Will the Business of Education Change Forever?

by on February 20th, 2012

As my regular readers know, I often write about trends in higher education.  After all, I am a professional educator and I work for two very successful players in the industry.  One of the more interesting trends out there is the shift to virtual classrooms over the traditional brick-and-mortar model. At Kaplan, we recognize the immense opportunity laid bare by teaching in the cloud. We can reach more students in more places and can cater our product offerings to match the needs of anyone interested in beating a grad school entrance exam.

Our Classroom Anywhere classes take live face-to-face instruction to a whole new level (e.g., depending on class size, students can expect to have 2-4 dedicated, highly qualified, full-time instructors at their beck and call from Class 1 until Test Day). For folks with more demanding or less stable schedules, Kaplan offers On Demand lessons. Students can view these pre-recorded lessons anywhere, anytime at their own pace as many times as they need. Kaplan will never stop teaching in the traditional classroom, but we can see the value in leading the way online—being proactive instead of reactive.

When I came across the developing story of what a now ex-Stanford professor and a current Google executive are doing in the space, I knew we really were deep into the state of flux. Their moves have the potential to radically shift the topography, accessibility, design, and profit model of education as we know it.

During the fall semester of 2011, Prof. Sebastian Thrun, aided by Mr. Peter Norvig, director of research at Google, offered free and open access to a course, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, to anyone with an internet connection and interest in the topic.  The free online version ran in tandem with the tuition-supported version taking place on Stanford’s campus, and the videos (often shots of Prof. Thrun hand-writing calculations with a pen and paper while narrating his actions) were translated into over forty different languages. Although students tapping into the course for nothing would get no credit toward a diploma from Stanford, they would receive a grade based on their relative performance to all participants (including the Stanford students) and a certificate of completion from the professors.

Two hundred Stanford students enrolled—a massive number by institutional standards and a clear indication of interest and impending success.  However, that number pales in comparison to the virtual cohort of one hundred sixty thousand.  The experiment was successful beyond anyone’s imagination and led Prof. Thrun to use the blue pill/red pill metaphor upon reflection:

“I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill,” he said. “And you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.”1

On January 23, 2012 during a talk at a conference in Munich, Germany, Prof. Thrun announced he was leaving his tenured position at the prestigious Palo Alto, CA university to launch and grow Udacity, his online learning start-up.  One of the company’s first offerings is a class called ‘Building a Search Engine.’  They are targeting 500,000 student enrollments.

By the way, this weekend I will be working on a free online practice GRE.  Our pre-registration just hit 1,000.  I think Kaplan took the red pill, too.

1 comment

  • I think that there will always be demand for brick-and-mortar schools, and I think that the most savvy industries and individuals will always prefer to see brick-and-mortar type qualifications. Education is about more than just "reading this assignment, memorizing this fact": it is about accumulating a level of culture and society to prepare one to apply such factual knowledge within the context of the real world. The basic absence of normal socializing opportunities online is an inherent handicap.

    Not that online classes won't have an impact on the market. I think that lesser-known and mediocre-quality schools will certainly be harder hit. The ones that will survive will be the big gun institutions, and it is possible that eventually the mere fact of having matriculated at a brick-and-mortar institution will be an advantage (similarly to the way a degree from a Top Tier school is usually an advantage over almost any other school).

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