Radically Changing the Cost of Higher Education with Technology

You’d have to be living under a rock to not be aware that technology has changed our lives in every possible area.  Hospitals now use iPads and tablets to hold patient records; sports arenas now have HD jumbo-trons; most every person has, if not a smart phone, a cell phone; and cars are increasingly more reliant on tech with Bluetooth, rear-view cameras, and alarms to alert when tires need air or the oil needs to be changed.  Technology is also revolutionizing education.  No longer do you need to attend a traditional bricks and mortar school to get a degree, and master’s programs are more and more attainable through online learning.

One area that technology has not changed – up until now – is the cost of higher education.  Regardless of online or traditional brick and mortar schools, the cost per credit is typically the same, with online learners not subject to room and board costs of residing on campus.  Stanford University, a worldwide leader in education has changed the game and one year ago offered three Computer Sciences classes to the entire globe, for free.  This great experiment turned out better than anyone could have imagined.

While taught by Stanford professors, these courses don’t offer university credit, but participants to receive a certificate of completion.  “By making full use of the web’s capabilities, we are extending the reach of existing education… plus lots of people get degrees for a range of reasons.  We cannot offer Stanford certification for this course, but many people want to learn for the knowledge they will gain and not just a qualification,” says Sebastian Thurn, a computer sciences and electrical engineer professor.

One of the three courses offered online, on artificial intelligence, had more than 58,000 students – nearly four times the size of the entire Stanford student body.  Of the 58,000 students the ages ranged widely from high schooler to retiree and people from more than 175 countries, all given access to material taught by “two of the world’s best-known artificial intelligence experts.”

In the course of on year, 32 other universities have joined with Stanford to form Coursera  offering about 200 courses from schools just as the University of Pennsylvania, Duke, Princeton, and the University of London.

Daphne Koller is a Rajeev Motwani Professor in the Computer Sciences Department at Stanford who helped co-found Coursera and is a MacArthur Foundation Fellow who spoke at the TED Global Conference in Edinburgh, and penned an article for CNN looking at the revolutionary Stanford program and how it has expanded.

Koller points out that Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera, reaches 400 students a year, “it would have taken him 250 years to reach the number of students he reached through that one online course,” highlighting the reach these courses have.  While not offering credit, these free courses “showed what is possible.  It showed that it is possible to produce a high quality learning experience from some of the top instructors in the world at a very low cost.”  And while this great experiment showed what is possible, it also highlighted what changes in higher ed are badly needed, “A high-quality education is now a critical need for most of the people who aspire to a better life, while it continues to be out of reach for many.”

This paradigm, which combines meaningful work… allows us to offer some of our best educational content to students around the world, at a negligible marginal cost of pennies per student.  It therefore makes feasible the notion of universal education, with the potential of some remarkable consequence.”

These remarkable consequences are:

The establishment of education as a basic human right, giving anyone who wants it the ability to get the skills they need to give their families and their communities a better life.

The establishment and enabling of lifelong learning, giving anyone who wants to the ability to “explore new directions, whether to expand our minds or to make a change in our lives.”

“It opens the door to innovation,” as talent can be found anywhere, and everywhere.  By opening the door to education in remote villages in Africa or isolated towns in Southeast Asia the next Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates are given access to an education they otherwise wouldn’t be able to get.

Coursera is not the only option for high-quality, free online learning.  The Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers MITOpenCourseWare (OCW), which offers free lecture notes, exams, videos, and offering more than 2,100 courses, allows people to study anything they could possibly imagine.  The course offerings range from Aeronautics and Astronautics to Economics, and Literature to Political Science and everything in between.   OCW has been offering courses since 50 courses were published in 2002, steadily increasing the offerings and shouldering the cost of nearly $15,000 per course that is published.

With global leaders in education offering their courses for study for free, the global educative scene is going to radically change over the next several years.  While tuition in the United States increases unchecked students are looking for creative ways to educate themselves at a cost that is affordable.  In third-world and developing countries, any manner of education is typically out of reach for the majority of the people, so free online classes like the ones offering by OCW and Coursera help to give the general population of these poor nations the ability to lift themselves out of abject poverty and create a better future for their children and communities – a priceless advantage.