MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIFORNIA – When I taught at Stanford University in the 1970’s, I was always on the lookout for ways that technology could help to improve learning. The big innovation of that time was that my classes were broadcast around the San Francisco Bay Area. We even sent videotapes of lectures farther afield.
Today, teachers record and upload their lectures, and, thanks to the Internet, students anywhere in the world can watch them as many times as they want. Education – one of the last big economic sectors yet to be transformed by the digital age – is on the cusp of a revolution. And why shouldn’t it be digitized? The Web is the fuel of the twenty-first century, and it will propel students of all ages, from all corners of the globe, into a successful future.
For example, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) offer free or low-cost, high-quality higher-education classes to hundreds of thousands of people on the Internet, making it easier to learn whatever – and wherever – they want. I see similar opportunities coming to primary and secondary education in the future.
MOOCs enable an unlimited number of students to take courses on almost any subject, from computer science to music, taught by some of the world’s leading specialists. Some MOOCs have mass appeal, like those from the University of Alicante in Spain and the Humboldt Institute in Germany, both of which offer courses on the practical aspects of starting up a business. The University of Alicante is now on its second version and has already welcomed more than 30,000 + attendees.
Other MOOCs, like an upcoming one on cellular metrics offered by France’s Institut Mines-Télécom, are more tailored to niche audiences. MOOCs can also be creative or unique. Anyone who has ever wanted to figure out just how and why footballers get paid as much as they do can sign up for the Valoración de Futbolistas MOOC offered by the University of Valencia. In this program, one can learn all one ever wanted about how to assess a footballer’s value. Watching a football match might never be the same again!
Wherever youth unemployment remains high, MOOCs offer a new way to boost skills and employability. A key area should be support for teachers, particularly in computer science, especially in middle and high school curricula.
Fortunately, many governments are taking steps to promote the online education revolution. Malaysia’s government has announced a plan to provide lightweight laptops to primary and secondary schools nationwide, and has adopted free Web-based email, calendar, and document processing for ten million students, teachers, and parents. Providing Web-based services to students and educators enables access to information and makes it possible for everyone – regardless of financial resources, location, or influence – to become educated.
But much more needs to be done. Governments must expand national infrastructure so that students in densely packed urban areas and remote rural villages alike can get online. Public-private partnerships are often a good way to do this. For example, 10,000 Malaysian public schools should get 4G access this year through a collaboration with a local telecom provider.
Once students are online, there is no limit to what they can do with the vast amount of information available to them or how they will collaborate with and learn from one another. Imagine students in Malaysia working with students around the world on a weather project. They could conduct virtual experiments, work simultaneously to update data in a spreadsheet or document, and create a shared final presentation.
Where desktop or laptop computers are not widely available, students might use smartphones or tablets to augment their learning. For example, they could turn to sophisticated mobile biology apps that let them interact with a 3D version of a cell, or polling apps that they could use to conduct a psychology experiment.
Study groups can be far more accessible and flexible with the Web. It might be difficult for a child to go to a classmate’s house to study after school, because of bad roads, unsafe neighborhoods, or parents who are working and cannot provide a lift (or do not own a car). With sufficient bandwidth, students can now meet virtually via Google+ Hangouts or other social-media platforms and study together – or with the leading experts on the planet. Thanks to the Internet, distances no longer matter: the world really can be our classroom.