At its best, the American education system has been the engine behind unparalleled economic prosperity, a military without equal, limitless invention, and the unquenchable ambition that put a man on the Moon. At its worst, it has reinforced the barriers that divide and weaken us, further distancing the haves from the have-nots and opportunity from those who need it most. But the future of schooling in America could look very different. Recent and rapid development in online technology and pedagogy is providing ways to break down these barriers and perhaps reassert America’s credentials as a world leader in education and innovation.
We arrive in 2013 at an inflection point for American higher education and a time for big ideas. The adaptive and accessible nature of the Iinternet has changed how we communicate and interact and is now yielding new tools and methods capable of revolutionizing the ways in which we teach and learn. Much of the media coverage of this nascent enterprise has been focused on Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, offered by private companies like Coursera — which offers courses taught by some of the world’s boldest and most well respected faculty from schools such as Duke, Princeton, Berklee, and the University of Edinburgh — and Udacity — which offers courses focused on computer science taught by leading programmers and engineers, including Google luminaries Sebastian Thrun (who is also Udacity’s founder) and Peter Norvig. Enrollment in any given Coursera or Udacity course routinely runs into the tens of thousands.
But the potential for online education at traditional brick-and-mortar institutions of higher learning is equally exciting. A few historically enterprising and ambitious colleges and universities — notably MIT, Harvard and Stanford — are leading the charge, but all schools — from your local community college to the Ivy League — are currently engaged in a conversation about what online education will mean for them. By their very nature, adaptive, machine-guided Learning Management Systems and their evolutions are impossible to predict, but there are certain obstacles and opportunities that all institutions are facing and will continue to face.