By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
NY Times THE OPINION PAGES January 26, 2013
LORD knows there’s a lot of bad news in the world today to get you down, but there is one big thing happening that leaves me incredibly hopeful about the future, and that is the budding revolution in global online higher education. Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty — by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems. And nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course, or MOOC, platforms that are being developed by the likes of Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and companies like Coursera and Udacity.
Last May I wrote about Coursera — co-founded by the Stanford computer scientists Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng — just after it opened. Two weeks ago, I went back out to Palo Alto to check in on them. When I visited last May, about 300,000 people were taking 38 courses taught by Stanford professors and a few other elite universities. Today, they have 2.4 million students, taking 214 courses from 33 universities, including eight international ones.
Anant Agarwal, the former director of M.I.T.’s artificial intelligence lab, is now president of edX, a nonprofit MOOC that M.I.T. and Harvard are jointly building. Agarwal told me that since May, some 155,000 students from around the world have taken edX’s first course: an M.I.T. intro class on circuits. “That is greater than the total number of M.I.T. alumni in its 150-year history,” he said.
Yes, only a small percentage complete all the work, and even they still tend to be from the middle and upper classes of their societies, but I am convinced that within five years these platforms will reach a much broader demographic.
Agarwal of edX tells of a student in Cairo who was taking the circuits course and was having difficulty. In the class’s online forum, where students help each other with homework, he posted that he was dropping out. In response, other students in Cairo in the same class invited him to meet at a teahouse, where they offered to help him stay in the course. A 15-year-old student in Mongolia, who took the same class as part of a blended course and received a perfect score on the final exam, added Agarwal, is now applying to M.I.T. and the University of California, Berkeley.
As we look to the future of higher education, said the M.I.T. president, L. Rafael Reif, something that we now call a “degree” will be a concept “connected with bricks and mortar” — and traditional on-campus experiences that will increasingly leverage technology and the Internet to enhance classroom and laboratory work. Alongside that, though, said Reif, many universities will offer online courses to students anywhere in the world, in which they will earn “credentials” — certificates that testify that they have done the work and passed all the exams. The process of developing credible credentials that verify that the student has adequately mastered the subject — and did not cheat — and can be counted on by employers is still being perfected by all the MOOCs. But once it is, this phenomenon will really scale.
I can see a day soon where you’ll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world — some computing from Stanford, some entrepreneurship from Wharton, some ethics from Brandeis, some literature from Edinburgh — paying only the nominal fee for the certificates of completion. It will change teaching, learning and the pathway to employment. “There is a new world unfolding,” said Reif, “and everyone will have to adapt.”