More than 100,000 people are taking an online course from Yale. Here’s what it means for the future of education.


Robert Shiller has received plenty of interest in his Financial Markets course. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

The first-ever MOOC taught by a Nobel Prize-winning academic – the Financial Markets course taught by Yale’s Robert Shiller – has already signed up more than 100,000 people from around the world. Measured in terms of sign-ups only, that makes it the most successful business MOOC ever and one of the top MOOCs of all time.

But is it truly innovative? And, if it is, what exactly is it disrupting?

It’s easy to dismiss this new Yale MOOC as just another case of the rich getting richer, especially since the course is really just an updated version of a course already offered by Yale in 2011. Yale gets another chance to extend its Ivy League brand around the world (without the need to invest in a controversial new campus), while at the same time, showcasing how the university is still ahead of the innovation curve in education.

However, that kind of thinking ignores how this Yale MOOC is the next step in a broader transformation of the world of higher education. In short, the world of education is starting to look a lot like the world of digital entertainment, in which we stream or download the specific content we want, when we want it, for a low price, from our favorite artists. Superstar academics from places such as Yale and Stanford can now teach hundreds of thousands of students at one time, and that could cause a fracturing of the typical system of higher education.

That will result in much more of an a la carte approach to education. Instead of buying a four-year Yale education, for example, you might pick up a few science courses from MIT, a few humanities courses from Harvard or Yale, and a course in entrepreneurship from Stanford. You can think of Robert Shiller, the Nobel Prize winning academic, as the educational equivalent of a platinum-selling artist like Beyonce. Eventually, these academics may be able to sell courses for $0.99 a pop the way that artists sell songs for $0.99. Institutions such as Yale will become the equivalents the record labels, with a bevy of top talent. And the emerging new educational platforms – like Coursera or MITx or Udacity – will become the new iTunes of the digital education era.

That world may not be far off. Think of Apple’s recent entrée into the world of education, with iTunes U. Or think of Google’s recent attempts to monetize the MOOC. Would you take an AI course from Ray Kurzweil of Google, or an artificial intelligence course from a Stanford professor? And would your thought process change if you had a better chance of getting a job if you took the course from Google rather than from Stanford? Maybe that’s why Sebastian Thrun’s first instincts were to position Udacity as a sort of middleman between the world of education and the world of employment.

If you haven’t already, watch the brilliant EPIC 2020 YouTube clip on the future of higher education, which unveils a vision for the rapid transformation of the educational world by 2020. You can watch the logic roll out. First, there’s the arrival of Khan Academy in 2009. Then Amazon and Apple get into the mix. Then Google enters the fray. Finally, you end up with EPIC, which is essentially a perfect future educational system, in which you get the exact type of education that you need, when you need it, all for little or no cost.

The ability for technology to transform the world of education has important implications for educational leaders such as Yale. There’s certainly room for new upstarts to enter the market at a much lower price point. Moreover, since Yale reaps no obvious economic advantages (the course is free) — what are the incentives for Yale to continue to provide this service to the world? And, students gain no clear advantages either, since Yale doesn’t offer traditional course credit — only a certificate. What if a new educational provider starts offering courses on finance — and the chance to work on Wall Street as well as soon as the course is completed? From this perspective, the new Yale MOOC is not exactly a threat to the business-as-usual approach of higher education.

However, think about the long-term secular trend towards lifelong learning made possible by the Internet. We already digest knowledge in the form of 18-minute TED Talks. Is it really too outlandish to claim that we will soon digest sophisticated course content about finance in the form of 18-minute University Talks? Maybe one day we will stop thinking in terms of high school and college graduation rates, or even about universities as the gateway to future employment. Instead, we will be engaged in a race to consume short-form educational content throughout a lifetime of learning in order to find new employment opportunities. And, in a best case scenario, that content will be free.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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