Coursera’s Daphne Koller says online education will remove barriers to higher learning for millions—and change the way universities are run.
Universities as we know them began nearly a millennium ago as elite institutions that admitted only a few students from privileged families.
Over time, the doors have opened wider, first helping give rise to a middle class, and more recently to increasing numbers of women and minorities.
Yet college today remains an experience not available to everyone who needs it—largely due to boundaries set by cost, time and space.
Technology is changing that. The growth of the Internet and spread of mobile networking devices have untethered education in ways that are eliminating geographic and other physical barriers to a top-quality education.
Consider India, which has 600 million people under the age of 25 and an outdated university system struggling to grow a workforce to support the third-largest economy in the world. An analysis a few years ago showed that, to address educational needs using traditional methods, India would need to build 1,500 campuses and—even more challenging—find qualified instructors to staff them.
Other countries with equally limited education infrastructure face similar challenges if they wish to develop a globally competitive workforce.
Online education, by reducing cost and removing physical barriers, can open doors of opportunity to millions of people who otherwise might not have access to postsecondary education. It also has the potential to change higher learning from a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience of earning a degree to a continuing endeavor that helps people meet their education needs across a lifetime.
Today, 59% of jobs in the U.S. require postsecondary education and training, according to a recent report by Georgetown University. We’re also seeing more career shifts among those in today’s workforce: As reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people now in their 50s have changed jobs 11.3 times on average over their working lives. Both of these numbers are expected to dramatically increase over time. And new jobs require new skills: Jobs in areas such as data science that might not have existed a decade ago are now witnessing a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with the analytical capabilities to understand data.
All this said, technology won’t eliminate universities as we know them. Universities will continue to nurture new thinking, research and innovation within their walls. The residential college experience that is an invaluable experience to many young people will continue.
But teaching methods and models of delivery will certainly shift to fit our increasingly digital world. The “sage on the stage” at a university will no longer be a common mode of delivery. In the classroom—whether physical or virtual—we will see more attention given to group projects, conversations and applied learning, with lecture content going the way of textbooks as something experienced in preparing for class.
At the same time, universities will devote considerably more effort to activities that occur outside the classroom, be it research, individual mentoring by faculty or senior students, team activities, volunteering, internships, study abroad, and many more types of work and experience. Universities will largely distinguish themselves not by the content they deliver, but by the activities that support and enhance core learning activities.
In unexpected ways, technology is opening doors not just to online learning but to the more traditional college experience as well. I’m reminded of a Coursera learner who emailed us recently. He grew up in a relatively remote corner of India, applied to premier universities, but wasn’t admitted. He ultimately attended a local college to study information technology, but felt that the experience was considerably less than his aspirations.
A year and a half ago, he discovered open online courses—and a path to a new career. With skills he developed in Android programming, he built his first Android app. Today, he is creating mobile tools for social good, including an app that will help issue Amber Alerts for missing children through social networks. And thanks to his online instructor, he has been able to secure a summer research opportunity at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., resurrecting his dream of studying at a premier university.
This is the kind of opportunity that I believe, in 20 or 30 years, will be within reach of billions of people around the world. And what a transformation that would be.