Is College (Finally) Ready For Its Innovation Revolution?

If a college student today stepped into a time machine and traveled back to Plato’s Academy of ancient Athens, she would recognize quite a bit. Sure, it might take some time to master ancient Greek and the use of stylus on wax, but she would eventually settle into a familiar academic routine. Senior scholars across a range of subjects like astronomy and political theory would lecture, pose questions, and press answers to a small group of attendants. Junior attendants would listen, answer, and defend responses.

That a class in 2011 resembles a lecture from 2,300 years ago suggests that two millennia of technological upheaval have only brushed the world of academics. Some professors use PowerPoint, and many schools manage their classes with online software. But even these changes don’t fully embrace the potential of Web, mobile, and interactive technology.

New classroom technology would let schools hire fewer, better teachers … and pay them more money.

“The present resistance to innovation [in education] is breathtaking,” Joel Klein writes in The Atlantic this month. The former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education was writing about public high schools, but he might as well have been talking about universities. Despite college costs rising faster in college than any institution in the country including health care, we have the technology to disrupt education, turn brick and mortar lecture halls into global classrooms, and dramatically bring down the cost of a high quality education.

Entrepreneurs like to say there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. Is education innovation that next big idea?


Universities have been called walled gardens. But ten years ago, some elite colleges opened a crack the ivy walls to let the Web in. MIT launched OpenCourseWare [OCW], a free online database of undergraduate and graduate courses taught at MIT, including lectures, tests, and discussion sections. Around the same time, Yale, Stanford and Oxford teamed up to form AllLearn, an alliance that offered eight- to ten-week e-courses to thousands of students from around the globe.

In the last decade, OCW has grown into a global consortium of hundreds of universities with thousands of online curricula that you can browse and download for free. Meanwhile at Yale, after the AllLearn alliance disbanded in 2006, President Richard Levin teamed up with art history and classics professor Diana E. E. Kleiner to find a new way to put Yale courses online.

“We wanted to make a contribution to the world,” Kleiner tells me. “So we recorded a selection of the most popular Yale courses, and put them online for free. That become Yale Open Courses.” Where OCW specialized in syllabi and lecture notes, Yale focused on high quality video that made users feel like they were sitting orchestra center at a lecture theater. Three million unique visitors have visited the Yale website, with millions more checking in through YouTube and iTunes U, Apple’s online warehouse of lectures, slideshows, and audiobooks from more than 800 universities around the world.

Yale lectures have even become supplemental material for AP classes across the country, Kleiner told me, suggesting “a real hunger for these lectures beyond our expectations.” Her stories of students emailing thanks to Yale for 5’s on AP exams suggests a future where the nation’s best professors create instructional videos for classrooms across the country.

It’s a vision shared by Joel Klein. “One of the best things we could do is hire fewer teachers and pay more to the ones we hire,” he writes. And technology would get us from here to there:

If you get the best math professors in the world–who are great teachers and who deeply understand math–and match them with great software developers, they can create sophisticated interactive programs that engage kids and empower teachers. Why not start with such a program and then let teachers supplement it differently, depending on the progress of each student?”

Kleiner reads from the same script, if more cautiously. “If the best economics teacher in the world creates a course that is better than any other, would there be merit in having that course be the only course?” she asks. “Maybe, but you would still need teachers. There’s no substitution for personal education.”

Having the world’s best economic teacher virtually instruct every economics class would represent a winner-take-all revolution in an industry that has largely ignored cost efficiency and scalability. But even in this budget conscious world — especially in this budget conscious world — teachers and administration will be alarmed if a few brand name institutions tried to take over the job of teaching the world.

A great education is a eight-lane two-way highway between teachers and students. College lecture videos? They’re just a one-way street.


The solution for some tech firms is to innovate from within the ivy tower. “The major universities are using technology built in the 1990s,” says Josh Coates, CEO of the new college software program Instructure. “We’ve built an open platform for students and teachers to interact.”

Taking on Blackboard and other so-called learning management systems, Instructure is an open source platform working off programs like Google Docs, Facebook and Twitter. If you’re a teacher rescheduling a midterm, Coates told me, you could open a calender, drag the midterm to a different date, and the system would automatically send a text, Facebook message, or email, depending on how students wanted to interact.

If Instructure is trying to change education from the inside out, Silicon Valley is working to change education from the outside in. It’s not just Peter Thiel, the outspoken PayPal investor who’s using national magazines as platforms to lob bombs at higher education. It’s also constructive start-ups like Udemy, a website that lets anyone in the world build an online course with video sessions, readings and or virtual classroom sessions.

“It was a big step for the universities like Yale and MIT to open up their content,” says Gagan Biyani, Udemy’s cofounder. “They proved that people want to learn. But filming somebody teaching isn’t disruptive.”

You know what’s disruptive? A math genius creating a full online course — with YouTube lectures, downloadable readings, interactive practice questions, and a global community of students commenting throughout. The closest person doing this on a massive scale is Salman Khan, whom Bloomberg Businessweek called the “messiah of math” for his Academy (that word, again) combining video lessons like the one below with interactive questions to chart students’ progress.

“I like Sal, but he can’t do everything,” Binyani says. “There’s so much more that people want to learn about. That’s why we’re trying to enable these experts to create these online courses.”


Even an online interactive Roman architecture class that is worthy of Yale is not Yale for one reason: its students are not graduates of Yale University. The difference between college and any education (even a great education) is a degree. If Udemy offers a college-worthy education without the degree, can it really change college?

Biyani says yes. “It’s tough to foresee a world where a college degree from Yale is equivalent to something you get online,” he conceded. “But I could see a college degree from Devry University [a for-profit school] considered a lower quality than an education from a truly great online institution.”

Colleges rarely think about efficiency, because all the signals tell them to spend more money on fewer students. Theoretically, the most efficient school would give the highest quality education to the most people for the lowest price. In reality, national rankings reward universities for rejecting the highest number of applicants, teaching the fewest number of students per class, and spending the most per capita on resources. That doesn’t mean colleges are failing. It means the system suffers from an incentive to be inefficient.

“I have a vision for where this is going to go,” Biyani tells me. “The price of college is going to fall, and the Internet is going to cause that fall.”

He pauses and adds, “The rest of it is really difficult to figure out.”