Editor’s note: this article was originally published in Forbes on September 19th.
Much of the discussion and debate around bringing higher education online has touched upon the implications of putting course material online versus in-person teaching. There are many questions floating around, such as how will students benefit from online classes if course credit isn’t given? What does the future hold for traditional brick and mortar institutions? While these points are important and not to be dismissed, there is a key issues that education pundits are often overlooking: the issue of access.
For millions of people around the world, the choice is not between attending traditional university and online courses, between hearing a lecture in-person and watching one online. As Princeton professor Mitch Duneier said in a recent op-ed on Chronicle of Higher Education, for many students, the choice is between online education and no education at all.
Here are some compelling statistics from the World Bank:
Needless to say, few countries can offer universal university-level education for free. But as Internet access improves globally, online education is becoming a very real solution for students who might not have the prior experience needed to enroll in local colleges, who can’t afford tuition, whose lifestyle does not permit them the leisure to attend classes in person, or or who can’t commute to schools far away from home. According to an International Telecommunications Union report, one third of the world’s population is online. Over the last five years, developing countries have increased their share of the world’s total number of Internet users from 44% in 2006 to 62% in 2011.
As online education has rapidly developed in recent months, some have argued that merely opening up access to higher education classes doesn’t translate into tangible benefits for students — especially if students aren’t receiving official university credit for courses taken. But giving someone the opportunity to take courses taught by top-tier universities and professors strikes at the core of what learning is all about — fostering personal growth, creating career opportunities, spreading knowledge of important topics, and developing bonds with other students.
And indeed those career and educational advancement opportunities are beginning to open up. Askhat Murzabayev, an engineer from Almaty, Kazakhstan, has a bachelor’s degree in computer science from a local university. But the program there was limited, and so he jumped at the opportunity to take classes on machine learning and probabilistic graphical models (incidentally, classes we teach personally on Coursera).
“At my university, there were no artificial intelligence classes available, and so this was a really amazing opportunity for me,” Murzabayev said as we chatted via Skype. “I’m putting the courses I’ve completed on my C.V., which I think will help me as I apply to graduate school in the United States. Coursera has definitely made my computer science background more well-rounded.”
Murzabayev is applying to MIT, University of California, Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia, among others. When asked how he felt about taking courses online versus at his local university, he said, “One of the biggest differences to me was that I could take classes taught by Stanford professors as well as connect to a community and talk to people who were interested in the same topic as me — people from India, Brazil, from all over the world. I would have never been able to talk to those people otherwise. The fact that this knowledge is available to everyone with an Internet connection, for free, is very exciting.”
In the United States, access takes somewhat of a different shape. While technically many Americans continue to have access to higher education, that access is dependent on student loans. The burgeoning debt caused by these loans is becoming unsustainable both for the individual and for society at large. As reported in the New York Times last week, about 5.9 million people nationwide have fallen at least 12 months behind in making their loan payments. Yet, the cost of higher education continues to rise. Since 1985, the cost of higher education has gone up 559%, almost double the rate of the rising cost of health care. We have to start looking into ways to reduce the cost of higher education. Technology and online learning specifically, if thoughtfully employed, could reduce these costs, and allow our college students to graduate without being shackled to a gross amount of debt.
Not everything that happens in an in-person classroom is currently replicated with an online course, and perhaps the experience will never the quite the same. But there are new opportunities that online learning opens up that never would have been possible without this technology. We have the incredible opportunity to provide access to education to millions worldwide, to allow students to graduate without enormous debt, while at the same time allowing us to rethink and enrich the learning experience with the participation of students from almost every country in the world. We have the incredible opportunity to make education what it should be: a fundamental human right.-Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, Co-founders