2013: the Year when the Colleges should start taking online education seriously

“Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible – meets what is desperately necessary.” — Thomas Friedman

The American education being the engine behind unparalleled economic prosperity, a military without equal, limitless invention, and the unquenchable ambition that put a man on the Moon, has reinforced the barriers that divide and weaken us.

The future of schooling in America could look very different of what it is today. Recent and rapid developments in online technology and pedagogy are providing ways to break down these barriers and perhaps reassert America’s credentials as the world leader in education and innovation.

In 2013 American higher education faces big ideas: the adaptive and the accessible nature of the internet are changing the way we communicate and interact, by creating new tools and methods capable of revolutionizing the ways in which we teach and learn.

Media coverage has been focused on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), offered by Coursera – offering courses taught by some of the world’s boldest and most well respected faculty from schools such as Duke, Princeton, Berklee, and the University of Edinburgh, and Udacity — having courses focused on computer science taught by leading programmers and engineers, including Sebastian Thrun (Udacity’s founder) and Peter Norvig. Enrollment in Coursera or Udacity courses runs into tens of thousands per month.

The potential for online education is exciting. MIT, Harvard and Stanford — are leading the change, but apart from them many of not all schools are engaged in a conversation about what online education will mean for them. Being adaptive, it represents machine-guided Learning Management System, therefore the evolutions are impossible to predict.

The beginning

Throughout the educational history, the traditional classroom has had little competition. In the early twentieth-century, with the advent of the postal service, the “correspondence classes” emerged and were massively popular for a short time before subsiding.

Companies like the University of Phoenix and The DeVry Institute offered more synchronous remote learning, but their offerings were not directed at the typical college-student scheme and they offer scant student engagement and interaction.

These for-profit institutions have proven far more adept at delivering debt, than jobs and, they have done little to affect in any profound way the methods by which we teach and learn.

The new wave of online programs and techniques changes the way we educate. It expands the classroom to anyone through an Internet connection and augments the ways teachers, students and administrators engage.

This movement is based on the idea that the lecture is an ineffective and with the inefficient use of the educator’s expertise students cannot absorb new material best. This is why a better solution is that if they can move at their own pace. The popular name for this new type of classroom is the “flipped” or “blended” classroom (coming from its “flipping” or “blending” of traditional classwork and homework.)  The blended classroom replaces the traditional lecture with short instructional videos, quiz assessments viewed outside the class in a way that allows the student to watch and re-watch a lecture or topic until he or she fully understands the material. Class – time is spent in more interactive and collaborative homework-style questions, problem sets and case studies. It provides the students with greater contact and feedback from their teachers and professors. If the physical classroom is not accessible, the online discussion groups and labs supplement the lecture material.

This change in the higher education is more about the mere delivery of the content or a new technology. It encompasses a broad collection of tools, methods and philosophies that engender self-paced, adaptive, and active learning and decouple the traditionally introduced components of a higher education: admissions, instruction, interaction, assessment, certification, and networking.

The online classroom offers data, including how long a student or class takes on in resolving a particular problem or what lecture format is most effective for an individual.

The gathering and the analysis of this data asks far greater insight into teaching styles and learning methods work, which do not to create a system built on empirical evidence and analysis, but rather on a tradition and conventional wisdom.

The data collected from a class can be used to tweak and enhance a course or lesson, both for current and future students, it can be carried from course to course, like a digital passport.

The break through

The scale of the challenge represents an opportunity for the existing institutions to develop big ideas and offer a more valuable and comprehensive product, moving beyond the customary boundaries of higher education. The standard model for higher education is based on either a four-year track (for undergraduate degrees) or a two-year one (for graduate, postgraduate, and most of the associate and trade programs). A school delivers a number of courses of predetermined content, the student receives a certification of achievement, and then the relationship, in large part, terminates.

Online tools and components are condensed into larger Learning Management Systems, that allow higher education to be a non-discrete, continuous process: or to say it nicely – a university for life!

Prospective students can investigate and explore beyond superficial guided tours and orientations, the newly accepted students will have access to preparatory courses that bring freshman to a common starting point upon arrival on campus by introducing and emphasizing the culture and expectations of the school.

Students can shorten their time to graduation by having greater access to courses and content prior to freshman year and outside the typical semester-based academic year.

Graduating students will benefit from advanced recruiting services and a more engaged alumni network. The alumni will remain active parts of the university,  take new courses, interact more easily with other alumni and connect with the current student body on a deeper level.

“Probably the only candidate left for a bubble … is education. The education bubble is predicated on the idea that the education provided [by traditional residential colleges and universities] is incredibly valuable. In many cases that’s just not true. It’s basically extremely overpriced. People are not getting their money’s worth, objectively, when you do the math. And at the same time… there’s this sort of psycho-social component to people taking on these enormous debts when they go to college simply because that’s what everybody’s doing”. — Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder, entrepreneur, and venture capitalist


The most troubling issue in higher education today is the spiraling cost of a degree. Undergraduate tuition at a world top-tier private university in 2012-13, with textbooks, room and board, can cost over $60,000 a year. Tuition costs and fees at public universities are rising at twice the rate of inflation, where as the total student loan debt in the US now exceeds one trillion dollars — more than US housing debt and credit card debt, and shows no signs of abating. Nobody within the higher education system seems to have a plan to fix it!

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, to connect the dots. American tech companies are creating high-paying, skilled jobs faster than America’s educational system can fill them.

By making higher education more effective and more accessible, everybody benefits, across every industry, every state. It is time to think big and use the tools and methods of adaptive online education in order to avoid the current cost dynamic.

Most students at large public and private universities have little contact with full professors during their freshman or sophomore year, as they work mostly with graduate teaching fellows and assistants or adjuncts.

Using remote online tools more effectively could lower costs to students in the thousands of dollars, it can enable professors to hold more office hours and labs by doing more research, it will reduce strain on campus facilities and could even grow revenue by offering paid introductory courses online to nonresidential students or licensing courses to other schools.

Coursera, Udacity, edX, The Khan Academy, The Minerva Project, General Assembly, and many other new players in the education game have shown, there is an insatiable appetite for knowledge and instruction, both within the U.S. and abroad. We are still at a budding stage in the life cycle of online education, but these companies and programs are already employing exciting and substantive techniques to engage under-served student populations, while crucially maintaining a low barrier to entry.

Time will show how the traditional residential universities will attract and connect with these “non-traditional” student cohorts, but the options are wide and varied. Brick-and-mortar school has a customer base, respected credentialing, a reputation, a staff of faculty and administrators ready to work, and this is something that they can reply on regardless of the e-learning developments in future. This is a good position to take advantage of in the globalizing power of online education. Whether they will implement more e-learning tools, convert into online or decide upon themselves which way they will take, it is up to them.

However, the prices of education will definitely have to go down.


“I taught more students AI, than all the AI professors in the world combined.” — Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, Stanford course lecturer

Pankaj Ghemawat, a leading academic figure in globalization and business strategy, became Harvard Business School’s youngest full professor in 1991. He noted that the major discoveries and developments in online education will remain largely unknown, before we begin to fully “attack the data” being accumulated in these emerging programs and services. In the meantime, all American universities can “pull the same levers,” adaptation, aggregation and arbitrage, and take advantage of a new global audience.

Ghemawat emphasizes that it is essential for all schools to adapt “a mix of courses and content to local environments,” (meaning a class taken in New York on financial systems, should not look or feel exactly like a financial systems course being taken in Shanghai). His CAGE distance framework, is adopted by businesses across the world to better understand the distances, cultural, administrative, geographic, and economic, companies and organizations, that must navigate when developing international strategies. This framework should be utilized by schools hoping to adapt to and be communicated more fully and effectively with a new student population.

Some fields of study, may require far less adaptation and this is where schools should aggregate, seek partnerships at home and abroad in order to take advantage of “the economies of scale across borders”.

Universities with well developed international programs and satellite campuses should properly exploit these resources alongside a sophisticated Learning Management System, that could open up new markets and add a great deal of value to a university’s offerings. American universities are a luxury brand with “cachet and mystique” that can be leveraged and marketed to great effect.

David Stavens, one of the founder of Udacity concedes, “There’s a magic that goes on inside a university campus that, if you can afford to live inside that bubble, is wonderful.” In this sense the online innovators are narrowing the gap between the virtual and the real campus. There should be real worry and, more importantly, real action at all institutions, especially medium-sized state universities and less-selective private colleges as without action, online education could be a death knell for many of these institutions.

Working together

“Everyone is both a learner and a teacher.” — Peter Norvig, Udacity Professor and Director of Research at Google

In order to be able to fully exploit online education, colleges and universities must build partnerships and share data. The intellectual property of course materials is a complicated issue, but it would be redundant and wasteful if each school or institution develops entirely independent systems and protect their data from wide analysis.  It would be absurd for a school to use only reading materials written by its own faculty and not share them with anyone else. The powerful force behind the online movement, is the spirit of collaboration and collective experimentation which is shared by many of its pioneering figures and programs.

Schools should strive to establish partnerships with other universities, private online education companies, content providers, educational platforms and applications, engineers, Learning Management System designers, and investors to get the ultimate out of their online product.

The Innovation

“If you have an idea that seems worth doing, don’t wait to hire other people and get funding and all those things. Just start doing it, wait to see what happens, and then iterate on that.”Salman Khan, founder of The Khan Academy

When developing new projects and initiatives, Google has a simple philosophy: launch and iterate!

This encourages “permissionless innovation,” employees are empowered to experiment, pursue original ideas, sometimes with only a basic grasp of their future utility. “Perfect”’ is often the enemy of “good,” in this process, but Google values unconventional and disruptive thinking, over the perfect plan.

Steve Jobs aimed to create a workplace founded on collaboration and cooperation when entered in Pixar. By building a central atrium, connecting all branches and departments, regardless of specialty or status, they were inevitably forced to mingle and converse, which fostered collaboration with kaleidoscopic skills for a common goal.

Using these principles, colleges and universities can similarly establish creative environments for professors, administrators and students. They can develop robust, sustainable and customizable online platforms, upon which the new concepts can be discussed, tested and implemented. This has to be unrelenting process, guided by a collective leading to resolve and improve education through experimentation and the systematic analysis of data.

 “A truly memorable college class, even a large one, is a collaboration between teacher and students. It’s a one-time-only event. Learning at its best is a collective enterprise, something we’ve known since Socrates. You can get knowledge from an Internet course if you’re highly motivated to learn. But in real courses the students and teachers come together and create an immediate and vital community of learning. A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet course ever will. Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is — and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely.” — Mark Edmundson, Professor of English at the University of Virginia

Further steps

With the schools developing more comprehensive online courses and programs, the new methods will continue to encounter debate and disagreement. E-learning needs realignment of the traditional teacher-student relationship, and because of this it will be seen as a threat to a status quo that has served many professors rather well.

The traditional relationship between teacher and student is special and valuable, but the dynamic of the higher education’s runaway costs and lack of accessibility are coming first in consideration.

So far, the lecture is the best attempt at making education affordable and accessible, but it needs to be improved further. The best parts of American higher education can not be simply merged with digital tools and methods.

What we’re observing is a complete re-imagining of education, blending of old and new!

Novel technologies and disruptive minds are disassembling the components of teaching and learning. With this they make them more than what they were before, for more students than ever before.

The idea od having the online education be whatever we want it to be sounds great. Those that still can and want to pay for the traditional residential experience, can do so.  The vast majority of students, see in the online education a quality of instruction that has previously never existed, which is powerful.

By definition, the educators are an older and more conservative group than the students they teach. This is why many of them will be unable or more likely unwilling to adapt to this brave new world.

Schools must make the professors adopt and experiment with online tools and establish a straightforward administrative framework for reducing the strain of producing new blended classes.

The efforts to implement online education at a school-wide level will be a question of investment and commitment at administrative and pedagogical level.

Since the professor’s time is the university’s most precious and vital resource. It is up to the university leaders and innovators to show how classes will be improved by the online integration, and how the remote learning can be a time-saver for professors.

Professors and administrators must confront the reality that effective e-courses and programs will threaten the jobs of those that teach and support them. The states may conclude that its students are better served through online courses in a combination with physical meeting points on its state university campuses, rather  than an expensive network of community colleges.

The assumption that the blended courses can be as effective as traditional courses, will continue to be tested. It is not a matter of trying to do “more with less,” but vice versa it is about doing as much as possible in education promoting and upgrading.

It will be essential for the continued functioning of the school, to consider that the faculty members and administrators oppose to this new online paradigm for philosophical reasons. The needs and expectations of students past, present and future should be put at the first place. Professors will want to teach the way they were taught, but if this model doe not represent good value for the student, the school or the professor him/herself, a change must be encouraged and incited. There is no doubt that the students will demand that colleges and universities invest financial and human capital in online education. This will be just because of the simply pedagogical benefits, but also because they will emerge from their formal education into a society and work environments premised on digital communication and collaboration.

If students are not well practiced in this new language, they will inevitably fall behind their colleagues and competitors.


Coursera, Udacity, edX, 2U, the Khan Academy and other innovators have provided teachers, professors and students, from elementary schools to Ph.D programs, extremely convenient opportunity “to taste the online cake”.

2013 can be online education’s biggest test, as in this year colleges and universities should stop thinking of online education as just a by-product, as something inherently inferior to the traditional lecture experience, but rather as an integral part of any student’s education.

Schools will have less success if (like the music industry a decade ago) choose to keep their products as inconvenient, inflexible and expensive.

Students have tasted the changes and want to pursue further. Any school that ignores the benefits of online teaching and learning, needs to examine whether it is acting in the best interest of its students and the future of that institution.

Inevitable question rises: Is a top-class education something we want to block, to put behind a velvet rope for only a select few to enjoy or is it something that, we share with anyone with a little curiosity and desire?

There is no stopping in this movement, since what is desperately necessary is suddenly possible.

The time is now – we should rise our expectations of what an education can be and go all the way in this.

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