Is College (Finally) Ready For Its Innovation Revolution?

"The price of college is going to fall, and the Internet is going to cause that fall. The rest of it is really difficult to figure out."

If a college student today stepped into a time machine and traveled back to Plato's Academy of ancient Athens, she would recognize quite a bit. Sure, it might take some time to master ancient Greek and the use of stylus on wax, but she would eventually settle into a familiar academic routine. Senior scholars across a range of subjects like astronomy and political theory would lecture, pose questions, and press answers to a small group of attendants. Junior attendants would listen, answer, and defend responses.

That a class in 2011 resembles a lecture from 2,300 years ago suggests that two millennia of technological upheaval have only brushed the world of academics. Some professors use PowerPoint, and many schools manage their classes with online software. But even these changes don't fully embrace the potential of Web, mobile, and interactive technology.

New classroom technology would let schools hire fewer, better teachers ... and pay them more money.

"The present resistance to innovation [in education] is breathtaking," Joel Klein writes in The Atlantic this month. The former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education was writing about public high schools, but he might as well have been talking about universities. Despite college costs rising faster in college than any institution in the country including health care, we have the technology to disrupt education, turn brick and mortar lecture halls into global classrooms, and dramatically bring down the cost of a high quality education.

Entrepreneurs like to say there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. Is education innovation that next big idea?


Universities have been called walled gardens. But ten years ago, some elite colleges opened a crack the ivy walls to let the Web in. MIT launched OpenCourseWare [OCW], a free online database of undergraduate and graduate courses taught at MIT, including lectures, tests, and discussion sections. Around the same time, Yale, Stanford and Oxford teamed up to form AllLearn, an alliance that offered eight- to ten-week e-courses to thousands of students from around the globe.

In the last decade, OCW has grown into a global consortium of hundreds of universities with thousands of online curricula that you can browse and download for free. Meanwhile at Yale, after the AllLearn alliance disbanded in 2006, President Richard Levin teamed up with art history and classics professor Diana E. E. Kleiner to find a new way to put Yale courses online.

"We wanted to make a contribution to the world," Kleiner tells me. "So we recorded a selection of the most popular Yale courses, and put them online for free. That become Yale Open Courses." Where OCW specialized in syllabi and lecture notes, Yale focused on high quality video that made users feel like they were sitting orchestra center at a lecture theater. Three million unique visitors have visited the Yale website, with millions more checking in through YouTube and iTunes U, Apple's online warehouse of lectures, slideshows, and audiobooks from more than 800 universities around the world.

Yale lectures have even become supplemental material for AP classes across the country, Kleiner told me, suggesting "a real hunger for these lectures beyond our expectations." Her stories of students emailing thanks to Yale for 5's on AP exams suggests a future where the nation's best professors create instructional videos for classrooms across the country.

It's a vision shared by Joel Klein. "One of the best things we could do is hire fewer teachers and pay more to the ones we hire," he writes. And technology would get us from here to there:

If you get the best math professors in the world--who are great teachers and who deeply understand math--and match them with great software developers, they can create sophisticated interactive programs that engage kids and empower teachers. Why not start with such a program and then let teachers supplement it differently, depending on the progress of each student?"

Kleiner reads from the same script, if more cautiously. "If the best economics teacher in the world creates a course that is better than any other, would there be merit in having that course be the only course?" she asks. "Maybe, but you would still need teachers. There's no substitution for personal education."

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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