This past weekend I had the pleasure of listening to Daphne Koller, the co-founder of Coursera, and Ben Nelson, the CEO of the Minerva Project, speak on a panel. It was the best panel I have ever heard. Evidently it is a common occurrence for these two to be on a panel talking about the future of higher education – they are after all two of the leaders in the now infamous Ed Tech “disruption” movement. Many elite writings mention their panels as a source of confirmed, factual information.
More than their knowledge – it was their pure idealism that struck me most. They both believe deeply in education as a human right. It didn’t hit me until after the panel that it is this true idealism that is missing in higher ed. Over the past five years, all anyone writes about is the higher ed crisis – the ridiculous tuition, the student debt, the death of tenure, and colleges closing. Are universities adapting? Are they fighting to stay alive? Or are they defeated watching their slow demise?
Daphne believes that by the end of 2015 Coursera will have more than 3,000 courses online – making it the size of a medium sized university. Mind you, a completely free medium sized university. This begs the question: when will Coursera be giving out its first diploma? Yes, two weeks ago Coursera started testing the idea of selling credentials for four-course sequences for $50. But when will it offer a full diploma — the diploma that signals you have learned from the world’s top professors and the world’s top institutions? Remember this is the University of 100 + universities. Your diploma will say Coursera, but your alma matter will be Wharton, Princeton, Michigan, and over 100 others.
What happened to believing in the power of the university? Not just the power of MOOCs? No one talks about this anymore. When I applied to college I was told that it was going to change my life. It did. How do you measure the ROI of an enriched life?
In ten years will anyone have the experience I had? I hope so, but maybe not. At the end of the panel both Daphne and Ben were invited everyone there to share their vision for ten years from now. I was glued to my chair – for a moment everyone in the audience knew they were about to peek into the future.
Daphne: “What happens when all of your students stop taking your accounting course because they decided to take the top ranked accounting course on Coursera instead? Do you need an accounting professor anymore? Do the students need you anymore?”
Ben: “There will be a few universities who figure this all out, take the risk, and stake their claim. The rest will watch it happen and disappear.”
I think I believe them.