cartoonby Imran H. Khan

How we educate ourselves from childhood onwards is something that has evolved over the centuries, and the processes are deeply ingrained in our psyches. There are some very good evolutionary reasons for the existing educational system that seem to work just fine amongst the well to do in the developed countries.  At the same time we have seen that application of technology has revolutionized a number of other human activities and the old systems of doing business have either crumbled or have had to rapidly evolve with the changing environment. They range from journalism, advertising,  health delivery, travel, communications and so on. So it should be not surprising that technology also rock the education boat. When we typically think of the application of technology to education, the image that commonly comes to mind is that of students using computers and accessing internet. That may have been a start, but now there are a host of other capabilities that allow for our creativity to wander freely to explore. My goal here is to make you think about the new possibilities to restructuring how we educate the all humans that inhabit this planet. I would like you to be audacious with me for a while.

Free Online Courses

Getting a world class course in any subject is currently a very expensive proposition as the Universities guard the intellectual property of the courses offered through them. But a growing number of world class teachers are slowly but surely starting to offer the courses that they teach in the universities on the web. More importantly these courses are offered to everyone free of cost.  The persistent inherent in on line content is further leveraged by those courses whose content does not depreciate in value with time as the nature of the content is timeless.  The courses in this category would be in mathematics, sciences, engineering, history, economics etc..

MIT offers 1900 courses in areas of Architecture, Engineering, Sciences, Humanities and Management at MITOPENCOURSEWARE.

Stanford University being from the Apple Land offers its courses through the slick iTunes interface at Stanford to go. So you can download it to Apple devices like iPod, iPad or iPhone and learn while you are on the go.

Berkeley University goes a step further and webcasts or podCasts some of its current courses at webcast.berkeley.

Diploma Guide portal is good place to surf around for the best courses from top universities.

But if you were a high school student and needed assistance with more basic stuff, there is plenty of assistance online for you as well.

Khan Academy offers over 1200 courses on videos in some standard fare as Biology, Algebra, History and Banking. But also gets into some esoteric areas of Venture Capital, Valuation, Credit Crisis and Geithner Plan. I particularly liked the style of delivery and the tools used. Salman Khan has also installed tools to monitor the progress of a student using the reporting inherent in on line delivery of content. This feedback can be effectively used by teachers for timely assistance on a need basis.

My favorite site for topics of more general nature are the videos available from a wide assortment of topics at TED. Companies also offer a wide variety of free courses on their products.

Free Access to Books

For those who have taken a college education we all know the high cost of buying course books. Having access to quality books is a key part of the quality of any course.  Here too there are many places already on the net offering an ever burgeoning list of books.

Project Gutenberg offers over 30,ooo eBooks that can be downloaded from their site.

Google is in the process of digitizing all the books in the world. Their current offering can be seen at Google Books.

The Open Content Alliance (OCA) is a consortium of organizations contributing to a permanent, publicly accessible archive of digitized texts. Its creation was announced in October 2005 by Yahoo!, the Internet Archive, the University of California, the University of Toronto and others. Scanning for the Open Content Alliance is administered by the Internet Archive, which also provides permanent storage and access through its website.

Cheap Availability of Smart Wireless Devices

170px-Education_in_Iraq_-_one_laptop_per_childAs the wireless devices get smarter and cheaper, the numbers of people that they would appeal to would mushroom and economy of scales will kick in. The wireless wide band infrastructure enables its deployment to a much wider market then the wired systems because of the inherent efficiencies. One Laptop Per Child (OLPC)is one such initiative that is aimed at getting low cost computers into the hands of teeming millions of children around the globe in developing countries. Over a million of their first generation computers  have already been sold to a number of countries. While the target goal is that of $100, they are currently priced at double that price.

Intel’s response to OLPC was Classmate PC which is more powerful and somewhat more costly.  Its latest model boast a tablet format as well.

Kindle and iPad offer new capabilitees for the eBook market. Low Cost Smartphones also have the potential for an interactive delivery of educational content. HTC, Nokia, LG and Samsung are driving the price of smart phones down to under $100. When that price barrier gets broken it will make it an attractive alternative to perform computing with interactivity to laptops.

Low Cost Tutoring

There are a number of on-line tutoring services offering their services for school and college going students. announced that they have reached a major milestone that no other company can claim—5 million on-demand and one-to-one live online tutoring sessions.’s network of tutors have conducted 5 million sessions in core subject areas including math, science, English and social studies since the company first offered students the opportunity to connect to a real, live tutor online in 2000 in one of the first online classrooms.

TutorVista provides world-class tutoring and high-quality content to students around the world -- anytime, anywhere and in any subject. It has been successful in connecting together 2000 tutors in 98 cities to  20, 000 students across 48 countries. You can get a comparison of the five top tutoring companies here.

Pull Based Self Paced Education

The fundamental change that technology is offering is on line persistence of knowledge and educational processes. This is the first time that such an option is becoming readily available to all those who can access the internet around the world. The investments in the communication infrastructure, diving costs of disk space, cloud computing and low cost computing are all playing an enabling role. This provides an opportunity of colossal proportions to educators to create the best of breed courses in a structured and multilingual way for the benefit of all. One such pioneer is Salman Khan who articulates his vision in the video below.

I think he makes a very compelling insight of the real value of schools and colleges in the coming era. While currently students go there to get the content of the course material, their real value in a connected age is going to be a place where students go to get their home work done.

Teach Computer Languages with Other Languages

Having seen young kids manipulate computers at a very early age and their near limitless abilities to learn new languages make me think if we are missing a very big opportunity to teach computing languages along with the traditional languages in schools. With computers manifesting them in nearly all facets of our lives, does it now make sense to learn how to manipulate or program them, rather than being simply users of whatever video games or applications that have been written for them. I believe that programming concepts can be gradually introduced starting from middle school and programming languages in high school. It does not take much to imagine the unfair advantage a student with programming capabilities has over someone who does not when the enter the work force or college.

Future School System in Your Town

It is a well known fact that students develop their mental faculties in different areas at different rates. Yet we educate kids as if their learning rates of all the faculties are the same. In future, bulk of what is taught in lectures will be delivered as a webinar or pulled from the web at a place of student’s convenience. Students will go to school for interacting with teachers to deal with things they don’t understand, conducting labs and physical activities. The students will adjust the level of course difficulty based on their abilities. It would not be uncommon for a high school student taking college level courses in some subjects and middle school level courses in others. For unusually good students in a particular area, employers would start paying for work even when they may not have formally graduated from school or college. We are already starting to see this in the gaming industry. We are also beginning to see online universities evolve this model that holds the promise of low cost degrees that are accredited.

The open-source software model has shown that it is possible  to create  free and quality software ( intellectual property) through collaboration on the web. This model can also be followed in creating the intellectual property of lectures by world experts in different domains. There is a need for global universities that offer large number of courses in diverse subjects that are nearly free of cost and are globally accredited. Governments and philanthropic organizations could play a big role in establishing such entities in line with the vision described by Salman Khan of Khan Academy.

Views: 5310Share

Post to Twitter Tweet This Post


3 Responses to “Rethinking Education in a Connected World”

  1. Mario Moreira on May 20th, 2010 3:38 pm

    Interesting article. This can bring parity to some. For those courses that don’t require a strong face-to-face then this online education can be quite effective. The caveat is that still only a small percentage will have access to a computer in order to get access to this education. Of course, even if the access to computers goes from 20% today to 30% tomorrow, 10% calculates to another 600 million more people with access to education. Certainly a way for developing countries to leapfrog ahead.

  2. Izaz Haque on May 21st, 2010 1:09 am

    Imran, that took a lot of research. A lot of links for me to check out.

    Certainly, i’ll be looking at the Berkeley site to see what podcasts i
    can download. There’s really no reason for a self-motivated student
    anywhere in the world to be deprived of world class instruction in any
    field of his/her choosing. It’s more a matter of getting the word out.

    To think i went thru engineering school in Pakistan without a single
    journal or technical magazine to draw inspiration from! Certainly
    times have changed and it’s a sea-change.

    Thanks for putting this up…Izaz

  3. aamir shah on May 22nd, 2010 4:47 am

    thought provoking. did not know the amount of free online course available. We all can use to improve and help.