The Way of the Future: Coursera

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Watch this video from start to finish from Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller as in right now:

I’m calling it- I think that we’ve passed Clayton Christensen’s inflection point where the disruptive technology (online learning) is better than the dominant technology (traditional universities).  The required mastery element that Koller describes in the video seals the deal by itself. I’m willing to bet that it is simply a matter of performing high quality evaluations and getting the results for documentation.

Second while most of the commentary on these developments naturally focuses on higher education, which is in for a major disruption, we need to start thinking about the implications of these developments for K-12. Coursera courses are available for free to anyone. K-12 students can take these courses, and other courses suited to various educational levels will certainly be developed.

What will schools look like in the future? I’m not sure but this is suddenly looking less like science fiction:

For a variety of reasons, I think that home-schooling will ultimately level off, albeit at a higher level than where it is today but well short of a dominant educational paradigm. Maybe at a much, much higher level depending upon how fast schools respond. The ability to collect credentials (which Koller mentions some higher education institutions already accepting for credit btw) seems likely to heavily nudge high-schools into allowing students to take Coursera/Udacity type courses.

Otherwise they seem likely to lose many students completely. Taking a high-school course in American government may be good, but successfully completing an American Government course from a Princeton or Stanford professor employing the techniques described by Koller above is going to be perceived as better- much, much better. Schools that want to keep their students are going to adapt to allow students to earn these credentials.

Savvy parents will lead the charge, but disadvantaged children potentially have the most to gain from these practices. Remember the problem Steven Brill put his finger on in Class Warfare in trying to scale up charter schools with a limited pool of TFA kids? Well, here you go-blended learning schools successfully substituting technology for labor will step into the breach. Big breakthoughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary, indeed.

Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn predicted half of all high-school classes would be taken online by 2019. It seemed like an incredibly bold prediction in 2008, but now an air of inevitability hangs around the substance of the prediction: online learning is taking off in a big way. Buckle your seat belts, this is going to be amazing.

11 Responses to The Way of the Future: Coursera

  1. Greg Forster says:

    One important factor in the way all of this will shake out is the fact that students and parents desire other outcomes from schools beyond just mastery of academic content – things that 1) schools really don’t deliver now at all and 2) can’t be delivered online. At the k-12 level, parents overwhelmingly say schools should help develop sound moral character, yet government schools today are basically at zero in delivering this (even when they try). Perhaps the delivery of academic content via Internet will not only free up teacher time for more personalized tutoring, but also for a rediscovery of schools’ lost functions.

  2. matthewladner says:

    Let’s hope so. The low-cost/high quality private school model making use of these tools that we’ve bounced around here on the Jayblog seems not only feasible, but is starting to feel inevitable.

    The grouping of people into schools in the future seems likely to be dominated by the ability to add value to these courses along the lines Koller notes (applied, hands-on) and by the dimensions you suggest.

    The idea of grouping people into schools simply based on zip code will come to seem increasingly odd.

  3. allen says:

    Don’t be too U.S.-centric Matthew.

    One thought that I’ve been tossing around is the outcome of some nation other then the U.S. moving agressively to take advantage of all these developments at the explicit expense of its public education hierarchy.

    No nation really recommends itself as a pioneer in this regard but the disaggregatory effect of the Internet does seem to me to me to make an end to public education the logical, even inevitable outcome of efforts like khanacademy and udacity and the like.

    But the right combination of factors doesn’t necessarily have to occur in the U.S. and there are powerful forces that would go to war, have gone to war, to prevent any further erosion of the current model of public education. Other countries however, have other circumstances and there may some other nation that’s a more favorable environment for the idea of ending government-funded education.

    That *is* where we’re heading although you guys might be a trifle leary of being tagged as an anti-education nutbag which is still, sadly, a charge that has some adhesive qualities.

    Of course, I have no such fears so while it’s unlikely that China will relinquish the illusory power to indoctrinate kids they might or it could be some wild card nation that, a year or so from now when these various efforts have matured a bit, announces it’s zeroing out its education agency budgets in favor of free, Internet-based education.

  4. Mike G says:

    Great post.

    Allen makes an interesting observation above. Reminds me of nations which vaulted past land lines directly into cell phones.

    I am skeptical, though, that this closes the Achievement Gap. So far ed-tech has not proven very good with reluctant American learners.

    Since online course lowers barriers to learning for the willing/eager, seems at least as likely it will INCREASE the Achievement Gap.

    Freed from some dull classes that were too easy, the 9th grader at the 85th percentile today will make even bigger gains than the guy at the 15th percentile.

    • Matthew Ladner says:

      Mike G-

      There would be every danger of that happening in the absence of philanthropic effort. The availability of high-quality adaptive courses could really help with the terrible shortage of highly effective teachers, for instance. Carpe Diem in Yuma has 240 students in grades 6-12 and one math teacher with one math aide and the biggest math learning gains in Arizona.

      What Carpe Diem has done is to leverage technology to allow high quality teachers to instruct a larger number of students and to do it better than would have been otherwise possible.

      You can imagine a “guide on the side” model of schooling where the job of teachers is to help students with snags and to work on applied learning projects. Such schools could be both more effective and far more easily brought to scale than Charter School 1.0 models.

      Further, you long can it be until someone develops an early elementary level course employing the techniques shown that will help students learn how to read? Many wealthy children gain such skills at home, and we are letting down far, far too many of the children who are really really relying upon their schools to teach them literacy skills.

      I’m much more concerned with lifting up the bottom than the achievement gap per se. If our disadvantaged kids of tomorrow are scoring like our advantaged kids of today, that will be a huge win regardless of what happens at the top in my book.

    • allen says:

      The term I’ve heard used is “leapfrogging” and the two most obvious examples are manufacturing, in which the latest technology is employed in third world countries to maximize the productivity of the poorly-paid poor and cell phone technology in which entire wire-line installed bases have simply been left in the dust by the blistering pace of cell phone acceptance.

      With regard to the achievement gap, I think I can make a case for the opposite of the concern you expressed.

      Technology typically takes over the “dull, dirty, dangerous” jobs first since they also, typically, involve the least judgment and the most mindless repetition. Poor teachers aren’t just inadequate in the more demanding skills of teaching but also in the less demanding, but nontheless important, skills of teaching. They don’t keep track of how the kids are doing and they don’t notice when a kids starts floundering. They don’t strive to find the shortcomings in their skills and rectify them. That’s why they’re lousy teachers and in the extant public education system that’s OK.

      It’s arguable that with technology taking over many of those dull, dirty, dangerous jobs fewer teachers are necessary. What’s left for teachers to do are the tasks that require dealing with the exceptions, the divergences from the average, fine judgment and a judicious eye for detail. Teachers who lack those sorts of skills and are incapable of developing them are highlighted by the same technology that calls out kids having problems to the teacher; you just aggregate the data at the level of the teacher.

      The major caveat in that rosy picture is that the sort of responsiveness I’ve outlined above can only occur in an environment in which education is a crucial, organizational goal. That qualification explicitely, if not uniformly, excludes schools that are part of the current, district-based system. A district school can be very good, as many magnet schools prove, but it doesn’t have to be as a very much greater number of district schools that aren’t selective proves. It’ll be charters and private schools that lead because the pitiful advantage of being better then the district schools only lasts so long as there’s not a better independent school to choose.

  5. Joe Sterbinsky a.k.a. TeacherJoeInLosAngeles says:

    I’ve become a “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” person since I changed parties and became a Republican almost 20 years ago. Consider these two facts/opinions:
    1) I like online courses because they’re easier, and require less disciplined thinking and work than most of the good in-person college classes I’ve taken.
    2) I learned most of the important stuff in college writing papers. I don’t see paper writing as part of any college level on-line courses. I’ve had “posting” requirements, but they mostly allow gut reaction, freeform, brainstorming (a.k.a. BS.) pass for academic rigor.

    • Greg Forster says:

      This is a serious concern. On the other hand, how many in-person, traditional classes require papers and grade them rigorously? I got through a lot of classes at U.Va. and Yale with little more than gut reaction, freeform, brainstorming (aka B.S.).

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