The end of higher education as we know it
We take for granted that a good education costs money, a lot of money, and a great education in a top university costs even more. The price tag has been rising dramatically at the top end. An education in MIT in 2000 cost approximately 3.6 times as much as in 1940. Mind you that this number is already adjusted for inflation. Even if you have the money, first you have to gain access to these universities. They are typically in developed countries and have admission requirements specific to the countries’ education systems.
There is, certainly, a remarkable demand in Bangladesh. Parents long to send their children to these countries and institutes. They are the gateway for a high-income job and potentially a foreign residency or citizenship. A dream dreamt by many middle class parents. Drive through Gulshan or any other urban area and you will see numerous advertisements of schools offering A-level, GED or SAT. The middle class, essential to a better future of Bangladesh, is spending its resources to send their children overseas. There is an expression for it, brain drain. Bangladesh is bleeding its future abroad.
What if I tell you this is about to change? Soon you or your children could get an Ivy League education for free, zero dollar. They will not even have to leave their home, let alone Bangladesh. The higher education world is in an upheaval. It is the advent of online education, which entails nothing less than a paradigm shift. Educational elitism is about to give way to merit. The best universities, MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Duke, University of California, John Hopkins University, and many more are scrambling to not be left behind. They are involved in what you might call the incubators of online universities like www.edx.org, www.udacity.com and www.coursera.org to name only the most prominent ones. You can enrol for free on these websites in online courses. They are equivalent to the ones taught at the supporting institutes and are taught by some of the best minds in the world using video lectures and electronic course material.
Unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of demand for free, high quality education. Take Coursera as an example. It has over 1.2 million members from every country conceivable. They achieved this in one year with a small number of courses. Coursera was co-founded by Stanford’s director of its artificial intelligence lab and associate professor, Andrew Ng. His excellent machine learning course reached an enrolment of 104,000 students in the autumn of 2011. This happened just after the inception of the website and without a million dollar marketing campaign. 13,000 students received a certificate after completing the course successfully. Consider, these students signed up, spent a lot of their time to do a challenging computer science course, watching lectures, doing online quizzes and programming challenges, purely for the sake of learning. No one compelled them; nothing was to be gained but knowledge. The certificates are not (yet) recognised by anyone or required for anything. This thirst for knowledge is genuine.
This model mesmerises the professors teaching these courses. The brightest and best educators were limited by locality and time. The traditional higher education model does not scale well and is costly. They could influence and teach merely 100s of students a semester, until now. Purely by using modern information technology and making the access free their reach multiplied and grew by 3 orders of magnitude! And this is only the beginning. The number of people with some kind of Internet access is approaching 2 billion. It is certainly more conceivable to give the disenfranchised and poor access to online universities than to send them to their brick and mortar versions.
We are, however, only at the beginning of what may be an education revolution and obstacles remain. How can we ensure a student completing courses can receive a certificate that is recognised by employers and academia? Most importantly, what is a sustainable business model for a free online university? One answer may be recruitment programs. Companies spend large sums of money to find and hire high potential candidates. An online university with 100 thousands or millions of students has a valuable pool of candidates and exact measures of their abilities. This could be a symbiotic relationship. Imagine a student learning from home in Bangladesh, for free, from the best. If she exhibits academic excellence she may, by pure merit, be offered to join a prominent international company like Google or Facebook, or receive a scholarship for postgraduate research.
Would such a development intensify the brain drain? Not in my opinion; for every new Google engineer and PhD student leaving Bangladesh there would be dozens or hundreds that receive a world-class education and who would stay. They, a growing middle class, empowered to compete with highly paid knowledge workers in developed countries, would be Bangladesh’s future, a bright future.
The article has been translated into Bengali and was printed in ‘The Daily Ittefaq’.