Friday, June 01, 2012

Is This The Education Bomb?

Nine years ago (and several times thereafter) I wrote an article in Viewpointe that referred to the economist, Joseph Schumpeter's theory of creative destruction. The more modern version of this theory is termed "disruptive technology,” whereby an existing technology or product is overwhelmed in the marketplace by a new and superior technology or product. As a result, the older product is destroyed in the process.

What reminded (and excited) me about the concepts of creative destruction and disruptive technology was the fact that on May 2 nd, my son sent me a copy of an email that he, and every other alumnus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had received. The email read in part as follows: “Harvard University and MIT today announced edX, a transformational new partnership in online education. Through edX, the two institutions will collaborate to enhance campus-based teaching and learning and build a global community of online learners.”

It then elaborated, “edX will build on both universities’ experience in offering online instructional content. The technological platform recently established by MIT, which will serve us as the foundation for the new learning system, was designed to offer online versions of MIT courses featuring video lesson segments, embedded quizzes, immediate feedback, student-ranked questions and answers, online laboratories and student-paced learning. Certificates of mastery will be available for those who are motivated and able to demonstrate their knowledge of the course material.”

Online Learning Is Not New

An example of the potential of this type of on-line learning program was displayed this past December when MIT offered a pilot program titled “Circuits and Electronics.” Despite the rather enigmatic aspect of the subject matter, this course attracted 120,000 registrants––worldwide. This is not MIT’s first venture into the distance-learning field. The university launched what became known as MITOpenCourseWare in 2002, opening a pilot site to the public, offering 32 courses. In September 2003, MIT OpenCourseWare published its 500 th course, including some courses with complete streaming video lectures. By September 2004, 900 MIT courses were available online. The edX effort is apparently the culmination of that experience.

What is particularly thought provoking is that at least for the moment these courses will be free. Just imagine––students will now have the ability to access classes given by some of the top professors, from some of the most prestigious universities without the heavy burden of the extraordinarily high college costs currently charged. The edX program is being funded from a $60 million contribution, half from each university.

A Rapidly Growing Technology

Is it possible, or reasonable to expect that our existing teaching methods, will be replaced, or at the very least be negatively impacted as a result of the creation of the now omnipresent technology of the Internet? Will the Internet technology be the catalyst that will disrupt the existing centuries old method of teaching; will it literally act as a creative destructive force to the degree that it changes everything we thought we knew about the learning process? There seems to be momentum mounting toward that possibility

The move to online instruction is not limited to the MIT/Harvard partnership. In March of this year Stanford University announced the following: “Last fall, 356,000 people from 190 countries expressed interest in one or more of the first three [online] classes offered, and approximately 43,000 successfully completed a course. Participants came from as close as Stanford's Palo Alto campus and as far away as Ghana, Peru, Russia and New Zealand.”

But Stanford has gone even further. Working in concert with some of the best universities, Michigan State, Penn State, Princeton, and others, the consortium provides free on-line courses through an organization named Coursera that was formed by two Stanford professors. Included are subjects such as the arts, history and poetry, as well as an extensive array of computer courses.

Another Stanford University professor, Sebastian Thrun had started the Stanford involvement when he developed an online course titled, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence that attracted a sign–up of a hundred and sixty thousand students in a hundred and ninety countries. As a result of that success Thrun quit his faculty position at Stanford and formed a start-up called Udacity that offers online courses.

The numbers of online courses have been burgeoning. One website, Open Culture, offers 450 free courses from top universities, most of them on YouTube or iTunes. A number of individual universities provide access to individual courses. Despite this recent proliferation of university sponsored courses, with all the implications for dramatic if not revolutionary changes to the traditional university teaching system, another historic transformation is taking place at the pre-college level.

The Khan Academy

In 2002, Salman Khan, born and raised in New Orleans, was asked by a cousin for help with her math problems. Her choice of a potential tutor was logical since Kahn had earned three degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (a BS in mathematics, a BS in electrical engineering and computer science, and an MS in electrical engineering and computer science). Was it just an afterthought that he also garnered an MBA from Harvard Business School? At the time he was working as a research analyst for a hedge fund.

Using short video tutorials as a teaching tool, the results were so impressive, other relatives and friends asked for similar help. Rather than proceed on an individual basis, Kahn decided it would be more efficient to distribute the tutorials on YouTube. This move not only accelerated the availability of the tutorials, it also increased their popularity to the point that Kahn quit his job to concentrate on expanding their reach under the appellation of Khan Academy.

The Khan Academy is a non-profit organization funded by donations. You may have heard of some of the donors who seem to think that both the concept driving the learning process as well as the results are worth funding––organizations like the Melinda and bill Gates Foundation $1.5 million, Google $2 million, the venture capitalist John Doer $100,000, and the O’Sullivan Foundation $5 million––with others, a total of $15 million in donations so far. Bill Gates stated that his children use the Khan Academy videos.

The Numbers Are Staggering

In March 2012, the Khan Academy had about a million students a month using videos ranging from basic arithmetic to vector calculus; all these students in totality, were doing over 1.8 million problems in a 24 hour period. The academy is seeing 3.5 million unique viewers per month. As of the end of May it had delivered over 153 million lessons. In November of last year there were 2200 videos available. Just six months later there are 3200 in 12 languages. It is critical to note that these videos are free.

While the majority of tutorials concentrate on math and science, also covered are lessons in finance and humanities. If you want a real eye opener, go to the Khan Academy website––the magnitude and the dimension of what are available will overwhelm you. There are probably close to 1,000 tutorials on algebra alone.

Khan’s Explanation

During an interview, Khan was asked, “What do you think makes the Khan Academy different than all of the other educational resources out there?” He answered, “Here are some obvious distinctions. With over 3200 videos, it is easily the most exhaustive collection of instruction on the internet allowing learners to know that they can fill in almost any of their "gaps" with the content on this site. The content is made in digestible 10-20 minute chunks especially purposed for viewing on the computer as opposed to being a longer video of a conventional "physical" lecture. The conversational style of the videos is the tonal antithesis of what people traditionally associate with math and science instruction. The less obvious distinctions are, however, what make the site hard to reproduce.”

He then elaborates, “I teach the way that I wish I was taught. The lectures are coming from me, an actual human being who is fascinated by the world around him. The concepts are conveyed as they are understood by me, not as they are written in a textbook developed by an educational bureaucracy. Viewers know that it is the labor of love of one somewhat quirky and determined man who has a passion for learning and teaching. I don't think any corporate or governmental effort--regardless of how much money is thrown at the problem--can reproduce this.”

Khan Academy, MIT/Harvard, the Stanford coalition, and others––Is this the future of education? Are we at the genesis of a disruptive technology undermining a teaching method and infrastructure that has endured for centuries? Has Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction been let loose? Speaking about just the Khan Academy, Bill Gates stated, “This is the beginning of a revolution.”

Note: At the end of the Khan interview cited above, he answered a question in such a philosophically eloquent manner, I felt compelled to include it here. The interviewer asked, “Where are you from? What ethnicity/religion are you?

Khan answered, “I was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. My mother was born in Calcutta, India. My father was born in Barisal, Bangladesh. If you believe in trying to make the best of the finite number of years we have on this planet (while not making it any worse for anyone else), think that pride and self-righteousness are the cause of most conflict and negativity, and are humbled by the vastness and mystery of the Universe, then I'm the same religion as you.” Bill Gates has proclaimed Khan as a genius with an IQ of 160. I’d believe it.