The Big Read: Future of education is here

28 November 2014 - 02:01
By Jonathan Jansen
PRIVATE SCHOOL: A documentary called 'Ivory Tower' estimates student debt in the US to be $1-trillion (about R11-trillion) - but a group of computer geeks could change that
Image: MARTIN BUREAU/AFP PRIVATE SCHOOL: A documentary called 'Ivory Tower' estimates student debt in the US to be $1-trillion (about R11-trillion) - but a group of computer geeks could change that

The four young people sitting with feet dangling from high chairs in the Stanford Business School mostly looked like teenagers.

Yet these were the geniuses who had become rich and famous through some of the most impressive technological innovations in education. They are being panel-interviewed by another youngster who referred to their work as "the future of education as imagined by companies at the very forefront of the space".

My sceptical gene had already kicked in. Frankly, I do not like teenage geeks with takkies, straight out of college, predicting the collapse of "brick and mortar" universities and the advent of a brave new world in which college comes to you through a computer screen. Hyperbole, in any context, deadens my senses. But this was the heart of Silicon Valley, and I know that if technology driven change in education is going to happen anywhere it is on this campus, which graduated (or dropped out) the founders or co-founders of Google, PayPal, Netflix and any number of technology millionaires.

Except for one or two ridiculous predictions - like the imminent disappearance of the freshman (first) year in favour of online learning - the four representatives were, to my surprise, balanced, modest and even cautious about "the hype" around technology.

Chegg offers online tutors on demand alongside step-by-step textbook solutions to your school or university subject problems. The Khan Academy gives free access to mini-lectures on YouTube videos. Coursera, an invention of two Stanford professors, works with universities to offer Massive Online Open Courses, or MOOCs, taking subjects like physics and engineering online to more than 10million users worldwide.

The Minerva Project is a for-profit company that offers intensive seminars to small groups of students (19 at most) through video-conferencing on an online platform; in the initial years they learn broad competencies such as critical thinking, then move in small groups around the world for a "global immersion" experience as part of a carefully selected academic elite.

All four representatives of these companies talked about solving the same basic problem - the high and still escalating costs of a university education. A well-advertised documentary on US television the week following this presentation, called Ivory Tower, estimated student debt in the US is $1-trillion (about R11-trillion).

Except for a small elite, few families can afford the staggering costs of higher education that can run anywhere from $12000 a year in a state university in California to more than $60000 in a private institution like Stanford. That kind of money effectively excludes the talented poor from going to college. If they do, and succeed, they end up with a burden of debt that could take a lifetime to pay off.

What these companies claim to offer is the same quality education with none of the overheads associated with a traditional university. No buildings to construct or maintain; no fancy frivolities like a student gym, swimming pool or climbing wall; and no massive staff salaries. Instead of paying many professors to teach the same courses over and over again, hire "a rock star prof" to do it once, and well, through an online lecture distributed anywhere in the world. The costs of the qualification are greatly reduced and students get individual attention.

Another surprise to me was the ways in which the technology has actually paid attention to complex issues of pedagogy and assessment. Most of these innovations draw heavily on mastery learning, the idea that you attain competence in part of the curriculum before moving on to the next.

Bi-directional feedback is a strong component of the communication in this medium. Student progress is carefully monitored on an individual basis to the point of coming across as intrusive.

Minerva, for example, has gone to the considerable trouble of developing 126 "habits of the mind" and "foundational concepts" with an assessment rubric for each of them.

I did not have the nerve at this stage to shout out and warn them about early Outcomes Based Education in South Africa and its 66 outcomes.

But does all of this work - and would it in a context like South Africa? See next week's follow-up column.