Can schools survive in the age of the web?

My latest BBC Future column takes a broad look at the future of online education – and why we’ve barely seen the beginning of its possibilities.

If you fancy a top-class education but can’t afford the fee or the time, there is now an alternative.

This November, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation invested a million dollars in edX, the world’s largest online learning initiative. Founded by Harvard and MIT, edX boasts a growing number of “massively open online courses” (MOOCs) aimed at bringing virtual versions of world-class higher education to hundreds of thousands of participants. By 2013, it will offer a selection of entirely free online classes from Harvard, MIT, Berkeley and the University of Texas.

A not-for-profit platform, edX is billed as “the future of online education: for anyone, anywhere, anytime”. The future, though, is already starting to look crowded. One notable rival is Udacity, another free provider of digital higher education whose existence was inspired by the enrolment of 160,000 students in its founders’ online Introduction to Higher Education Course at Stanford. Or you could plump for Coursera, which was launched shortly after Udacity and today boasts close to two million enrolments on courses from 33 leading universities. Other exemplars such as the Khan Academy, meanwhile, have delivered online instruction to tens of millions of willing autodidacts; not to mention the billion views recently chalked up by TED talks.

Online, the global appetite for learning is becoming a powerful force. As the author and digital guru Clay Shirky put it in a widely-debated recent blog post, education is being disrupted by “a new story rearranging people’s sense of the possible.”

The web itself is old news, as are the brute facts of online information‘s dominance; we’ve had Wikipedia for over a decade. What’s new is the increasingly trusting eyes we turn towards online media for something more fundamental: the skills, knowledge and instruction required to thrive in the modern world.

“The possibility MOOCs hold out isn’t replacement,” Shirky observes. Rather, it’s that “education can be unbundled.” Much like many other fields – from broadcasting and newspapers to games and shopping – technology promises not so much to replace older institutions as to break up the packages they once offered, providing particular parts of them at a scale and cost unmatchable by the old order.

All of which is certainly a recipe for reform. When it comes to what is actually being unbundled, though, there’s something paradoxically conservative about most MOOCs: recorded lectures, online tests, digital documents, and blue chip institutional endorsements.

As the author and technology theorist Ian Bogost argued earlier this year, “if the lecture was such a bad format in the industrial age, why does it suddenly get celebrated once digitized and streamed into a web browser in the information age?”

It’s a fair question. A digital lecture is still a lecture; an online test is still a test. Those looking for genuinely new kinds of skill and instruction are unlikely to find them in even the most articulate digital incarnations of a conventional apparatus.

Which isn’t to say that they can’t be found, of course. Outside of courses and set lectures, for example, educationalists like Sugata Mitra and the One Laptop Per Child organisation have experimented with a more fundamental form of autodidacticism: give people access to technology, and let them get on with it.

Specifically, One Laptop Per Child has focused on some of the world’s most disadvantaged learners: illiterate children in rural Ethiopia, who without any previous exposure to writing are given tablet computers pre-loaded with alphabet-training games, cartoons, pictures and books. Early results have been impressive, and have extended well beyond ABCs: within five months, one group had worked out how to hack the operating system.

It’s a far cry from simply watching a recorded talk – although its beneficiaries may, one day, be grateful in turn for what online courses offer. What such schemes suggest to me, though, is something more fundamental: that real disruption can only happen if we’re able to unbundle education outside of old categories like lectures, tests and essays; and that “education” itself demands rethinking in an age where helping people to help themselves is not so much an aspiration as a fact of the tools we use every day.

As Nicholas Negroponte, the founder and chairman of the One Laptop Per Child foundation, asked in a September article for the MIT Technology Review: “If kids in Ethiopia learn to read without school, what does that say about kids in New York City who do not learn even with school?”

Negroponte’s is both a daunting and extraordinarily hopeful question. The world will always have a place for elite educational institutions – with MOOCs embodying both genuine democratisation on their part and an excellent form of advertising. Elsewhere, though, it’s harder to sustain the notion that the future will simply be a virtualised version of the past.

For many academic institutions, “unbundling” remains a dirty word; a recipe for lower standards, fragmentation and the abandonment of cherished aspirations. All of which may be true, at least in the short term. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter. Education is following information into the ether, and can no more be stuffed back into its box than a television signal.

Change isn’t just about technology, of course. Those things that a screen cannot offer – community, tuition, interpersonal dialogue, shared space and time – are only going to feel more precious amid the increasingly rich educational pickings online. Above all, though, it’s having access to a screen in the first place that counts. Achieve that, and you can build from scratch – or rebuild – whatever local structures will best support a community of education and aspiration. Some may resemble, or develop from, current institutions. Many won’t, and shouldn’t, not least because much of what constitutes an institution in the first place is expressly designed to resist reform.

For those who don’t realise this – and soon – the future of education is likely to prove an uncomfortable place.



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  1. [Comment re-posted by moderator having first been left under a different article]

    Just saw your latest post on BBC future. Apparently you went to Oxford. At Oxford you had the delight that is the the tutorial system. You got access to lectures and being tutored practically one to one.

    Schools can’t offer that level of close support but they can ofer something very similar to a wider class. Perhaps think breakout rooms from big lectures.

    Instead of going to school to be lectured/taught in class – be in practical demonstrtion or some degree of interaction. instead the child watches the classes in the evening or over the weekend and gets upport from MOOC’s support system

    But in school they get individual or small group support much like a tutorial at oxford as tecaher work through specific issues they had explaining where they messed up in their homework that they have logged

    Ok its not Oxford tutorial, but its much more towards that system a system that has been recognised as giving powerful teaching and eucation advantage

    if schools embrace MOOC’s and their tools, rethink how we teach our kids, so that they do alone what they can do anywhere and do together with others what can only be done together with others then we may have a much more powerful educaction system

    • Thanks for the comment, Kate.

      Yes, I was lucky enough to study at Oxford. And it’s precisely because the kind of privilege it offers in terms of teaching is restricted to a tiny elite that I think developments like MOOCs are so important – but that, as I hope this piece suggested, even they don’t go nearly far enough in opening up the kind of opportunities you’re talking about.

      My own thoughts on the specifics of educational reform would be a whole other series of pieces: but I believe that genuine democratization of any system is going to mean a combination of smart, scalable online resources (and smarter ones than recorded lectures at that) with an equally good use of local facilities, communities, real people and real spaces: but affordably unbundled from the costly package currently represented by most higher educational institutions.

      Thanks for reading, and for the comment.

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