Online Education: Ivory Tower for All

“We are just getting started; this trend is unstoppable.”

Remember when taking a course meant going to class, and tutorials were taught by a graduate student who hovered nearby, grading papers? Times have changed, and this second post in a 3-part series on how mobility and the Internet is re-defining traditional commercial sectors focuses on new for-profit educational models. (see post on Mobile Banking) Two new ways to outsource professional talents signal a shift in modern education: The Outsourced TA, and Khan Academy. Both endeavors remove barriers in education, while prodding marketers of educational services toward thinking globally.


“I Will Accompany You Throughout The Learning.”
The latest professional service providers to be flipped into outsourcing mode are university-level teaching assistants, or TAs. In a posting titled Education: the Virtual TA, we learn of India-based TAs logging on to provide tutorial service and grade papers for students at U.S. universities. The co-founder of one such company claims, “We are just getting started; this trend is unstoppable….” The numbers do make a compelling case for cash-strapped educators — think about a lone professor instructing a course of 350 students, with one TA. In the coming decades, expect growth in exports of professional services from India, Russia and China, and the daily integration of far-off experts in our educational experiences. I find it ironic that we’re handing over a key element of U.S. higher learning to countries who are perceived as overtaking our nation’s educational process.

And then there’s Khan Academy. At YouTube, we log on for laughs, news … and higher learning.  I was surprised and delighted to find that the Khan Academy offers more than 1,100 videos on YouTube, covering everything from basic arithmetic to chemistry, biology, calculus, and economics. “There is no reason why they can’t reach and engage every student on the planet as long as the Internet exists,” says founder Salman Khan. His genuine interest in teaching reminds me of the Carnegie Foundation’s funding of city libraries throughout the US in the last centuries: free, fair access to learning has been a basis for The Great American Success Story. At nonprofit or free access sites such Khan Academy (and the greater YouTube ecosystem),  there is plenty of room for business models to thrive, too: check out the home page for a link to “Mental Bootcamp.”

For all the dross and multimedia sewage that the Internet spews onto our screens every day, there are a stunning number of gems such as these progressive, accessible learning options. But, the education industry is no different than any other… once barriers fall and the rules change, in rush new norms and standards of what defines open and fair learning for all. As we see in the proliferation of for-profit universities in the U.S., admissions standards and graduation requirements fall woefully short, sometimes to the point of conferring degrees upon under-educated, functionally illiterate doctoral candidates.

Meanwhile, we can take comfort in knowing that the rising tide of online education enables students everywhere to finally claim their own piece of the Ivory Tower.

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