Education for ALL: A “Sweeping, Disruptive Technology”

Education for ALL: A “Sweeping, Disruptive Technology” January 24, 2012

Yesterday I wrote a piece about how nostalgia expressed in contemporary politics points to the privilege of those longing for the “good old days.” In doing so, I stumbled onto a theme I’ve decided to explore throughout the week. Namely, I’m interested in how it is that inspired vision – unconstrained by “what ifs” or fear of change – might break down barriers to opportunity and help overcome systemic privilege that holds some people back from realizing the same potential as others who are more fortunate.

I wrote an article a little while back about the lingering effects of colonial power on institutional education, and how it continues to limit access for those without certain privilege to connect with it. Well, it turns out there are some folks already trying to do something about this, and it’s pretty exciting.

Sebastian Thrun, a professor at Stanford in computer science, worked recently with Google to create a revolutionary self-driving car. As if this wasn’t enough, Thrun went on to develop an idea that would at once shift the educational landscape across the planet.

In a recent story on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Thrun describes how he and an associate decided they would place a class they were offering at Stanford online. Though this is nothing new, the way they offered the class was unheard of.

On a Saturday morning, the pair sent out an email to a small group of people announcing that their upcoming Artificial Intelligence class would be available online for anyone who wanted to take part. Again, some institutions have made curriculum and even video versions of lectures available to the public, but Thrun’s model allowed people actually to take the class. This included submitting questions for the lecturers to respond to, taking online tests and quizzes, and even getting a grade at the end of the class, just like any student enrolled at Stanford.

The only two differences: participants did not get official university credit and the experience cost them nothing.

Within a couple of hours, 5,000 people had signed up. A couple of hours later, that number doubled. And before the class began, a total of 160,000 people registered to take part from 190 different countries across the globe. Students included aspiring computer scientists in Nigeria, an American teacher seeking continuing education supplements, a sixteen-year-old high school student and a woman on dialysis who was homebound because of her disability.

Take a moment to absorb the gravity of what this means. That little sound in your imagination is the sound of the world shifting beneath your feet. For some (like me), the prospects are exhilarating. For others, the response understandably ranges from skepticism to panic.

No, participants do not get school credit toward a degree at Stanford, but is it only a matter of time? And can you imagine the economies of scale at this level? If two professors can conduct a class for a group larger than the population of Green Bay, Wisconsin, how much do you really have to charge each participant to justify the cost? And though I understand the institution’s desire to vet people through their traditional enrollment process, why shouldn’t someone be allowed to get credit for work if they can perform at the same level as the rest of the student body.

There are fears that such widespread access may compromise the integrity of the institution – the brand, if you will – and therefore devalue the diploma people receive from places like Stanford. But if this is what holds a system back from making ideas readily available to the world, they are falling victim to the very colonial forces of institutional self-preservation I warned about in my earlier article.

For me, the formula is fairly simple:

1) Experts have information that is valuable;
2) Others desire to acquire that information;
3) There is now a mean by which that information can be shared on a nearly unlimited scale.

So the question in my mind is: do educational institutions have the right to decide who does and doesn’t get to access this information? It seems that, on some level, the answer to that question may eventually become irrelevant.

Thrun and his partners at Google already have launched a pilot online learning project called Udacity. Think of it like the TED lecture series on steroids. For $200,000 in seed money, the team has developed a space where people can offer and participate in any number of computer-science-related classes, like the one they offered through Stanford. Their initial offerings have more specific topical focus, like “how to build your own search engine,” and a class on how to build your own self-driving car, like the one Thrun himself created for Google.

Observers have called this phenomenon a “sweeping disruptive technology” which I would suggest will change the way we understand education from here, forward. The question yet to be answered, then, is whether – and/or how – current institutions of higher learning will participate in this revolution of the mind.

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