Internet – both as a stack of technologies and as the vector of a sharing culture – brings us credible alternatives to classroom-based education in schools and universities. Most of them involve video lectures, with clear advantages: the pause button, the rearranging of content in 6-20 minutes packets, and the ability to attend from anywhere, at any time. Furthermore, the locus of learning is not so much the lecture, as the peer-to-peer interaction among students, through forums wikis, Twitter lists, Facebook groups et cetera. All of this is hardly news: I have discussed it before, and even test-driven the model.
The real news (at least for me) is that the disruption of learning happened in one year instead of ten. In August I signed up for a course in Social Network Analysis offered by Coursera, a social enterprise founded by two Stanford computer science professors that partners up with universities to offer free courses in just about any subject. This course is taught by a young University of Michigan professor called Lada Adamic: certainly a brilliant researcher, but not an academic star like, say, Duncan Watts or Fernando Vega-Redondo. The course started Monday this week: I already went through the lectures for the first week, and submitted my assignment (pretty cool: extract my Facebook network and compute some basic metrics. You can see it above). Everything seems to work smoothly: students are obviously eager to learn and collaborate. Many are already skilled network analysts, and signed up more to meet each other than to follow Lada’s lectures. The forums are abuzz with ideas and projects; one of them is devoted to study groups, and in just two days it saw the launch of such groups for students the world over, from Sweden to Vietnam (there were 38 at last count)
Just how many are the students: I asked Lada: there were 55,000 signups. To put this into perspective, the largest single-site university in the UK, Manchester, has 39,000 students. As always on the Internet, many people sign up but do not really take the course: the first video lecture, with five days to go, has been seen 11,000 times. Even if only one tenth of the signups were to convert into active students, you would still have an extraordinary result: a planet-wide classroom, with thousands of students from everywhere in the world (and of all ages, it seems) infecting each other with their enthusiasm – unenthusiastic people, simply, don’t show up, so they don’t spoil your learning experience. The course also gives you assignments: you submit them by uploading them on the course’s website in the form of .txt files, so that they can be graded not by Lada or her assistants (how would they do that, with thousands of students?) but by machines. At the end, Coursera issues a certificate and even a grade.
Not everything is perfect. I have reservations on the 90s-style course forum structure; there is a lot of noise in the signal, with students using everything from the internal forums to Facebook, Twitter and even Skype to connect to each other, so that many potentially valuable interactions never happen. But these problems are not too hard to correct, and are more than compensated for by the energy and generosity of thousands of students, who, like me, are passionate about the subject and thirst to master it. Believe me: that’s a hell of a motivator.
In a sense, it is a return to a non-industrial approach to education, to the universitas studiorum of the Middle Ages: a global community of scholars, wandering the world to meet and learn from each other. The difference – aside from the numbers involved – is the extraordinary permeability between the condition of being a student and that of being a practitioner, that fits very well a world in which the push to start new, knowledge intensive companies is stronger than ever. Rather than sink three to five years in full time education you can learn things as you go, moving back and forth from courses like this to field work and viceversa. For free. Whenever you want, and above all in a way that is conducive to meeting people you can work and develop new projects with.
It is the day of reckoning. At this point I am wondering what will happen to tradidional education. It’s last bastion is the diploma: the sheepskin certifying we can do certain things. But that, too, will soon be stormed by organizations like Coursera or MIT’s edX. Here’s a reasonable prediction: next academic year, students will be able to choose between an MIT- or Harvard-issued online degrees or a classroom-based degree issued by some obscure local university. What will they do? What would you? What advice will you give your children?