It’s a far cry from simply watching a recorded talk – although its beneficiaries may, one day, be grateful in turn for what online courses offer. What such schemes suggest to me, though, is something more fundamental: that real disruption can only happen if we’re able to unbundle education outside of old categories like lectures, tests and essays; and that “education” itself demands rethinking in an age where helping people to help themselves is not so much an aspiration as a fact of the tools we use every day.
As Nicholas Negroponte, the founder and chairman of the One Laptop Per Child foundation, asked in a September article for the MIT Technology Review: “If kids in Ethiopia learn to read without school, what does that say about kids in New York City who do not learn even with school?”
Negroponte’s is both a daunting and extraordinarily hopeful question. The world will always have a place for elite educational institutions – with MOOCs embodying both genuine democratisation on their part and an excellent form of advertising. Elsewhere, though, it’s harder to sustain the notion that the future will simply be a virtualised version of the past.
For many academic institutions, “unbundling” remains a dirty word; a recipe for lower standards, fragmentation and the abandonment of cherished aspirations. All of which may be true, at least in the short term. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter. Education is following information into the ether, and can no more be stuffed back into its box than a television signal.
Change isn’t just about technology, of course. Those things that a screen cannot offer – community, tuition, interpersonal dialogue, shared space and time – are only going to feel more precious amid the increasingly rich educational pickings online. Above all, though, it’s having access to a screen in the first place that counts. Achieve that, and you can build from scratch – or rebuild – whatever local structures will best support a community of education and aspiration. Some may resemble, or develop from, current institutions. Many won’t, and shouldn’t, not least because much of what constitutes an institution in the first place is expressly designed to resist reform.
For those who don’t realise this – and soon – the future of education is likely to prove an uncomfortable place.