Moderated by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, the list of speakers: Larry Summers, former president of Harvard; Bill Gates; Peter Theil, a partner at Founder’s Fund; Rafael Reif, president of MIT; Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity; Daphne Koller, CEO of Coursera, and a 12-year-old Pakistani girl who has taken a number of Stanford physics classes through Udacity. Below is a collection of some of the highlighted comments from this remarkable panel as well as a couple from audience members who were given an opportunity to comment.
Why this disruption is happening:
Peter Thiel, partner, Founders Fund
“In the United States, students don’t get their money’s worth. There’s a bubble in education as out of control as the housing bubble and the tech bubble in the 1990s. Education costs have gone up 400% since 1980. That’s the highest escalation of costs–higher than health care. There’s now a trillion dollars in student debt. And thanks to the way bankruptcy laws were restructured under George W Bush, you can’t get out of the college loan even if you become bankrupt. This is deeply broken.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘What is the nature of education as a good?’ Ideally you want it to be learning. But it also functions as insurance. Parents will pay a lot of money for insurance against cracks in our society. Education as insurance has something to be said because it connects to the economy. You know computer science, you can get a job. But education also functions as a tournament. You do well if you go to a top school but for everyone else the diploma is a dunce hat in disguise. People need to understand what they’re trying to do? Is it insurance? A tournament? Learning?”
Where we are in the evolution of this change:
Larry Summers, former President of Harvard
“It’s important to remember this really wise quote when thinking about the transition to online education: ‘Things take longer to happen than you think they will and then they happen faster than you think they could.’ If you had a discussion with dentists on tooth decay in 1947 it would have been about brushing your teeth and dental care, but the most important thing to happen with fighting tooth decay was fluoridated water and this is similar. It’s hard to know when it will happen but at some point this will be transformative. The first stage is when it does what was being done before but better. That’s what is happening now. But we’re going to where we don’t need to have two semesters, classes of same length, grading on the basis of things called exams. You can’t think of another industry where a list of top 10 providers is perfectly correlated to what it was in 1960.”
Daphne Koller, founder of Coursera
“We’re at 2.4 million students now. The biggest lesson I’ve learned on this is I underestimated the amount of impact this would have around the world. I really didn’t envision this scale and this impact this quickly.”
Raphael Reif, president of MIT
“We manage this transition very carefully. How can MIT charge $50,000 for tuition going forward? Can we justify that in the future? We see three components to MIT- first there’s the student life, then there’s the classroom instruction, but for us, the projects and labs activity is where real education occurs. But I don’t think we can charge that much for tuition in the future and it’s a big pressure point for us.”
Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft
“When people first put courses online people thought they could charge money and no one bought them. They put them online but from a global perspective, all these high numbers of students we’re hearing about today, the effective number of people who use them is zero. It’s not widely used as a percentage of the global population. Our whole notion of ‘credential’, which means you went somewhere for a number of hours, needs to move to where you can prove you have the knowledge and the quality of these online courses need to improve. Over the next few years the quality will improve. 90% of these courses will be long forgotten and never viewed. Over the next five years this transformation will be phenomenal but only through a pretty brutal winnowing out process.”
On what an online education world means for hiring and talent for educators:
[On the question of how to hire professors in the MOOC era] “Can you hire MIT professors who know that they need to teach 150,000 people and not 150? We have spectacular researchers who are lousy teachers. That’s sad. A teacher in the future will become more like a mentor. The model of on campus education will be more about mentorship and guidance with research as an important factor.”
We can’t presume to know what format will work in the future:
“It’s important to remember that we’re not so good at understanding the subtleties of environments that make them attractive to people. Look at football for example. One way to watch a game is to sit on a cold bench with no good food and bad bathrooms, the other is in your own living room, with replay, and food you like at your convenience. And then ask yourself- which would you guess people pay for? Which do people cheer for? You’d get it wrong. There are aspects of bringing people together in groups that we can’t quite understand and judge. The working out of this will depend a lot on formulas for making it attractive and collaborative. And as football example suggests, it won’t be immediately obvious what those models are.”
What’s next in this space?
“Who is going to jump first into granting a degree that doesn’t have the seat time requirement that we do today that employers will see as credible? Where does the credibility come from?
Sebastian Thrun, CEO of uDacity
“I think the question is how do you make the credential have currency that an employer knows? We’ve had good success. We have 350 companies who have hired our students. Employers worry about soft skills and we can measure that and it’s on equal performance with hard skills. The credential thing is interesting- we launched a class for credit with California schools for remedial math. We priced them at 10-15 percent of what college costs. There are lots of improvements to be made, but the outcome tends to be better today with us.”
Jimmy Wales, founder, Wikipedia
“The overall quantity and quality of formal education hasn’t changed whereas the informal education has skyrocketed in the last 30 years. People used to go to library and now go to Wikipedia. We haven’t really begun to understand the impact on that.”
Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Founder Grameen Bank
“What does this all mean? The technology gives us tremendous power to solve this stark problem all around us. We need to design these so no child is left out of this. What need to ask, what is education after all? We need to resolve that. What are we getting our young people ready for? It’s for the purpose of our life. And we need to make sure we give people a purpose to their life. It won’t be done by current system. It will be done by people who have nothing to do with current system.”