Saturday, May 05, 2012

A Development with ‘Far-reaching’ Consequences

Elite universities are embracing online learning to reach far-flung audiences. But they may, perhaps unwittingly, be setting the stage for their own disruption. Here’s why.

Some of the most prestigious universities are going online wholeheartedly. Stanford’s MOOC (Massively Open Online Courses) initiative has reached over 160,000 students. Now, Harvard and MIT have jointly created EdX, a partnership that will free offer online courses from both universities.

I believe this development is a lot more 'far-reaching' than most people realize (and not just in the sense that the learning can be accessed from far away !). Why?

Traditionally, education from a big-name university was available only to a 'select' few, carefully chosen ones. And when you select students carefully, you are not just limiting your university’s education to those chosen few – you are also limiting where they get their education (from you!).  However in the free online world where there are no such 'captive' audiences, a Harvard, MIT or Stanford has to compete with every other provider of the same course. Whether an online course teaches electronic circuits or philosophy, it has to compete with similar courses from other providers, on parameters such as content quality, delivery skills and ease of access. The aura of the university's name, campus etc. will matter very little. The open marketplace respects nothing but quality !

If these universities have realized what a leveller online learning can be, and are still taking this initiative, it is quite admirable. Over time this can lead to the true democratization of education. Which not only means that good education will be available to anyone who needs it, but that only the best provider of that education will thrive. The playing fields of Eton are about to be leveled.