Thinking back to the first Hacking Edu event two weeks ago, one question I was left with was, Is higher education, in its current form, facing the threat of irrelevance? I thought Ben Huh was particularly insightful to observe that for most people universities provide a valuable structure, and a certain recognizable qualification.
Knowledge sharing is fundamental to humanity. While not the only aspect, it is the foundation for education. With the internet and digital revolution, sweeping changes are already taking place. We rely on tools such as Google and Wikipedia to share information and obtain knowledge, leading to tremendous gain in efficiency and productivity.
If the internet is down for 30 minutes, everybody notices. When it was recently announced that the 32-volume Encyclopedia Britannica print set will be discontinued, after nearly 250 years, it seemed like nobody really cared. Will the day come when a 100 year old university will close its doors because it is no longer relevant?
We live in an unprecedented era in which the world changes very fast, and education is no exception. The last time sweeping change took place in knowledge sharing was 550 hundreds years ago, when the printing press was invented. The printing press made the inexpensive mass production of books possible and those books available to more than a select few. After 1440, printing spread throughout Europe, producing millions of books within decades. The printing press allowed much faster and cheaper circulation of knowledge, and made information available to the commoners. The sharp increase in literacy disrupted the elite monopoly on education and learning. Ultimately, the society was transformed, ideas flourished, and the modern age began.
The explosion of digital content online today resembles the exponential growth of knowledge sharing potential brought by printed books. Now it is knowledge without spatial and temporal limitations.
We are at the end of the era where quality education was only available to a privileged few. For example, MIT already offers its entire curriculum to the public with OpenCourseWare – for free. The offering is becoming increasingly more comprehensive, consisting of class notes, exams, supplementary materials, and even translated version. Another example is Stanford Engineering Everywhere, which has full lectures of most popular engineering courses taken by the majority of Stanford undergraduates, as well as advanced courses in artificial intelligence and electrical engineering.
The internet has a multiplying effect, and it empowers individuals, since distribution is virtually free. Those with the best content have the ability to reach audiences directly.
The story of Kahn Academy is truly inspiring. Salman Kahn, its founder, started by tutoring his cousin online. His lectures became so popular on YouTube, he decided to quit his Wall Street job to focus on a non-profit business. Today, with the backing of organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Google, there are over 3000 video lectures online covering a wide range of topics. It has surpassed MIT in viewership, continuing to redefine education with its stated goal of “changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education to anyone anywhere”.
Universities serve many functions. For an undergraduate, basic teaching of fundamental knowledge in a chosen field underscores the primary pursue of a college education. It is also the aspect that faces the greatest threat of irrelevance. Because of a growing internet fostered “open” culture, institutions no longer have an exclusive lock on knowledge. As a result, a university is probably less valuable simply as a place of teaching. However, it may be more valuable than ever as a place for collaboration, innovation and accreditation.
What does today’s students value the most from education? If they can get the best lectures from elsewhere, will they have different expectations from their primary institutions? Will they turn away from the classroom and the degree? Only time will tell.
photos by Dan Thornton