D10: Stanford, Khan Academy, and the future of higher ed

From left to right, Walt Mossberg, John Hennessy, and Salman Khan (Photo courtesy All Things D)

As someone with a daughter seven years away from college, it’s not surprising that I thought one of the most captivating sessions at the Wall Street Journal’s D10 conference this year featured Stanford president John Hennessy and Khan Academy founder Salman Khan, and focused on how technology is impacting education.

Just the other day, my wife and I were discussing the future of higher education over lunch, from the perspective of 20 years since we finished college and less than a decade before our oldest heads to it. So many of our expectations about the college experience come from our own personal experiences, and yet the march of technology—not just in the past 20 years, but most particularly in the past five—made us wonder just what a 21st-century college should really look like.

Though the crushing cost of college education wasn’t a major topic of Khan and Hennessy’s conversation with D10 co-host Walt Mossberg, it’s certainly a major cause of anxiety for parents. But most of the time, the conversation dwelled on the simple issue that technology is going to radically transform education—and right now everyone’s trying to figure out how to manage that change.

“There’s a tsunami coming,” Hennessy said. “I don’t know how it’s going to break, but my goal is to try to surf it, not just stand there.”

At its simplest form, technology needs to find ways to make education more efficient. That means serving more students, but also teaching them more effectively.

“Large lectures don’t work—nobody is engaging,” Hennessy said. “So that’s what we started with—the ‘flipped classroom.’ You don’t use the classroom for the lecture, you do that online.” Instead, the classroom becomes the place with more interactivity with small groups.

It sounds great, but there’s one big problem: A 45-minute-long lecture is going to bore people whether you’re sitting in a stuffy lecture hall or listening to it on your iPhone while sunning yourself on the quad. Even lecture content needs more interactivity and the opportunity for students to pace themselves and make sure they’ve understood the concepts.

Another advantage of this kind of online learning environment is that some students can ask questions and their peers can answer them. Very rapidly, Hennessy said, the class has compiled a set of frequently-asked questions that are pretty solid, though “occasionally a [teaching assistant] has to come in and tinker a little bit” to make sure everything’s right.

Sounds great. So what will we do with all those nice college buildings, once we’ve closed them down and everyone just retreats to their homes to get their college degrees?

Not so fast.

Community of learners

Khan, whose organization provides online instructional materials, mentioned that he had talked to a college administrator who was charging the same for an on-campus degree as for one done via the Internet—a big mistake, in his estimation. “Most of the value is from the physical experience, in being there,” he said. “You can’t value that at zero.”

Some large percentage of the college experience happens outside the classroom. You’d expect the president of Stanford to say something like, “We require our students to live in a community for four years,” and that’s what he said. But it’s true, part of the college experience—or at least the traditional go-away-to-college experience—is about growing as an independent adult, meeting new people, and yeah, going to parties.

But that traditional experience wasn’t the only college experience, even in my 20-years-past college days. My college had plenty of junior-college transfers, part-time students, and commuters who lived at home while getting their degrees.

Reading between the lines of the session, I think I started to get a hint about where this all is going: That the “brand-name universities” (Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and so on) will reserve their degrees “for the physical experience,” as Khan put it. A more digital experience, to be sure, but also a physical one—a community of mostly young people learning things together.

What will change is how education works for people who aren’t buying the physical experience. Those aren’t just the junior-college transfers and commuter students of my time, but quite possibly many other students who once would’ve gone to a four-year residential university, but are now more likely to learn via the Internet and possibly not even get a traditional bachelor’s degree.

Microcredentials

“Brands like Stanford, Harvard, and MIT are reserved for the physical experience, but they could bless ‘microcredentials,’” Khan said. “There are two parts of education—the learning part and the credentialing part, which signals to people that I know what I’m doing. Right now they’re muddled…. We have an opportunity to uncouple the credential.”

The idea is that sometimes people go to college to build a base of knowledge and have a formative social experience. But sometimes people go to college to get a piece of paper that lets them get a job. Khan and Hennessy both suggested that in the future, a system of “high-quality credentialing” could be used to verify that a person had learned a set of skills. The broader curriculum leading to a bachelor’s degree would be a separate deal.

“You shouldn’t go to a four-year residential institution for training,” Hennessy said. “You should get an undergraduate degree in order to to get a foundation for next 40 years of your life.” He suggested that perhaps some people might do half their coursework online, and then appear physically on campus for a year or two after that.

Education shortages

Another problem today in education is a shortage of teachers and of slots for students. This can take many forms. For example, the cost of medical school is enormous and it’s a highly competitive environment. Stanford and Khan Academy are working together to create an online pre-clinical medical school education. The goals are to drive down the cost of that portion of the process, ideally by having all U.S. medical schools work together to establish a common curriculum and get it online. In the long run, the hope is that this approach would help address the doctor shortage in the United States, as well as make medical education available in areas of the world where there are extremely few trained doctors.

There’s also a shortage of qualified teachers in certain areas, especially technical ones. Khan cited the example of teaching computer science. Most people who are qualified to teach computer science would prefer to take a job for twice the salary working in Silicon Valley, Khan said. Recorded coursework produced by Khan Academy could provide education for interested students who might not ever otherwise be able to learn that topic.

And computer-directed education also can save students who might otherwise fall through the cracks of the traditional educational system. Right now the phrase “slow learner” is a pejorative phrase, Khan pointed out. But people just learn at different paces—and if you’re taking a self-directed course, you can learn at your own pace, master the subject matter, and move on when you’re ready. Not grasping a concept right away shouldn’t leave a student hopelessly behind, but that’s what happens now.

What kind of college experience will my daughter have when she starts school in the fall of 2019? I have no idea. But I suspect that it will be much more online than in person. And I’m not entirely convinced that going away to a campus for four years, the way it’s been done for ages, will even be a common experience by then. It’s only seven years away, and yet Thursday’s session at D just reinforced my own feelings that we’re on the precipice of a dramatic change in what higher education really means, all spurred on by advances in technology.

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