Academic Rock Stars and Curriculum DJs

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?"

Previously, professors were limited by geography as to how many students they could teach. With the shift toward distance learning and online video learning, the university lecture is something that kids watch on their laptops and tablets, not in the classroom. Even when given a choice between in-person lectures and online lectures for the AI course, a large bulk of the Stanford kids chose online lectures. This frees professors up to do all kinds of things – like research and writing books – that they may really enjoy doing and augment their prestige at the same time.

The "flipped classroom," the embrace of techniques from the world of gaming (e.g. badges for achievement), and a familiarity with video as a marketing and distribution tool - these factors are all leading to the creation of academic rock stars. Often, they're assistant professors - the types of people who teach the 101 courses while the senior faculty members are off during their research. But it is exactly these academics who teach the intro-level courses who are about to be vaulted into global acclaim. Teaching a 101 course at an American university opens up your potential audience to millions of people worldwide, not just in the U.S. Daniel Reed speculates that every single 101 Course in academia could eventually be taught, in one form or another, by these rock stars. These 101 courses are essentially academic commodities, so why not have one star professor teach the course for the world?

If you’re a community college or second-tier college without these top-tier professors, you should be concerned - very concerned. However, if you’re a Harvard or Yale or Princeton, you’re in the driver’s seat -- at least for now. These schools are like the big-time record labels of old, while the star professors are the recording artists. Upstart educational programs can hand out all the badges they want, but nothing can replace the value of an Ivy League degree, right?

But not so fast... What if we were to throw another little wrinkle into the equation - what if we were to make tuition for higher education obsolete? What Salman Khan of Khan Academy did was fundamentally flip not only the classroom, but also the economic model of higher education. He essentially created a vision for teaching every subject under the sun for FREE. Technology has a way of disrupting big leaders in ways that couldn’t have been imagined and freeing up talent to move elsewhere. The fact that Sebastian Thrun - who taught the intro course on AI to 160,000 people around the globe - no longer teaches at Stanford is telling. There's a new economic model in the making. For example, employers could subsidize the salaries of students they hire from these educational programs, replacing old-fashioned tuition. Everybody would win: the employer gets a student with a top-tier, relevant education; the student gets a great job without incurring any debt; and the educational institution gets the same money it would have gotten (only it's not called "tuition" anymore).

No wonder educational upstarts like Coursera are starting to form broad partnership alliances with name-brand universities to lock in the best talent. The global market is just that big and the stakes are that high. Talk about billion-dollar market opportunities. Just as Thrun found that he could teach 100,000+ kids at one time - more than he could teach in a lifetime under the old regime - he decided to leave Stanford and make money elsewhere. The business possibilities are endless, especially if someone like Apple gets into the educational game in even greater force. Imagine selling a lecture for $0.99 on iTunes to 150,000 kids. That single lecture would be equivalent to a year’s salary for a top professor at many institutions.

The immediate future of MOOCs may be uncertain, but one thing is clear – the world of higher education is changing in ways that we never could have imagined. By 2020, we could be on the way to embracing continuous, lifetime learning for everyone in society taught by the world's greatest academic rock stars. New curriculum DJs - who are able to mix-and-match course offerings for specialized degrees - may emerge, selling their digital wares on iTunes. Just as we all grew up playing air guitar and pretending we were Bon Jovi or Aerosmith, the students of tomorrow may grow up imagining that they are academic rock stars explaining concepts in front of the video camera with tens of thousands of screaming fans worldwide. 

image: Guitar Player in Concert / Shutterstock

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