Last fall, Stanford began offering online courses taught by the likes of Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. Last month, ideas conference TED announced that it was unlocking its TED Talks videos and encouraging educators to mash them up with YouTube videos as part of their TED-ed initiative. Last week, Harvard and MIT unveiled edX: the chance to study courses from two of the nation’s most prestigious universities via the Internet. So, here’s the question: Are we at the start of a brave new era of higher education and rapidly accelerating intelligence?
Even before these wildly innovative offerings — what some have referred to as the "Ivy League Spring" — educators had already noticed one of the most interesting long-term trends in recent history — a substantial and long-term increase in IQ scores in nearly every part of the world. Through some as of yet unexplained factor (smaller families? better nutrition?) people around the world have been getting smarter. And it’s not just the world’s smartest who are getting smarter — it’s actually the case that the intelligence gains are concentrated at the lower end of the intelligence distribution. Which is to say, even the "Dummies" are getting smarter. Researchers have dubbed this the Flynn Effect.
If we are already in the midst of a long-term, global trend towards superior intelligence, is it possible that we could be ready to experience , for lack of a better term, a Super Flynn Effect brought on by online education?
Not only are people getting smarter, but now they are also all taking courses from Ivy League professors and learning about artificial intelligence from the brightest minds in Silicon Valley. Thanks to the Internet, anybody in the world can have access to information formerly provided only to a very tiny elite.
That’s certainly cause for optimism. The spotlight is currently on higher education, with discussion and debate about the spiraling costs and concerns about the future burdens of student loans. Now, it looks like the nation’s top universities are willing to experiment with new, highly distributed models for delivering the educational experience. And this goes beyond providing free information. Some schools are actually considering ways to give certificates or other forms of credit for finishing these courses. At some point, will what you do at home in your pajamas on your laptop in Mumbai, Rio or Moscow be just as valuable as what you might do in Cambridge, New Haven, Princeton or Palo Alto?
Of course, there’s no sure thing when it comes to online education. We’ve been hearing about the promise of online education and distance learning for years. The promise has almost always come up short in the past, with some skeptics arguing that an online education will never be a match for a hands-on, real-world learning environment. To top it off, there are even skeptics of the Flynn Effect, who see this trend towards greater global intelligence as nothing more than greater familiarity with test taking.
Yet, it’s certainly heartening to believe in a Super Flynn Effect — to believe in the entire world getting smarter at the same time. Given all of the other unique online learning tools out there — most notably Khan Academy — it certainly appears as if the world of online education is one of the richest, most innovative fields out there these days. The current generation may not be richer than their parents, but they will almost certainly be smarter.
Dominic Basulto is a digital thinker at Bond Strategy and Influence (formerly called Electric Artists) in New York. Prior to Bond Strategy and Influence, he was the editor of Fortune’s Business Innovation Insider and a founding member of Corante.com, one of the Web's first blog media companies. He also shares his thoughts on innovation on the Big Think Endless Innovation blog and is working on a new book on innovation called "Endless Innovation, Most Beautiful and Most Wonderful."
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