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Education innovation blooms after recession

Student Raul Ramos goes through his online homework during a session of a massive online class in Madrid on May 24. (Associated Press)
Student Raul Ramos goes through his online homework during a session of a massive online class in Madrid on May 24. (Associated Press)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Hundreds of investment bankers, venture capitalists and geeky tech entrepreneurs gathered near the pool of the Phoenician, a luxury resort outside Phoenix. The occasion? A high-profile gathering of education innovators, and as guests sipped cocktails, the mood was upbeat.

Major innovations – forged by the struggles of the Great Recession and fostered by technology – are coming to higher education.

Investment dollars are flooding in – a record-smashing 168 venture capital deals in the U.S. alone last year, according to the springtime conference’s host, GSV Advisors. The computing power of “the cloud” and “big data” are unleashing new software. Public officials, desperate to cut costs and measure results, are open to change.

And everyone, it seems, is talking about MOOCs, the “Massive Open Online Courses” offered by elite universities and enrolling millions worldwide.

As with so many innovations – from the light bulb to the Internet – the technology is emerging mostly in the United States, fueled by American capital. But as with those past innovations, the impact will be global. In this case, it may prove even more consequential in developing countries, where mass higher education is new and the changes could be built into emerging systems.

One source of this spring-like moment is the wintry depths of the financial crisis that struck five years ago, pushing higher education as never before to become more efficient. Another is simply the arrival of a generation demanding that higher education, at long last, embrace the technologies that have already transformed other sectors of the economy.

“The consumer, after five years on a tablet and five years on an iPhone, is just sick of being told, ‘You can’t do that,’ ” said Brandon Dobell, a partner at William Blair & Co., an investment bank and research firm based in Chicago. “I can do everything else on my phone, my tablet, why can’t I learn as well?”

But while technology is at the center of this wave of innovation, many argue it is merely the pathway to something even bigger.

Cracks are opening in the traditional, age-old structures of higher education. Terms like “credit hour” and even the definition of what it means to be a college are in flux.

Higher education is becoming “unbundled.” Individual classes and degrees are losing their connections to single institutions, in much the same way iTunes has unbundled songs from whole albums, and the Internet is unbundling television shows and networks from bulky cable packages.

Technology isn’t just changing traditional higher education. It’s helping break it down across two broad dimensions: distance and time.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean, as some contend, the traditional university is dead.

At his desk at a telecom company in Lagos, Nigeria, Ugochukwu Nehemiah used to take his full one-hour lunch break. Now, he devours his meal, then watches his downloaded MOOCs. He’s already finished courses in business, energy and sustainability, and disruptive innovation, taught by institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Maryland.

Nehemiah needs a master’s to advance at work, but cannot afford the United Kingdom program where he’s been admitted. The MOOC learning doesn’t translate into a widely recognized credential. But the teaching is free, not available locally, and helps him even without a credential.

“It’s a form of self-development,” said Nehemiah, a father of two. “The way I would speak when I have meetings to attend,” he added, “would be much different than the way I had spoken if I had not taken this course.”

When nonprofit edX offered its first MOOC in “Circuits and Electronics” in 2012, 154,000 students from more than 160 countries signed up (though only 8,000 lasted to the final). Now edX has more than a million unique users in about 60 courses. For-profit rival Coursera has exploded with 4.1 million students, 406 courses and 83 partner institutions.

From radio to television to the Internet, technology has always promised to revolutionize higher education. So far, it’s enabled good teachers to lecture to thousands or even millions of students. But truly teach them, with individualized interaction and feedback?

It’s not clear the MOOCs can do that, either, and only 10 percent who sign up for a course are completing it. But with their more advanced interactivity, they are arguably the most sophisticated effort yet to solve the central problem of college access and affordability: the difficulty of “scaling up” learning.

“This is virgin territory in terms of having tens or hundreds of thousands of people engaged in the same educational experience simultaneously in a way you can capture what you’re doing,” said Kevin Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation. “We’ve never had that. The assumption is we’ll learn lots of things and that will lead to better classes in the future.”