When I taught at Stanford University in the 1970s, I was always on the lookout for ways in which technology could help to improve learning. The big innovation of that time was that my classes were broadcast around the San Francisco Bay area. We even sent videotapes of lectures farther afield.
Today, teachers record and upload their lectures and, thanks to the Internet, students anywhere in the world can watch them as many times as they want. Education — one of the last big economic sectors yet to be transformed by the digital age — is on the cusp of a revolution. And why should it not be digitized? The Web is the fuel of the 21st century and it will propel students of all ages, from all corners of the globe, into a successful future.
For example, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offer free or low-cost, high-quality higher-education classes to hundreds of thousands of people on the Internet, making it easier to learn whatever — and wherever — they want. I see similar opportunities coming to primary and secondary education in the future.
These courses enable an unlimited number of students to take courses on almost any subject, from computer science to music, taught by some of the world’s leading specialists. Some have mass appeal, like those from the University of Alicante in Spain and the Humboldt Institute in Germany, both of which offer courses on the practical aspects of starting up a business. The University of Alicante is now on its second version and has already welcomed more than 30,000 attendees.
Other courses, like an upcoming one on cellular metrics offered by France’s Institut Mines-Telecom, are more tailored to niche audiences. They can also be creative or unique. Anyone who has ever wanted to figure out just how and why soccer players get paid as much as they do can sign up for the Valoracion de Futbolistas MOOC offered by the University of Valencia. In this program, one can learn all one ever wanted about how to assess a soccer player’s value. Watching a soccer match might never be the same again! Wherever youth unemployment remains high, these courses offer a new way to boost skills and employability. A key area should be support for teachers, particularly in computer science, especially in middle and high-school curricula.
Fortunately, many governments are taking steps to promote the online education revolution. Malaysia’s government has announced a plan to provide lightweight laptops to primary and secondary schools nationwide, and has adopted free Web-based e-mail, calendar and document processing for 10 million students, teachers and parents. Providing Web-based services to students and educators enables access to information and makes it possible for everyone — regardless of financial resources, location or influence — to become educated.
However, much more needs to be done. Governments must expand national infrastructure so that students in densely packed urban areas and remote rural villages alike can get online. Public-private partnerships are often a good way to do this. For example, 10,000 Malaysian public schools should get fourth-generation (4G) access this year through a collaboration with a local telecom provider.
Once students are online, there is no limit to what they can do with the vast amount of information available to them or how they will collaborate with and learn from one another. Imagine students in Malaysia working with students around the world on a weather project. They could conduct virtual experiments, work simultaneously to update data in a spreadsheet or document and create a shared final presentation.