Not too far in the future, students may be faced with an entirely different set of choices than they do today. No longer might college or career straight after high school graduation be the two only and divergent paths in front of them. No longer may a four-to-six-year commitment to a highly esteemed institution be the fastest way to a fruitful career or a rich network.
With online education quickly gaining momentum, the emergence of massive open online courses (MOOCs) is not only shaking up higher education to the core -- its value, its status, its cost -- the movement is also changing how young people envision their education and their future.
Sebastian Thrun, whose free, online artificial intelligence class for Stanford last year enrolled more than 175,000 people and launched the MOOC movement, foresees a radically different future for students. Thrun, who founded Google X, the incubator for projects like the Google self-driving car and Google Glass, co-founded Udacity, a free online school that offers higher ed classes computer science classes -- everything from Programming Languages to How to Build a Startup.
"Right now you go to college for four, six, seven years, and it's a big commitment over a long period of time," Thrun said in an interview earlier this week, which will be shown in an upcoming PBS Newshour story. "But in the future, learning will be lifelong, and it will happen in very small chunks. If you have an interest, a problem, if you need a skill, you'll go find it and learn it. Things like degrees and classes and so on, will be replaced by entire sequences of achievements in the learning space but also in the kinds of things we can do in the project space."
Thrun believes that some kids may not even have to graduate from high school -- especially if they know from an early age that they're interested in a field like engineering. "Probably at the of 13 or 14, they’re already great at engineering, they’re proficient on different systems and they're able to demonstrate it."
And rather than having higher education be tangentially related to some future idea of a job, Thrun believes that equation will change.
"I’d love to see a time when job choices we make reinforce education," he said. "We don’t put education first and job second, but the job begins much much earlier in a way to motivate the education."
A HEAD START
The founders of Coursera, another MOOC that offers free online courses from more than 30 universities, including Princeton, Columbia, and Duke, believe the existence of MOOCs will give students a head start toward finding their career path and areas of interest before they commit to a major in college.
"They can spend less time wandering around aimlessly looking for what’s right for them both in discipline and difficulty level. They can do risk-free exploration both in discipline and in difficulty level to find the thing that's right for them," said Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera. "The biggest opportunity here is to make considerable progress toward a degree before they have to make a commitment to going to school to complete it."
What's more, students who typically have an "undermatching" problem -- they aim for colleges that are less selective than what they might aspire to and are thus less likely to get a degree -- can have the experience of taking classes from top-notch universities and see a different option for themselves.
"They can take these courses and say, 'Wait a minute, I can aspire to these colleges, to Stanford, Princeton or Columbia, and therefore I’m going to try to apply there.'" Koller said. "We hope it opens the door to a much higher success rate for students from disadvantaged backgrounds."
And for students who already have every intention of applying to top-tier universities, these online classes can be used for the college admissions process, said Andrew Ng, another Coursera co-founder. "What better way to prove to a college admissions officer that you’re ready?" he said.
No one can predict what will come of the top-ranked schools with the availability of online classes. But if there's any hand-wringing about the changes, Thrun said people should consider what's happening now.
"Go to a high school now, look at how many kids don’t learn math not because they’re not capable of understanding math, but because of the way it’s conveyed to them, the classroom setting, the fixed speed for all -- it’s the wrong recipe for these kids," he said. "Is that what we aspire to maintain? Or should we be creative about this?"
But he's hopeful.
"I’m a big optimist," he said. "Especially that in the U.S., every time we engage in a debate if what we’re doing is right or wrong, we end up in a better place. And that better place will strengthen us."