Planet Earth: The Community of Learners


I’ve been writing and talking about the idea of a Community of Learners for several years now and I just wanted to bring you up-to-date. It’s a reality, it’s huge, as big as the Earth itself and getting bigger …

WhooHoo! as my friend Sue likes to say … here are some quotes from two New York Times articles I just read:

First from Alison Smale, New York Times

 “We don’t know where the next Albert Einstein is,” said Daphne Koller, a computer science professor at Stanford who, with a colleague, Andrew Ng, introduced Coursera last spring. “Maybe she lives in a small village in Africa.”

“The Community of Learners from around the world is proof that the Internet as worldbrain is a reality. There really are no borders for learning anymore.

Sebastian Thrun, another Stanford computer science professor who introduced Udacity after seeing more than 160,000 students sign up for an online class on artificial intelligence in the fall of 2011, predicted that this kind of learning would eventually upend American and perhaps other Western academic institutions.

Enterprising academic institutions have taken the lead in online learning. Harvard and M.I.T., for instance, worked together to introduce EdX, which offers free online courses from each university, last year. About 753,000 students have enrolled, with India, Brazil, Pakistan and Russia among the top 10 countries from which people are participating.

Dr. Koller said the value of a postgraduate education, no matter where it was gained, was shifting fast. “We have passed the stage in history,” she said, “where what you learn in college can last you for a lifetime.” After 15 years, she added, that learning is “obsolete.””

And this is from Thomas L. Friedman also NYT

“Last May I wrote about Coursera — co-founded by the Stanford computer scientists Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng — just after it opened. Two weeks ago, I went back out to Palo Alto to check in on them. When I visited last May, about 300,000 people were taking 38 courses taught by Stanford professors and a few other elite universities. Today, they have 2.4 million students, taking 214 courses from 33 universities, including eight international ones.

Anant Agarwal, the former director of M.I.T.’s artificial intelligence lab, is now president of edX, a nonprofit MOOC that M.I.T. and Harvard are jointly building. Agarwal told me that since May, some 155,000 students from around the world have taken edX’s first course: an M.I.T. intro class on circuits. “That is greater than the total number of M.I.T. alumni in its 150-year history,” he said.

One member of the Coursera team who recently took a Coursera course on sustainability told me that it was so much more interesting than a similar course he had taken as an undergrad. The online course included students from all over the world, from different climates, incomes levels and geographies, and, as a result, “the discussions that happened in that course were so much more valuable and interesting than with people of similar geography and income level” in a typical American college.

Mitch Duneier, a Princeton sociology professor, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education in the fall about his experience teaching a class through Coursera: “A few months ago, just as the campus of Princeton University had grown nearly silent after commencement, 40,000 students from 113 countries arrived here via the Internet to take a free course in introductory sociology. … My opening discussion of C. Wright Mills’s classic 1959 book, ‘The Sociological Imagination,’ was a close reading of the text, in which I reviewed a key chapter line by line. I asked students to follow along in their own copies, as I do in the lecture hall. When I give this lecture on the Princeton campus, I usually receive a few penetrating questions. In this case, however, within a few hours of posting the online version, the course forums came alive with hundreds of comments and questions. Several days later there were thousands. … Within three weeks I had received more feedback on my sociological ideas than I had in a career of teaching, which significantly influenced each of my subsequent lectures and seminars.”

As we look to the future of higher education, said the M.I.T. president, L. Rafael Reif, something that we now call a “degree” will be a concept “connected with bricks and mortar” — and traditional on-campus experiences that will increasingly leverage technology and the Internet to enhance classroom and laboratory work. Alongside that, though, said Reif, many universities will offer online courses to students anywhere in the world, in which they will earn “credentials” — certificates that testify that they have done the work and passed all the exams. The process of developing credible credentials that verify that the student has adequately mastered the subject — and did not cheat — and can be counted on by employers is still being perfected by all the MOOCs. But once it is, this phenomenon will really scale.

I can see a day soon where you’ll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world — some computing from Stanford, some entrepreneurship from Wharton, some ethics from Brandeis, some literature from Edinburgh — paying only the nominal fee for the certificates of completion. It will change teaching, learning and the pathway to employment. “There is a new world unfolding,” said Reif, “and everyone will have to adapt.”

What can I add except “WhooHoo!”

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