For hundreds of years, brick-and-mortar universities were at the unchallenged pinnacle of education. In the last decades, remote and online education appeared with Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) being the latest incarnation. At first it was little more than traditional education channelled through alternative media, with limited success and appeal. This is changing fast and dramatically.
In Big Data Transforms Online Education I outlined the current paradigm shift in online education, with top universities creating competitive curricula, content, and platforms tailored for online education to challenge and potentially surpass the traditional education model. Big data will be a catalyst in transforming the old-fashioned, rigid education system into a personal, flexible, and adaptive one, and at the same time open new business models to education providers.
The past: Universities
The impact the changes in the education landscape entail will lead to a consolidation in the education market with (private) institutes with expensive “shop fronts” being squeezed when the education customer can buy online. We have seen this development in retail’s concentration of business in a low margin, massive turnover model, i.e. Amazon. Education, however, is commonly a government-subsidised business, which may soften the blow, but the number of physically attending students and the facilities necessary to educate them will shrink ultimately.
The future: 2 billion potential students
The most significant impact online education will have is not with universities, or better and cheaper education for students in developed countries. The number of people worldwide with some kind of Internet connection is estimated at around 2 billion! Combine this with the emerging online education infrastructure and this has potential best compared to the so-called “green revolution” of the 20th century. That revolution multiplied the agricultural output of the world as a result of a combination of technological advances. Imagine an educational revolution of a similar magnitude — giving access to quality education for low or no cost to a very significant part of the world population.
The consequences are hard to grasp. It would be like a scaled-up, worldwide version of the Indian technology and engineering push in the last decade. India churned out quality IT and software engineers in large numbers, competing in a growing high-value market. It first created the outsource wave in developed countries and then a competitive Indian technology market.
Worldwide thirst for education
India is not different from other developing countries. I have walked the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and spoken to many Bangladeshis. The middle class there, like anywhere in the world, is dedicating all its energy to giving its children a better life and helping them climb the social ladder. In third-world countries this is typically equivalent to receiving a Western education and, if possible, working abroad. Subsequently, a small trickle of the population with enough resources spends them to create a brain drain to developed countries, weakening the home country. The online education revolution would change this. A large part of the youth could take part in high-quality education from within their home countries. They and their countries would benefit greatly from an educated workforce able to change the makeup of their countries’ industries, previously shaped around cheap, uneducated labour. There is no shortage of smart and dedicated individuals in these countries, merely of educational opportunities.
In my opinion the revolution is happening right now. Online education is taking off, cloud computing is maturing, and big data puts in place algorithms and specialists to scale the development in an efficient and effective manner. Big data, in particular, will be an amazing feast. Imagine, if you like, a billion or so students from job training to PhDs in online education across the globe, using numerous languages, from diverse cultures and economic backgrounds, crowd-sourced course translations, open course materials, and countless data points of student interactions. The challenges and opportunities for big data are fascinating.