Most important, the system promotes driven and talented students who might otherwise be denied access to higher education: a kid in Afghanistan, a young mother in Scotland, an ignored pupil in Detroit. From Mr. Thrun’s class (translated into 44 languages) Udacity chose 200 students based purely on performance and, a few weeks ago, forwarded their resumes to companies including Amazon, Bank of America and BMW.
There are glitches, of course, including a high online dropout rate, complaints about speed, questions on accreditation and the predictable whining from old-school alumni who have gotten too cozy in their club chairs.
Technological change in a capitalist economy often has a lot of hidden and important costs hidden by the marketing campaigns– formal and otherwise–that go with them. There’s always a downside. We’ve been on a long arc of speed-up and casualization of labor in academia ever since the personal computer replaced the secretary pool. Capital– if you will excuse my personification–always seeks to cut costs and the highest costs are always labor costs.
This new “revolution” in education– the latest in a series, many of which never happened, at least in any authentically revolutionary sense– has a lot of benefits. It also has some real risks. It’s a boon for any autodidact and or interested armatures. It may help a certain group of students, starting with those who are already materially privileged, get ahead. A smaller group might be able to use the ‘educational web’ in a savvy way to cut costs.
We need a culture focused on education as a life-long endeavor to fully take advantage of these new courses, but only a culture fully focused on learning as a life-long endeavor will be much interested in these courses. Only time will tell. Our real concern, I think, should be with the continued ill-health of the teaching profession at all levels. The Oxford model included “tutors” who were well paid and respected professionals. We need that too.