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Expand Your Mind: Real Innovation in Higher Ed

by Miki Saxon

Education, at least higher education, is finally changing and moving forward. And like a jar of olives after you pull out the first one the rest come out faster and faster.

The exorbitant cost of a college education and the spiraling debt of new grads have led many to question the value of a college degree; what no one questions is the need for continual, ongoing education just to stay relevant.

The need to constantly adapt is the new reality for many workers, well beyond the information technology business. Car mechanics, librarians, doctors, Hollywood special effects designers — virtually everyone whose job is touched by computing — are being forced to find new, more efficient ways to learn as retooling becomes increasingly important not just to change careers, but simply to stay competitive on their chosen path.

The recognition that the game needs to change is being combined with an entrepreneurial spark to form new ventures that could make all the difference.

“Higher education will change; the system is unstable,” says Kevin Werbach, a Wharton legal studies and business ethics professor, who is teaching a MOOC on Coursera this summer. “It’s an industry that will be in severe turmoil in the next decade. There are so many schools in distress, and the student loan burden is [huge]. In that environment, online platforms like Coursera are an interesting opportunity.” (…) In April, Coursera announced it had secured $16 million in funding from two Silicon Valley venture capital firms. Udacity is also venture backed. MIT and Harvard contributed a combined $60 million to launch edX, which is overseen by a nonprofit, but program directors have said they plan to make the initiative self-supporting.

The new efforts dwarf the few classes that started being offered online about ten years ago. There are no actual course credits, but with major universities, such as Harvard and MIT jumping in things are getting interesting.

In what is shaping up as an academic Battle of the Titans — one that offers vast new learning opportunities for students around the world — Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Wednesday announced a new nonprofit partnership, known as edX, to offer free online courses from both universities.

Other startups are jumping in along with edX to offer Massive Open Online Courses, AKA, MOOCs, which are true game-changers.

In a new report, Moody’s Investor Service calls MOOCs a “pivotal development” that has the potential to revolutionize higher education. Questions remain whether these online courses can be profitable and whether traditional colleges will award credit for them. But if successful, MOOCs could lead to lower costs for families and access to higher-quality instruction for anyone in the world who has Internet access.

As to the grads, according to the media most of them want to be entrepreneurs or are still looking for riches on Wall Street, but not all. What other career path is attracting interest these days—would you believe farming?

For decades, the number of farmers has been shrinking as a share of the population, and agriculture has often been seen as a backbreaking profession with little prestige. But the last Agricultural Census in 2007 showed a 4 percent increase in the number of farms, the first increase since 1920, and some college graduates are joining in the return to the land. (…) “You don’t get into farming for the money. You do it for the love of the game.” –Calvin Kyrkostas, 25

Flickr image credit: pedroelcarvalho

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