Education worldwide is undergoing a profound shift in emphasis from teaching to learning. Much of this is linked to the rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs), which are generating both excitement and concern around the role of digital technology. After several years of false starts, universities like MIT, Harvard and Stanford have cracked early elements of a broader code to success. Enterprises like Coursera, EdX and Udacity are partnering with these and many other universities to launch classes connecting faculty and students around the world.
The success stories are inspiring. Last year more than 150,000 people signed up for MIT’s first MOOC on “circuits and electronics,” in which a teenage boy from Mongolia achieved a perfect score. Coursera now has nearly 5 million students taking 400 courses in seven languages. Meanwhile Michael Sandel’s online Harvard ethics class is so popular that he has achieved celebrity status in countries like China and Korea, thousands of miles away from his Massachusetts lecture hall.
The backdrop is a university delivery formula that had changed little over several centuries. I call it the “One to N” experience, meaning one teacher in a room, standing in front of some N number of students. Historically, a small N has been preferred for its richer presumed student-teacher interaction, although this is subject to luck regarding the quality of the relevant professor. Today the formula has been flipped. MOOC efforts focus on both growing the N and limiting the role of luck. The core idea is that any number of people, even millions at a time, should be able to take a course with the best professors in the world.
The natural worry is that large-N courses become too mechanized, sacrificing quality for quantity. World class lectures might help students in the first instance, but if a million people take the same class then only a tiny fraction get the chance to interact with the professor. What are the broader social learning consequences if a million students “go to school” together via an equal number of disparate video screens scattered around the world? And how can the institutions without superstar professors survive?
These are legitimate concerns, but they misframe both the problem and the opportunity. When I was on the faculty of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, I coordinated an experimental “global classroom” that leveraged low-cost online technology to connect faculty and students in a unified course spanning a dozen universities across Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. The experience prompted me to identify and discard my own “One to N” presumptions. It also led me to recognize and unbundle at least five distinct learning products that modern university learning systems need to provide, each with its own formula of providers and participants.
As the ancient overarching One to N model is unbundled, professors and institutions can refine their products to compete on the areas where their relative offerings are best.
Product 1 is Motivation. This is the winner-take-all realm of the superstar professors and lends itself to “One to Large-N” experiences. Students feel tremendous inspiration by being able to access live lectures given by world leaders in any particular field. For example, someone studying globalization and inequality wants to hear what Nobel economists like Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz have to say. In a class on genetics, students will likely want to listen to legendary MIT professor Eric Lander, pioneer behind the Human Genome Project. Even if only a few of the massive-N audience are able to ask live questions, being part of an interactive classroom with a world leader can prompt a sense of accessibility and motivation for further study of which previous generations could only dream.
Product 2 is Explanation. The most famous researchers and professors are not necessarily the best explainers of material. People like Salman Khan of Khan Academy and Hans Rosling of Gapminder have developed enormous global followings by pioneering innovative ways of explaining topics through online videos. Equally importantly, there is no single best method of explanation for any topic, since students have so many different learning styles. Hence this is also a One to Large-N product, but the One might differ for each student in each subject. As the global library of online explanations grows, students will have even more opportunities to find the best One for them.
Product 3 is Tutorship. This is where the N gets small again. Even with access to the world’s most inspiring and lucid instructors, students still need the opportunity to ask questions, feel directly engaged and explore certain topics in more detail with a professor who has mastered the material. MOOCs do not kill the local classroom; they only focus its role. The local lecturers’ monopoly on content provision is over, but their role in enhancing learning is more targeted and open to be enhanced.
Product 4 is Interaction. Students need a chance to discuss concepts among themselves. This seems to grow in importance as they mature and acquire greater autonomy and skepticism towards authority figures, including through professional experience. A relevant generational shift might also be underway for youth who have grown up with the world’s information at their digital fingertips. This learning is “N to N” among students themselves. The scale of the group depends on the means of interaction. In-person groups are scaled to local class size. Online interactions can be as vast as any platform allows.
Product 5 is Feedback. Most people appreciate objective comments when framed in the right tone. And learning outcomes need to be assessed, so that students can understand their own progress and how to improve. Traditionally this has come down to grading, where N was constrained by an individual instructor’s available time. Technology is fast improving in this realm, with new machine-reading technologies even marking essays. It is unclear how far automated grading can go, but the odds are that it will soon cover a larger N with higher quality than most of us currently imagine. One potential implication is that local professors will shift time allocations from ex-post evaluation towards ex-ante coaching. Instead of “how did you do yesterday?” the question becomes “how can you do better tomorrow?”
These five products might well be universal. Nonetheless, one must be cautious in predicting trends in a realm subject to such profound innovation. The changes may reshape many universities’ core business models. But the key point is that this suggests the death of neither the university nor of the classroom. Instead it should be seen as a source for targeted renewal. As the ancient overarching One to N model is unbundled, professors and institutions can refine their products to compete on the areas where their relative offerings are best. Some schools might face a hard time keeping pace with the need for change. But in the end, where things go well, the outcome should be dramatically improved opportunities for those who matter most: the students of generations to come.