Why Online Education Works

"Technology is rapidly changing how much interaction can occur online. The future is lectures plus intelligent, on the fly assessment. The GRE, for example, is a computer-adaptive test—when you answer questions correctly you get a harder question; when you answer incorrectly you get an easier question. The adaptive nature of the test makes it possible to zero in more quickly on true ability. The future of online education is adaptive assessment, not for testing, but for learning. Incorrect answers are not random but betray specific assumptions and patterns of thought. Analysis of answers, therefore, can be used to guide students to exactly that lecture that needs to be reviewed and understood to achieve mastery of the material. Computer-adaptive testing will thus become computer-adaptive learning.

Computer-adaptive learning will be as if every student has their own professor on demand—much more personalized than one professor teaching 500 students or even 50 students. In his novel Diamond Age, science fiction author Neal Stephenson describes a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, an interactive book that can answer a learner’s questions with specific information and also teach young children with allegories tuned to the child’s environment and experience. In short, something like an iPad combining Siri, Watson, and the gaming technology behind an online world like Skyrim. Surprisingly, the computer will make learning less standardized and robotic.

In Diamond Age, the very first Illustrated Primer is created by a billionaire for use by his own child, but within a decade only slightly less functional devices are made available to millions. Online education has the potential to break the cost disease by substituting capital for labor and hitching productivity improvements in education to productivity improvements in software, artificial intelligence, and computing."