I have been an educator for over 40 years. I went into this field because teaching and learning are what I was born to do. But several years ago I realized that that innate sense, that elemental calling to teach and learn, had grown dull. I had gotten fat over the years, in a literal and figurative sense. It was at that time that I began my four-year crash course in looking at the world through a new lens—which was what eventually led me to write The First Turning. Not only did I shed 40 pounds but also began to shed the pre-conceived “fat” assumptions about what learning should be.
As a tenured university professor I had come to accept “fat” as normal. The huge costs of a college education for this nation’s citizens did not faze me because that is the way I thought things should be—or rather, because I didn’t give it thought. It had been that way for decades, and, yes, it was a shame that some students could not afford to be educated, but it was not my problem.
But I was wrong, very wrong. And two incidents woke me up:
The first incident happened when I attended Ashoka Foundation’s “Disruption in Higher Education” conference at Arizona State University in February 2012. At a breakout session, I sat with a Stanford University administrator who told me about a professor who had opened up his traditional classroom-based Artificial Intelligence class to the world using a cutting-edge technology platform. The result was an astounding enrollment of 160,000 learners. The technological platform he used would later be called a MOOC, or massive open online classes.
My Stanford acquaintance told me that the professor, Sebastian Thrun, had resigned his tenured professor position and started a company called Udacity, dedicated to teaching not hundreds, but millions. The Stanford administrator went on to say that two more professors were about to launch a similar company. That company turned out to be Coursera, which now corners almost 50 percent of the MOOC market.
The second incident was more simple, and yet equally and perhaps more compelling. As I was watching network TV news, I saw a young boy in a Middle Eastern city pick his way through the rubble of war and violence in order to get to school. His determined little face is something that I will never forget. All he wanted was to learn. . . simple, and yet, for him, nearly impossible.
Here’s the bottom line: Education is a basic human right, not a privilege. And whether that privilege needs to be extended to a determined little boy in a war zone, or an 18-year-old American who cannot afford the astronomical cost of getting a university degree, learning must be made possible. And it must happen soon.
Higher education must change. Traditional instruction is no longer a feasible singular solution, and online education isn’t just a “nice” alternative to face-to-face instruction. It is different than what we are used to, but it is neither wrong nor “less than” traditional teaching methods—and quite simply, colleges and universities can’t afford to claim it as such.
MOOCs and online education in general are not going away. Instead of funding the construction of bigger buildings or inflating athletic programs, colleges and universities and the alumni and donors who support them should be pouring monies into information technology departments so that online and MOOC learning can occur. And, yes, that may mean that residential student life, cherished by so many, becomes a lesser component of the American college experience.
But if we think for a moment about our nostalgia for that experience, can we not reconcile the loss of it with a greater good? And perhaps find a way to instead cherish the ability to give education to others?
Online education and MOOCs are a financial and a humanitarian necessity.
The First Turning.