Is the Future of Education Online?

Since stepping down as the CEO of Microsoft, Bill Gates has tackled many social issues and in particular has been a proponent of better access to better education. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Gates sees a technological solution, in part, to that issue. At the Techonomy conference last week, Gates said that he believes that “Five years from now on the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university."

It's a bold prediction, but Gates has made several interesting predictions about the future of technology, most famously perhaps, saying in 1994 that by 2005 we'd all have "information at our fingertips."

And Gates has been a proponent of online education for quite some time. In a speech this spring at MIT, he said that he was a "super happy user" of the university's OpenCourseWare program which offers free online courses. Gates said that he "retook physics" along with over a dozen of the other online offerings. Gates praised OpenCourseWare for offering a blend of the best of video technology, professional instruction and testing. And as he suggested in his recent remarks about the web browser trumping the university classroom, Gates has said that he believes we should separate accreditation from place-based learning.

Whether Gates is right about his prediction of "five years" til we have a truly web-oriented educational system, the trend in education seems to be moving towards the adoption of more and more online technologies. The Instructional Technology Council reported earlier this year, for example, that enrollment in distance ed classes at community colleges had increased by over 20%, whereas the overall community college enrollment had increased by 2%. Undoubtedly, online education is offering many opportunities to students, teachers, and schools.

As social entrepreneurs seize these opportunities, there will likely be more and more education-technology startups that disrupt both some of the traditional educational institutions, as well as some of its associated industries (like the publishing sector, for example).

As children now grow up in a digital world, it seems likely that their expectations for social networking, for social learning, and for real-time collaboration will shape the way in which they learn and work.

Will the web provide students the optimum learning experience five years from now? What do you think? And if so, what are some of the implications from moving out of a place-based classroom and into an online one?

Photo credit: Flickr user Billy Gast