From my perspective, I will not dare make predictions about the potential Christensenian disruption of higher education until I understand why and how the university as we know it survived the Christensenian disruption that was the coming of the printed book. I don't understand that. Thus I do not dare forecast what is coming.
Why Online Education Works: Oxford University was founded in 1096, Cambridge in 1209. Harvard, a relative newcomer, was founded in 1636…. [F]ew institutions,… have seen so little change. Oxford in 2012 teaches students in ways remarkably similar to Oxford in 1096, seated students listening to professors in a classroom…. I suspect that both of these facts are about to change. Online education will change how universities teach; as a result, online education will change which universities teach.
I see three principle advantages to online education:
- leverage, especially of the best teachers;
- time savings;
- individualized teaching and new technologies.
Leverage:… In 2009, I gave a TED talk on the economics of growth. Since then my 15 minute talk has been watched nearly 700,000 times…. [T]he 15 minutes of teaching I did at TED dominates my entire teaching career…. Teaching students 30 at a time is expensive and becoming relatively more expensive… for the same reason that butlers have become relatively more expensive… an example of what's known as Baumol’s cost disease….
The counter-argument is that there is an ineffable quality of the classroom experience that raises its value well above the same material taught online. Even after many years of teaching, however, what exactly this quality might be remains ineffable to me…. No one expects online education to substitute for apprenticing to a master, but much education at the college level is already mass education taught not by a master but by an adjunct….
Teaching today is like a stage play. A play can be seen by at most a few hundred people at a single sitting and it takes as much labor to produce the 100th viewing as it does to produce the first. As a result, plays are expensive. Online education makes teaching more like a movie….
The parallel between movies and plays and online and offline education has further lessons. First, the market for teachers will become more like the market for actors, a winner-take-all market with greater inequality and very big payments at the top…. Second, movies are better in many respects than plays, but no one doubts that a taped play is worse in all respects than a live play…. [A}n online lecture has to be different from an in-class lecture….
[O]nline lectures need not be repetitive. Dale Carnegie’s advice to “tell the audience what you're going to say, say it; then tell them what you've said” makes sense for a live audience…. Carnegie’s advice is dead wrong for an online audience…. In an online lecture it pays to be concise. Online, the student is in control and can choose when and what to repeat….
Online education can also break the artificial lecture length of 50–90 minutes. Many teaching experts say that adult attention span is 10–15 minutes in a lecture…. Lower the fixed costs and lectures will evolve to a more natural level, probably between 5–20 minutes….
[O]nline space is a better place both for asking questions and for interacting with professors and other students…. If every student in a class of 50 asked one question per lecture there would be no time for the lecture…. [I]n the online world there are more resources to answer questions. Answers to last year’s questions, for example, can be used to answer this year’s questions. More importantly, the online world makes it easier for peer-learning….
The future is lectures plus intelligent, on the fly assessment…. Computer-adaptive learning will be as if every student has their own professor on demand…. [T]he computer will make learning less standardized and robotic….
We should also not count the old model out. Having never observed an alternative, we may not yet fully appreciate the old model’s strengths. The Oxford model weathered previous technological storms, not the least of which was the printed book. Nevertheless, the disruption potential is peaking now.