“Fifty years from now, there will be only 10 institutions in the whole world that deliver higher education”.
That’s according to Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford Professor who founded Udacity, which puts high quality university classes online where they can be accessed for free. His apparent reasoning is that if the best universities in the world put make content freely available, nobody will pay to attend local universities of variable quality.
An article in the current issue of Wired magazine explains Thrun’s initiative:
In late 2011, Stanford opened up three classes, including the artificial intelligence class taught by Thrun, to anyone with a web connection. Lectures can be watched online. Assignments identical to the ones done by regular fee-paying students who attend in person, are autograded online each week. Stanford University won’t give credit to the 160,000 people who are currently taking the class, but at the end of the term, students who completed a course will get an official Statement of Accomplishment.
Thrun is a brilliant guy. He is an expert in the field of robotics and has been involved in Google’s effort to create a car that can drive itself. One can see why people flock to his classes.
Similarly, in the field of history, I can see why so many people choose to watch videos of Yale history professors giving lectures online via the Open Yale Initiative. I’ve watched some of these lectures and learned almost as much about pedagogy as about history.
If Google does manage to create a driverless car, this will mean unemployment for many truckers and taxi drivers. As a university lecturer, I hope that Thrun is wrong about there only being a handful of universities left in half a century. We all know about the vaudeville actors whose livelihoods were destroyed by the invention of moving pictures.
Personally, I’m not too worried about the threat of technological unemployment. I’m certain that Udacity, Open Yale, and other similar initiatives will push brick-and-mortar universities to raise their game. It may even cause some of the weaker universities to go under. But I don’t think that online learning is a substitute for face-to-face contact. Moreover, universities serve an important social function. They attract young people for two reasons: you can learn stuff there, and there are lots of other young people on campus.
Online learning can’t duplicate that.