An Global Education Revolution Waiting To Happen

One of the tragedies of modern America is that most Americans are uneducated or under-educated. We don’t have systems where all parents, or even most parents, can access good education readily and easily for their kids. Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City is one of the best secondary schools in the world and must accept students by lottery because of its limited resources and thus limited openings. You have to be lucky to get in.

Imagine if it could leverage its resources exponentially by offering a much broader outreach to students online. Potentially, no one would be shut out. Most American kids simply don’t have access to an adequate education. Online or remote learning could increase access to quality education for vast numbers of people by an order of magnitude. For most people, the excellence of long-distance learning could even become superior in many ways to anything else they can currently afford, even if education within a brick-and-mortar setting remained of higher quality for the few who can afford it.

A universal embrace of online learning would represent a seismic uptick in opportunity for entire societies. The whole notion of American democracy is about the ability to offer an equal opportunity: and this would be a new wave of equity in opportunity for Americans, let alone the rest of the world.

Right now, online learning is alive and well at the level of advanced education. Going to college doesn’t require students to leave their houses. Distance learning has been an academic option for nearly half a century. Even before the Covid 19 pandemic obligated students to stay home and Zoom to their lectures, taking classes online has been gaining ground. Some universities around the world have been pioneers in the field: MIT, the University of Illinois, the University of Pretoria, the University of Phoenix, Indira Gandhi National Open University, and China Central University, in Beijing. Meanwhile, most universities considered online classes a minor adjunct to a core methodology for teaching: lecture halls, supplemented with lab and discussion sections or studio work.

It took a pandemic to wake the rest of us up to the effectiveness of online advanced education.

It makes sense. As points out: “Universities benefit by adding students without having to construct classrooms and housing, and students reap the advantages of being able to work where and when they choose.” Public school systems could offer specialty courses without having to set up multiple classrooms. In addition, homeschooled students could be “offered a portal into centralized instruction.”

Some universities understand all this and have been capitalizing on it for years.

We spoke with Bruce Peters who has been working nationally as an organizational learning consultant for decades. He told us that MIT was a pioneer in Massive Open Online Courses around a decade ago. Its Introduction to Computer Science class has attracted 1.2 million online enrollments in ten years. Online coursework is now commonplace around the globe. Peters said the University of Illinois was the first to go online with its MBA program and others have followed suit. Louisiana State University offers online MBAs for as little as $12,474.

At Wharton, one extremely popular professor, author Kevin Werbach, regularly offers an online course on “gamification,” the strategy of making different sorts of productive activities more like games. As of Feb. 3, 2022, his enrollment for the class starting on that day totaled around 130,000—at a tuition of $95 per student. Do the math on price/volume, and you’ll understand why universities need to take this disruption of the old school brick-and-mortar model for how college students get a degree.

College life on campus has many advantages that can’t be duplicated easily with distance learning: level of intimacy with faculty and friends, the rite of passage into adulthood as a group, the easy and conversational Socratic back and forth with instructors both in the halls and classrooms but also in offices and labs. This can be mimicked in virtual settings but not as naturally and probably not as effectively.

The Harvard Business School, Stanford, Duke, Wharton, MIT, Yale and others will always thrive because they offer hives of highly intelligent peers, future associates and contacts, and a network that will form and solidify throughout a student’s career. The elite will still congregate on campuses. The ivy will climb higher on the hallowed halls and so will the price of sitting inside them.

On other hand, technology can offer most students exactly what they need with affordable tuition. Why can’t tech create a different level of intimacy: instant networking online by area of interest rather than physical proximity. Geographic distances cease to be a factor. A team of perfectly suited team members who could never have learned together can do it now. Teachers are immediately available in ways they can’t be physically. The internet offers global access to affinity groups. Any subject—physics, health, the sciences, the humanities. Every tiny interest group becomes a breakout room on Zoom, at a moment’s notice, instead of a scheduled lab or section on campus.

What advanced education needs are visionaries who want to democratize education. We need the likes of Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Sergei Brin and Larry Page of learning: an innovator who recognizes our crisis and its solution. Governments also could, but likely won’t. The crisis is obvious. Most of this nation’s—and the world’s—population can’t afford a traditional college education. Even students who come from successful middle-class homes will find themselves saddled with decades of debt after six years of college and the purchase of a home. Student debt is now around 1.6 trillion dollars.

Why? Colleges and universities consider the size of their tuition a measure of quality—the higher the price, the better the pedagogy. Competition among schools doesn’t drive the cost of education down. The goal is not to provide as many students as possible with the precious educational resources of our best schools—and thus leverage that knowledge and skill to raise the quality of life for everyone. Instead, universities limit enrollment and price their degree programs the way markets price diamonds.

What’s missing here is the downward pressure competition always exerts on pricing as it exists nearly everywhere else in a free economy. We hoard and guard the skills of the best educators and make them available to only a select few. Through the internet, millions could attend lectures by the most gifted and intelligent professors at Harvard and Princeton, the University of Michigan, the California system, and others if those schools had adopted a mission to achieve the greatest good for the most people.

A newsletter from Fortune magazine’s Alan Murray called my attention to a recent merger and got me thinking about this.

BLKB bought EVERFI for $750 million in cash and stock. On the surface, it sounds like yet another consolidation where a larger company swallows a smaller tech firm to boost the combined company’s value.

The executive summary from Axios says the deal represents a milestone for the ESG movement: a model of corporate governance to benefit society and the environment. In other words, it’s a good day for stakeholder capitalists. “Blackbaud’s software allows schools and companies to manage employee giving and volunteering”—helping workers find ways to contribute to social good. EVERFI, likewise, offers educational software systems—devoted to financial literacy, health, and wellness—to more than 25,000 U.S. elementary schools, as well as banks and other organizations. It is promoting social good for those same people who might be using Blackbaud’s systems to make their communities a better place—helping them improve their own lives and build better futures.

As Axios puts it, the deal is a boost for the educational technology space. Two innovative technology firms devoted to making the world a better place have joined to become a stronger force for social good. And online learning is at the heart of it. Online learning works.

The timing for this is perfect. But we need many more companies like Blackbaud and EVERFLI, ones that see the actual, enormous market in the technological space they occupy. With a bigger vision, innovative companies like these can bring social justice to everyone by recognizing how to put networked software to work for any student. This is an innovation that could help every single K-PH.D student get a more effective education at a more affordable price—if companies like these see the larger issues at stake and leverage what they are doing to bring down the cost of education while making it far more accessible. Elite schools could earn by lowering the cost of online attendance and increasing by an order of magnitude access to lectures: millions could sign up for courses. They make up for lower tuitions with an increase in volume by an order of magnitude. What may be overlooked in a merger like this is that social justice, right now, means an affordable advanced education in any field, on any subject, for most of the American population who can hardly afford a house and a college degree at the same time thanks to wildly rising inflation in those big-ticket items.

It’s an understatement to say there’s a lot to be done. The resistance to it will be enormous in the most highly endowed universities. Here’s an astute overview of our situation from Infoworld:

“Students who are now learning remotely in traditional colleges and universities report in survey after survey that the quality of the learning experience has gone down. They also report that colleges and universities are ill-prepared for remote learning, and systems are primitive and difficult to use. Outages are common, and the paths of communication between student and instructor are often difficult to navigate.”

It’s easy to see how companies like Blackbaud, with its experience in this technology, can step in to make these systems efficient—with the cooperation of our existing schools. But once that happens, the biggest step needs to be the response of our universities to the new economic realities. They need to offer high-quality, less costly education by creating systems that create value that rely less on the traditional signifier of a quality education—the name of an expensive school on the diploma—and more on metrics that measure the results of that curriculum for the student, reliable testing that certifies what’s been learned. If the cost of education ceases to matter for most people, it could open up a treasure of instruction and knowledge to a potentially enormous student body.

The cost of online learning should be significantly lower than traditional campus education, while the cost of traditional education can remain high or go higher. This didn’t happen during the pandemic.

As Infoworld writes: “There does not seem to be a significant discount for online remote learning compared to tuition that includes supporting classrooms and other structures that cater to in-person learning. Harvard University announced last year that when the first semester of the school year began, all course instruction would be done online. However, tuition for the full year would remain the same at $49,653. That could mean a $200K tuition bill that will likely be paid by a student loan that will take years to pay back—perhaps by a student who never set foot on the campus.”

There should be a way for educational institutions to make their superior curriculums and gifted professors available to the majority of students—while still preserving the elite premium attached to schooling on campus, with its rich social networking and potentially deeper and more nuanced learning experiences.

This little merger between two distance learning services with a mission for social good isn’t going to revolutionize anything just yet: but the people involved should be thinking in these terms for the future. And others, who are in a position to bring a new disruptive paradigm to advanced education should be paying attention to what’s happening here. It’s effective, it’s just, and it’s potentially enormously lucrative: and it’s democratic in a way that benefits potentially students around the world.

This post only scratches the surface of the potential here. If we want to gain equity in education, it has to start with a broad national, superior early education for every three-year-old child in America, followed by superior kindergarten. Those are crucial years for brain development. Importantly, America must completely overhaul secondary education to place the U.S. in the top quartile of the developed world. Today, America’s youth ranks in the bottom half of those developed nations. Next, innovative tech coupled with local communities’ participation, could be collaborating with remote learning systems and can provide even physical education programs to enrolled students. In the end, educational institutions working together with government and local communities can create breakthrough educational experiences for any nation’s most prized asset—its children. The future of America will depend on the success of this sort of innovation.

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Scott Baber
Scott Baber
Senior Managing editor

Manages incoming enquiries and advertising. Based in London and very sporty. Worked news and sports desks in local paper after graduating.


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