Is the future of academic education online?

The Zeit (one of the flagships of the German press) foresees a “tsunami” revolutionizing the way academic education takes place within the next 5 years. They refer to the success of websites such as Udacity, Coursera, or edX that have been launched by a number of prestigious unis (btw, Harvard and MIT – edX, are you serious? sounds like FedEx).

It’ll be interesting to see whether this is really taking off – personally, I really appreciate all the YouTube lectures that are now put online (for example this or this), but the concept of these websites is obviously going much further. Online courses might offer completely new opportunities both for teachers and students. For example, despite the obvious fact that you can teach an unlimited amount of students, at any place they want or have to be, at any time they want, instructors would also get immediate feedback about whether a particular instruction works for the students – you might even do random trials to see which explanations deliver better results, or, more fancy, try to detect the learning preferences of a student and automatically select those among a range of explanations that are most likely to be preferred by him.

I know, brave new world, and hard times for the nostalgic side in us, which suffers already from the squeaking sound of a pen on white board and delights at the scratching of good old chalk – the future ain’t what it used to be. My personal guess though is that this won’t come nearly as fast and universal as predicted, but will rather become a complement to the traditional personal exchange. After all, no one laments about text books nowadays (which essentially provide the same thing, that is, transferring personal teaching to a structured course that can be studies but the student individually), but I wonder what the attitude was at unis when text books became available to everyone. Incidentally, textbooks are much less used in the German than in the English universities (usually, you write down what the professor writes on the blackboard), so judging from that, our teaching jobs here should be save for a bit longer still ;).

3 thoughts on “Is the future of academic education online?

  1. Hi Carl,

    I kinda like the idea of universities getting less crowded and more focused on learning; I think this is one way it could happen. However, it may further the devaluation of higher education that is already in progress.

    I too love Youtube for all the things it makes available: when I was a teenager, I would have loved to track down lectures and live concert footage all in one website 😉



    • Yes, it’s definitely a great opportunity – might shift the social structure of science quite a bit though, in a similar way it happened to music when records popped up, from a world where teaching is a local performance, to a world where 90% of the teaching is done by a few “Madonnas” or “Rolling Stones”.


  2. Pingback: Great online lecture series | theoretical ecology

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