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Communications of the ACM


John L. Hennessy on 'the Coming Tsunami in Educational Technology'

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Jack Rosenberger

Jack Rosenberger, senior editor, news, Communications of the ACM

Stanford president John L. Hennessy delivered a provocative keynote speech, "The Coming Tsunami in Educational Technology," about the uncertain future of higher education at CRA's 40th Anniversary Conference at Snowbird.

Here are the main takeaways:

Good-bye, Lecture Hall
Just as technology disrupted and transformed the newspaper and music industries, it is now poised to wreak havoc upon another established industry: higher education.

Students are increasingly bored with lecture hall-type classes and are ready for online education (it's natural to them, Hennessy notes) and broadband is readily available. Also, we are witnessing the success of online educational institutions like Khan Academy and the emergence of massive online open courses at MIT, Stanford, and elsewhere. The fact that educational technology will disrupt higher education is undeniable, says Hennessy. It is happening now and will only continue to grow. How quickly it will transform higher education is unclear, but educational technology could drive down college's operating costs and improve students' education by making it more affordable, better, and accessible.    

Cost/Performance Problems
Hennessy noted there are two big problems in terms of cost/performance in higher education. One problem is the poor performance of many students. Approximately half of the students who attend a community or four-year college in the U.S. never graduate. Also, companies commonly complain that too many graduates lack the necessary job skills. Another problem is the cost of a college education has become a burden to many students and their families — it typically costs $50,000 a year to attend a selective private college, for instance — and the main cost of instruction is the salaries of professors.

Online Education's Advantages
Hennessy believes that colleges should embrace online education for the following reasons: 1. By offering online classes, colleges will be able to produce more revenue. 2. They can enlarge or enhance their mission with online classes and overcome the restrictions imposed by their physical location. 3. Colleges will be able to increase the availability of a high-quality education to students, especially international ones. 4. Done right, colleges can reduce their number of instructors, which is the main cost of education, and increase their profits.

Online Education's Challenges
The transition from the lecture hall to online classes involves a number of challenges, many of which involve hard problems. These include but are not limited to: conducting experiments with online education and seeing what works and what doesn't work (Hennessy suspects online education will work better in STEM than in the humanities, for instance); using experts to measure the success and failure of learning in online education; how to effectively grade the homework and tests of hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of students in a timely manner; how to prevent students from cheating and how to identify incidences of online cheating; and what type of credentials should be developed and awarded to students.

Stanford's Goals
At the end of his keynote, Hennessy described Stanford's primary goals with educational technology. The university will use educational technology to improve education for Stanford students; reduce the cost of education for non-Stanford students, in both high school and college, by making online classes available; be a provider of high-quality content; and experiment with online education to create quality classes and certification for more students in a cost-effective manner.

Face the Future, Don't Hide From It.
Lastly, Hennessy urged the Snowbird attendees to "be the disruptor, not the disrupted." Hennessy noted that universities are conservative institutions and are often reluctant or slow to change. But, he said, "They must reduce the costs of education or risk being eliminated. Can they be imaginative and reinvent themselves?"

Jack Rosenberger is senior editor, news, of Communications of the ACM.


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