Blogs & Comment

Education's biggest game-changer in centuries?

Harvard and MIT have invested $60 million in a new type of classroom: it’s online, global and has over 100,000 students.


(Photo: Jessica Williams/Wikimedia)

Something happened this week in higher education you may have missed. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology teamed up to announce a US$60-million investment in “massive online courses,” known as edX. According edX president Anant Agarwal, it’s the “single biggest change in education since the printing press.” In the pilot course on “Circuits & Electronics” developed to test the market, there were 120,000 students. Indeed, there were more students registering for this single online course than make up MIT’s entire alumni base.

Technology has come a long way in the last five years and it’s time for classrooms to catch up. For universities, this means competition will become increasingly global, expanded beyond the bricks and mortar of their campuses.

Consider this: I am scheduled to teach corporate governance this summer at Harvard. The course currently has 33 students enrolled. A governance course I taught last year at Osgoode Hall Law School also had 33 students. A course I taught to undergraduate law students had only six. However, my LinkedIn group, Boards and Advisors, now has 2,689 members and is climbing steadily. We are not constrained by class size. I post everything I read and interact with members on a daily basis, facilitating insightful discussions. With or without a classroom, directors thirst for content, dialogue and networking, all of which can be found in this group.

Most board directors don’t attend in-person conferences. It’s too costly and not a wise use of their time. About 800 directors attend the NACD annual conference, but there are tens if not hundreds of thousands of directors on public, private and nonprofit boards within the U.S. alone. Would these directors want to have access to learning that’s convenient, interactive and customized to them, at a reasonable price? Hmm, I wonder.

Harvard and MIT are betting that students in India, China and all over the world will use home and office computers to take courses—no trips to Boston required. They’re investing in a nonprofit venture to ensure robust platforms and customized learning, while aiming to come as close as possible to the classroom experience in real time. Even instantaneous language translation may be possible. Mouse tracking may also tell teachers and researchers how students learn and what works and what doesn’t. For now, courses will be free and universally accessible, though that may change. In the short term, only certificates, not traditional degrees, will be available, but who knows where this could lead.

After all, this is a game-changer, but it also points to governance shortcomings at universities, which can be behind the curve and bloated. Technology should bring costs down to the end user, not up. However, tuition continues to rise, as does class size. Students graduate with crippling debt. Boards of universities are too large and should be populated with more hard-hitting businesspeople with solid track records and a mind for innovation and value creation. Directors who not only see the future but have helped shape it, and who can tell university presidents which way to part their hair.

Right now, there are too many layers of administration. Costs are being passed on to students, who can least afford it. Quality metrics should focus on innovation and the classroom. Change is afoot and the longer higher education waits to innovate, the more compromised they—and society—will be. That’s why edX is a refreshing step in the right direction.