Opinion guest column

edX is freeing education

This could revolutionize the way we learn

This Wednesday, MIT President Susan Hockfield and Harvard President Drew Faust announced the edX platform for online education. I have been taking the pilot edX course 6.002x this semester, but it wasn’t until I saw these two women speak that I realized just how big this initiative could be. 6.002x is already an incredible technological achievement that accurately replicates an introductory Course VI class on the Internet. After the announcement this Wednesday, this revolutionary online experience of MIT classes made the leap to become a multi-institutional platform that could transform the delivery of education worldwide.

edX is not the first foray into online education. Last fall, Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun opened up his introductory AI class to thousands of students around the world. He then left the university to found Udacity, which offers a series of CS courses. There is also Coursera, a company started by Stanford professors, which has already partnered with Princeton, UMich, and UPenn to offer courses ranging from Mythology to Cryptography. However, these two products are both creations of for-profit companies. Perhaps the one resource most closely aligned with edX is the non-profit Khan Academy, started by Salman Khan ’98 (commencement speaker for the class of 2012!). By staying non-profit, edX can honestly claim to make an MIT or Harvard education available to anyone with the will to pursue it.

The current model for post-secondary education is far from ideal and is often inefficient. Most course material is distributed only during lecture, which is limited in both time and place. The material remains largely unchanged from semester to semester and can even worsen if a weaker professor makes changes to a class. Similar classes use similar material from institution to institution, yet it is disconnected rather than synthesized into one best-in-class course. Most significantly, this education is limited to the select group of students admitted to colleges around the world. In many cases, this group represents only the students with the support and resources to win the college admissions game, despite ongoing efforts to the contrary.

What is stopping us from bringing the world’s best education out of the ivory tower and into the commons? One might propose that it is infeasible to teach all the world’s population at once. However, technology has made this a trivial obstacle. Lectures can be recorded with incredible fidelity and streamed to any connected machine in the world. Books, tutorials, and problem set solutions can all be served up on the web. Scripts can be written to generate unique homework problems and grade them in real time. Web applications are as dynamic as anything written for the desktop. The technology we have built over the last few decades not only makes online education feasible, it makes it the next logical step in improving the way we learn.

The other, more sinister, objection is that only the select group admitted into the world’s best institution deserves its education. If edX advances to the point where there is no distinguishable difference between an online education and a brick and mortar education, it may be that an online certification gains the same significance as an MIT degree. Laws of supply and demand tell us that a saturated market dilutes the value of each individual unit. However, it may be time to consider an entirely new paradigm for education. Rather than treating college degrees as credentials for future employment, let’s treat them as foundations of knowledge that transcend any piece of paper. Let everyone have access to the same training, and let people be judged by the merit of their work rather than by the name of an institution.

This, of course, is a radical change. Colleges and universities around the world will need to rebrand themselves as something other than gatekeepers of education. Students might no longer need to proceed through the educational system in lockstep grade levels, but instead learn new things as soon as they are ready for them. Education might no longer be limited to a set curriculum of courses taken over four years, but could become a lifetime of learning in all kinds of different fields. Most importantly, education may finally become a resource as freely available as air or sunlight. And education deserves to be an open resource. The knowledge steadily accumulated by years and years of experimenting, failing, discovering, and learning belongs to all people.

Traces of the revolt against the current model of education can be seen around the world. In the U.S., primary and secondary educators desperately search for a better solution. The value of college is questioned in the face of tuition costs rising faster than inflation and federal loans being cut by the government. Successful entrepreneurs, such as Peter Thiel, are paying MIT students $100,000 to drop out to pursue their true ambitions. Successful students, such as my roommate, are leaving MIT to become successful entrepreneurs on their own. Perhaps the traditional four-year college experience is no longer necessary in our modern society. Perhaps there is room for a new way of thinking.

For all of its potential, edX still has many hurdles to overcome before it comes close to touching the traditional model of education. edX cannot replicate the residential experience where students live and work alongside one another, and professors are available in-person. As I think back, my most valuable experiences at MIT have come from learning material with my peers, tackling problems together, and bouncing crazy new ideas off of one another. The diversity of people you meet and experiences you will have in college are unparalleled. They are surely some of the most formative of your life. An online classroom will not be able to simulate the mentorship you get from professors, the opportunity to raise your hand in class, or the ability to randomly stroll in for office hours. Professors won’t be around to moderate discussions or to cultivate your raw crazy ideas into plans for focused research.

Nonetheless, I left the press conference this Wednesday with dreams of a radically different world. You know you have a truly forward thinking idea when two of the strongest global brands in education are willing to disrupt a business model that has been successful for hundreds of years. I may be wrong about this (I was wrong about Google Wave), but edX could transform the face of education and — through education — transform the world. This marriage of technology, one of the greatest magnifiers of human initiative, and education, one of the greatest incubators of human potential, could end up being really big.

The scary thing is that we’ve only seen the first iteration. Online education is just getting started and the iteration five years down the road will look nothing like it does today. For all of its flaws, I hope that edX does become big and unlocks the gates of education for anyone with the will to seek it.

David L. Ku is a senior in Course 6.