The Flattening World of Education: The launch of edX

May 4th, 2012

Category: News

Thomas Friedman famously opined that the world is flattening as providers of commerce gain equal footing in an increasingly globalized world. Leaving aside the positive and negative consequences of this reality, it appears that these forces are slowly moving into the education sphere, as evidenced by the recent launch of edX.

The effort, spearheaded by Harvard and MIT, is an attempt to provide students worldwide access to a high quality virtual higher education. This latest initiative is just one of a few that includes Udacity (led by Stanford professors) and Coursera (collaboration between professors from Stanford, Penn, Michigan, and Princeton). Students that complete these courses will receive a certificate of completion (ex: over 100,000 students took courses as part of an initiative among various Stanford professors this past fall).

While we normally don’t cover higher education, I think it’s extremely important to take a step back, highlight why these universities are stepping in to this space, and discuss one (of many) implications for k-12 education.

For starters, not one person would argue that receiving a certificate is the same as attending one of these schools. As a recent New Yorker article highlights, the benefits of going to Stanford extend well beyond the classroom, as university students are given unprecedented access to leading entrepreneurs on a daily basis, creating a murky relationship between the ideals of higher education and the drive for innovation. Second, the prestige of a Stanford degree will undoubtedly outweigh a certificate earned through an online course. Therefore, that begs the question – why do this?

Putting aside the obvious benefits on the supply side that awaits (profit, prestige, etc.), these universities are simply stepping into a market where there is clear demand for something better – students seeking access to the best and brightest in their field. Think about it, if you’re a high school senior and were given the choice of enrolling at a local second tier university or receiving credit for the same class from Stanford, which would you choose? What if you’re a community college student trying to beef up your resume in order to transfer to the state university, do you take that math course at your community college or from Stanford? Put more simply, these schools are extending the benefits of a top notch education beyond those traditionally admitted to their schools – which will have implications that ripple throughout both higher education and our public schools.

So what does this mean for us in k-12? I’ll use my high school calculus class as an example. My senior year (if my memory serves me correctly), we had two calculus teachers that had a total of four classes, each with approximately 20 students. Without today’s technology in 2000, it’s easy to see how this came to be – walking students through the content takes time and expertise. Fast forward to today, and it’s pretty clear that this structure no longer makes sense since one key factor, the valuable classroom time it takes to deliver content, can be eliminated from the equation. Instead, these same teachers would be able to work closer with students, focusing on managing students’ progress through small group instruction – enabling these teachers to form better relationships with students and better understand their mastery of the material.

As we have seen in other industries, technology has revolutionized the way they do business, with the overall benefits to our society outweighing the inherent costs and difficulty associated with this transition. I think it’s only a matter of time before this comes to a classroom near you – no matter what state you live in. I hope educators throughout Delaware and the country step up to the plate and help drive this initiative to the benefit of our students – similar to their higher education peers.

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Brett Turner



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