Where do you see online education in 20 years?

I was doing an interview today and I got sideswiped by this question… It’s not like i haven’t thought about the future of education, I’ve consciously worked on it at a times. What I haven’t done, is thought about it in the last six or eight months since we started working on the MOOC book. As people have, for whatever reason, started taking that word seriously, I’ve found that my ideas about the futures of education generally and higher ed in particular are shifting. So… as my poor blog has been deserted for months while i procrastinate from writing a book with friends I thought i might jot down my response to my very interesting interviewer today.

Where do you see online education in 20 years?
Well, first let me say that I would rather speak in futures rather than a single future. I’ve had some interesting opportunities over the last few years to do some futures work with different classes and I’ve found that exploring a number of possible futures tends to draw out some of the different overarching trends that might be at work to shape the future.

Case 1 – MOOC kills higher education
This one may not be so terribly far away, but it is the thing about the way MOOCs are growing that I see as the most potentially damaging to higher education. As I wrote in my black swans for 2012 (i keep linking to this, because i will never be this right again) we could easily have 1 million (or 100 million) students taking first year physics online with MIT. We really aren’t that far from this being not only a possibility but a reality. I think that introductory courses are obvious targets for the x-style MOOCs. All were really looking for is a general understanding of a given topic, you could do the testing in a Pearson test centre, pay $350, bang you’ve got a first year credit.

While this may seem unappealing the impact to higher education, particular at bigger schools, could be catastrophic. With the decline of public support for schools, the students increasingly become a bigger piece of the funding pie. If those students decide to not enrol in first year courses f2f but decide to do them online (because its cheaper, because they could be in a 500 person auditorium or in an online class and it wouldn’t make a difference) the business model holding together higher education would be in jeopardy. It doesn’t take an economist to figure out that if you have 500 students, 3 student TAs and one professor, the school is going to make more money than if that same prof is teaching a class of 20.

Lets say you pay $1000 for a class… 1000 X 500 = 500,000
or, with the smaller class you get… 1000 X 20 = 20,000

The cost of the TAs isn’t making up for that extra $480,000. This is a simplification, of course, but you wont have to lose many of those first year courses, or a particularly large percentage of any of them before it starts to hurt the bottom line.

So uh… that’s a cheery one.

Case 2 – Analytics university
This one always kind of freaks people out. Terry O’reilly in his excellent CBC show “The Age of Persuasion” a few weeks ago told a story about a man storming into a department store to complain to the manager. It seems that his daughter was receiving coupons for various articles for pregnant women by mail. the man was understandably upset and asked what they were on about. The manager apologized profusely. Three days later the manager called the man backed to see if there was anything he could do, and the man, to the manager’s surprised, apologized to him. It turns out his daughter WAS pregnant. The store’s computer had identified a change in purchasing behaviour from her points card and had grouped her with the group of women most likely to be pregnant.

This is the state of analytics right now… where will it be in twenty years? I have heard talk in the last year of LSAT essays being graded by computers and giving the same grade as human readers. I have heard publishers talk about using analytics to not only tell if students are likely to pass a given course but also to send email updates to their parents about their progress.

A hands free, teacher free university run entirely on analytics is probably not even 20 years away. I have alot of concerns about a system that can tell me what kind of student i am, what i should study based on the kinds of responses i’ve given to previous questions and tells my mom how i doing… I really do. But it is interesting to think about. I think my biggest concern is that it always seems to me the analytics is alot better at comparing you to things that already are… and are thereby not only prone to overly defining who people are into categories but also stifling the idea of people creating things that are new.

Case 3 – Corporate takeover
This example comes right out of the futures discussions that I had in Singapore in 2010 the market driven credential. Imagine IBM looking at a shortage of widget managers 10 years out given their current employment patterns. What would happen if they recruited 20 14-year old teenagers right out of school and started their training right away.

As the process of ‘managing’ learning continues to become easier to uh… manage, I can totally see corporations identifying the types of students they want and targeting them as early as possible. They may not reach right into high school, but they could certainly take them in after high school. Why have them learn to do things an entirely ‘wrong’ way just to have to retrain them again when they start at your company

Case 4 – Community university
Imagine being able to immediately connect with the 1500 other people in the world currently thinking about the same thing you are thinking about. Imagine being able to reach out and find the one that could help you understand the thing that you are trying to understand… to form connections with that one magical person who needs something you need.

In a sense… that’s what we have now. It’s hard to remember what the world was like before the internet, before wikipedia, before a reliable search engine. Remembering the name of the younger sister… you know, the one from the sitcom… that was hard. What was harder was trying to learn something new. Imagine the next generation of this kind of access. Imagine not only being able to eventually find some of the content from some of the people who have ever chosen to write about a subject you’re interested in… imagine leveraging the scale possibilities of the internet to actually access them all in real time.

Why not?

These examples are all extremes… for which i don’t apologize. I enjoy writing for drama of course 🙂 but more importantly i find it helps me think about the things that are important to me… and it helps remind me where we are.

so… where do you think online education will be in 20 years?

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