Here's a NY Times opinion piece by Bill Keller on technology disrupting the higher education model of elite brick-and-mortar universities like Stanford:
...one of Stanford’s most inventive professors, Sebastian Thrun, is making an alternative claim on the future. Thrun, a German-born and largely self-taught expert in robotics, is famous for leading the team that built Google’s self-driving car. He is offering his “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course online and free of charge. His remote students will get the same lectures as students paying $50,000 a year, the same assignments, the same exams and, if they pass, a “statement of accomplishment” (though not Stanford credit). When The Times wrote about this last month, 58,000 students had signed up for the course. After the article, enrollment leapt to 130,000, from across the globe.
Thrun’s ultimate mission is a virtual university in which the best professors broadcast their lectures to tens of thousands of students. Testing, peer interaction and grading would happen online; a cadre of teaching assistants would provide some human supervision; and the price would be within reach of almost anyone. “Literally, we can probably get the same quality of education I teach in class for about 1 to 2 percent of the cost,” Thrun told me.
The traditional university, in his view, serves a fortunate few, inefficiently, with a business model built on exclusivity. “I’m not at all against the on-campus experience,” he said. “I love it. It’s great. It has a lot of things which cannot be replaced by anything online. But it’s also insanely uneconomical.”
Thrun acknowledges that there are still serious quality-control problems to be licked. How do you keep an invisible student from cheating? How do you even know who is sitting at that remote keyboard? Will the education really be as compelling — and will it last? Thrun believes there are technological answers to all of these questions, some of them
being worked out already by other online frontiersmen.
“If we can solve this,” he said, “I think it will disrupt all of higher education.”
Disrupt is right. It would be an earthquake for the majority of colleges that depend on tuition income rather than big endowments and research grants. Many could go the way of local newspapers. There would be huge audiences and paychecks for superstar teachers, but dimmer prospects for those who are less charismatic.
I see a larger point, familiar to all of us who have lived through digital-age disorder. There are disrupters, like Sebastian Thrun, or Napster, or the tweeting rebels in Tahrir Square. And there are adapters, like John Hennessy, or iTunes, or the novice statesmen trying to build a new Egypt. Progress depends on both.
Who could be against an experiment that promises the treasure of education to a vast, underserved world? But we should be careful, in our idealism, not to diminish something that is already a wonder of the world.
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