This semester when college students return to campus at America’s leading universities, they may be surprised to find out that the men and women teaching them subjects like Machine Learning or Listening to World Music or Quantum Mechanics are becoming academic rock stars with global followings that number in the tens of thousands. There have always been “rock stars” in academia – people like Carl Sagan or Noam Chomsky or Cornel West – but these new rock stars are being created and nurtured by the breakthroughs in massively open online courses known as MOOCs. We are now at the start of one of the greatest academic experiments ever as we re-think higher education: what started with Sebastian Thrun at Stanford, with a massive online experiment to teach Artificial Intelligence to 160,000 people worldwide for free, has captured the imagination of professors at elite universities around the world. Instead of teaching 100 students a year, they may be able to teach 10 times – or even 100 times – that number.
The comparison with music rock stars is not so far-fetched, given how closely the current academic world and the music industry mirror one another in terms of structure. As Microsoft Research’s Daniel Reed pointed out in a brilliant piece for the Communications of the ACM, these similarities in industry structure lead to a surprising insight:
“Truly successful musicians, defined by popularity and revenues, now have international reach and global distribution networks. They are megabrands with millions of followers. Via the web, even performers in esoteric musical genres have geographically distributed, albeit much smaller, audiences… Online education has the same potential to transform a small number of instructors and institutions into megabrands, with hundreds of thousands of globally distributed students. It could also allow teachers of more esoteric material to reach global audiences. The question is culturally simple. As a student, would you rather take a required general education or specialty elective course from one of several internationally rated instructors and/or lauded scholars, or be constrained to the pedagogical skill and intellectual acumen of the professors at a single university?”
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