Why now?


One question I’ve been asked repeatedly about Harvardx and edX is, essentially, “why now?” On-line and distance eduction have been around for a long time, and while both have had some exciting times they haven’t changed the face of education as we know it. Now everyone is thinking about how to educate billions of people over the internet. What has changed to make it more interesting this time around? Why now?

I think we may well be witnessing the beginning of a paradigm shift in higher education, which makes the question all the more interesting. And when I talk about this being a paradigm shift, I mean it in the sense originally outlined by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, not in the sense that it is generally meant today. Kuhn’s notion was that such shifts force a new way of looking at the world, a change that is so radical that the practitioners of the old science or paradigm can’t even understand the practitioners of the new science or paradigm. Such shifts, argues Kuhn, happen not because of a single experiment, result, or difficult-to-explain phenomenon, but rather when the set of counter-examples, unexplained phenomenon, or changes to the current paradigm in science become so cumbersome that there is intellectual room for a new approach that deals with the problems in the received theories in a radically different (and more elegant) way.

I think what we are seeing in the on-line education arena is the beginnings of a paradigm shift/revolution in education (rather than the more restricted “on-line teaching”). And like a scientific revolution, it isn’t being caused by one particular thing, but rather by an accretion of a number of factors that are encouraging the more adventurous in the field to think in different ways.

Some of these changes are technological. Access to computers, and more importantly to networked computers, is now pervasive over much of the human population. Many of these computers are called cell phones, but the fact is that they have the power of a high-end engineering workstation of not that long ago, and are connected on a network with reasonable speed. The pervasiveness of these devices can’t be overstated– think of all of the interesting micr0-scale power generation ideas that you have heard about that are designed to allow people in the more remote parts of Africa or Asia to charge their cell phones.

Beyond the technology, there are the problems with the way education is done today. The obvious problem has to do with the cost of education, which gets a lot of press and is a genuine worry. But just as worrying is the uneven distribution of education over the geographic area of the globe. Not everyone who wishes to learn is able to get to a place where they can learn (or learn well); partly this is cost but mostly this is physics. High-quality education is currently available in a breathtakingly small number of locations, often in areas that are difficult and/or expensive to get to.

And then there is the problem that current education doesn’t scale much beyond the point where we are now. The last major scaling revolution in higher education was the introduction of the lecture. This allowed a single professor to educate a couple hundred students at a time, rather than the seminar-style of teaching that limited a single professor to educating one to ten students at a time. The quality of education through a lecture was not the same as the quality of the seminar, but it was good enough that the scale made up for it. In the same way, approaches to on-line education allow educating hundreds of thousands rather than hundreds at a time. The education may not be quite as good, but the current belief seems to be that the scale makes up for this.

None of these by themselves are enough to explain why we are seeing the surge in interest in on-line and technology-enabled education. But taken together they put pressure on the status quo. Add a visionary like Sal Khan who shows an alternative without asking if it is a good idea, and we get the revolutionary ball rolling.

As I’ve said before, I don’t see this revolution as being about on-line education. I see it as being much broader than that, looking at how we can use the technologies currently being pioneered in on-line education to make all education, whether on-line, commuter, or residential, better. I’d love to use on-line mechanisms to allow me to never have to give another large lecture. I’d much rather use class time for discussions, or team problem solving, or in some other way that would engage the student and teach the techniques of thinking rather than the content of a field.

I don’t know if the approaches that are being tried in edX or Harvardx will be a better way of teaching. But trying them lets us ask a different set of questions. And that, in itself, is one of the main characteristics of a paradigm shift: when practitioners of the new paradigm are asking different questions than the practitioners of the old paradigm.

Here we go…


Residential Education
The Bozo Event Horizon

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