Posted on November 19, 2012

Educational Technology is Transforming Higher Ed

Online learning is finally disrupting the outmoded structure of American higher education. The value proposition of American universities has been rightfully called into serious question after the introduction of Massive Online Open Courses, (“MOOCs”) most notably Coursera, Udacity, and EdX. This marks the beginning of a fundamental restructuring of higher education which will bring significant economic, educational, and social benefits to society at large in the years ahead.

The economics of online education make sense because information is costly to produce, but cheap to reproduce. Once instructors have done the initial work to create a course, lectures can be redistributed to the global public for a marginal cost that approaches zero. The incremental cost of scaling up computer infrastructure to support extra users is only a tiny fraction of the tuition fees that universities now charge for on-campus classes. The vastly superior economics of online education are increasingly difficult for traditional brick-and-mortar schools to refute.

Demand for online education is likely to grow steadily as people dispense of preconceived notions about low-cost online learning and realize that it entails virtually no downside relative to expensive in-person instruction for students in most academic fields. With the exception of science and engineering labs that involve physical activities, most student-teacher interaction which currently happens in person could just as easily occur via videochat.

Another major upside is that educational technology facilitates learning by giving students a choice about how they interact with course content. MOOCs are most commonly organized as a series of modular 10-minute microlectures which can be viewed at accelerated and decelerated playback speeds. This flexible organization and feature set enables students to learn at their own pace and navigate through the course as they please. Student usage data can then be logged and analyzed to extract important insights about how people learn online. As learning patterns are identified, instructors will be able to adopt a data-driven approach to pedagogy.

Educational technology also has huge potential to ameliorate social problems, such as poverty. In a time when power increasingly depends on knowledge and access to information, free/low-cost online learning resources enable disadvantaged individuals to get ahead economically, without redistributive mechanisms.

My own sense is that online education carries too many positive social, financial, and educational benefits to slow down in the near future. As educational technology continues to evolve, outmoded institutions will be forced to update their practices, and students around the world will rejoice.