MOOCs, cheap smartphones and dire poverty: about to flip the planet?

Moore’s Law is rapidly putting the entire third world online. This fact, combined with MOOCs, may just turn the rest of the world upside down.

The digital divide is dying fast

There are important new ways in which that old chestnut, the digital divide, the gulf between digital haves and have not’s, is coming to an end more quickly than anyone planned, and the consequences could be startling.

  • smartphones, tablets  are getting cheap enough to make going online affordable in the third world
  • they are going to get even cheaper
  • the whole third world will soon be online
  • MOOCs like Coursera are putting degrees online
  • when proctoring for free online courses is working, third world people will be able to afford first world degrees
  • the first world will hire millions of third world graduates
  • there will be millions of third world graduates sending money home
  • they will be able to secure investment in third world development
  • the third world will quickly catch up with the BRICS
  • Scott Young’s MIT Challenge success shows that it’s possible to do a degree in a year: the first world may ignore this, but the third won’t

Bottom-end smartphone prices are continuously falling (a quite serviceable Android phone can already be had for a few tens of dollars) and cheap tablet prices are falling even faster.

This, combined with the plummeting cost of providing mobile Internet connectivity in remote locations is allowing people with limited access to things that the first world takes for granted (like clean drinking water) to get online.

Who would have thought that something as ‘first world’ as Internet access would be a resource which someone would be able to get even if they were living in a place where such things as sanitation, driveable roads and even their next meal could not be guaranteed?

You live way below the poverty line, but now you can get online: what next?

What life-changing thing can someone living in a remote, poorly resourced environment do that they couldn’t do before, just because they have access to the Internet?

You’re thinking of doing WHAT?

They can seriously consider (and even speculating about this a year or so ago would have been hopelessly unrealistic, pure fantasy) getting themselves a first-class, first-world university degree.

What do they need to make this seemingly impossible dream a reality?

What if even a shoestring budget is still too much?

Because they are so poor, they need all of the following things to be free, or as near to free as possible:

    • course materials to study
    • online lectures they can watch
    • course exercises so that they can practice what they learn
    • interactive exercise checking to make sure they’re getting things right
    • curriculum scheduling to make sure they cover all the relevant topics on a meaningful timetable
    • study groups so that they can get peer feedback from other students when they get stuck

They can get all this right now, from the likes of Coursera, but in a quite limited range of subjects.

What’s missing right now?

    1. free (or very cheap) degree examination invigilation (‘proctoring’) and properly accredited degrees
    2. recognition by employers of such degrees
    3. a wide range of subjects where all the requirements above are met

What would be the consequences for the third world of all three of these problems being solved?

Suddenly: tens of millions of degrees of freedom

The number of graduating students from developing countries would have the potential to quickly exceed those in the first world, even if first world students eventually also take up free online courses.

The problem with proctoring will not just be restricted to ‘going where invigilation has never gone before’ (i.e., ‘invigilating applicants from essentially self-taught online degree courses’) but ‘invigilation on a scale never seen before’: if the cost of proctoring can be brought to a low enough level without jeopardising integrity, the number of those applying for it will quickly rise to tens of millions.

The Empire may try to strike back, but it will probably be confused

Those in the first world would also have their own ‘countervailing forces’ potentially holding back the take up of exactly the same free courses (existing options, a jittery educational establishment and cultural predispositions would all play their part inhibiting uptake).

There is the inherent possibility of a horse-race emerging between both worlds as far as the take up and impact of free online higher education is concerned.

What would the quality of the graduates of free online courses be?

That’s a question whose answer is more likely to be dependent upon the quality of proctoring than any other factor.

What would the consequences be if the answer to that last question turned out to be ‘at least as good as a graduate from a well-respected first world bricks and mortar university’?

The resulting scenarios if this were the case would be expected to be quite dramatic:

The first result would be almost inevitable.

Suddenly: legion upon legion of cheap, impressive graduates

The present, long-established high cost to first world employers of hiring graduates would collapse.

Either because employers which hitherto required ’first world university degree accredited’ graduates  would import third world ‘free online course accredited’ graduates ‘onshore’, or instead they would be for the first time be in a position to ‘offshore’ operations which had up until now survived the two previous waves of offshoring (initially manufacturing and then financial services, e.g., call centres).

As dramatic as that might be, its degree of ‘unpredictability of long-term implications’  could be relatively insignificant compared to the next potential ramification.

We simply have no precedent for a scenario where places in the world with large numbers of people who have virtually no local infrastructure and a consequently impoverished standard of living, yet suddenly acquire a standard of education unsurpassed in the western world.

Could they improve their local conditions more effectively, rapidly  and dramatically than ever before?

The third world infrastructure investment scene could change rapidly

Imagine if, as a result of the perceived capacity for financial self-discipline that comes with credible academic achievement, such graduates are able to attract development funding for their local infrastructure.

They would, probably for the first time in the history of their impoverished locale, be expected to be able to pay it back (especially if their qualifications enable them to secure employment in the first world).

With potentially tens of millions of graduates being in a position to influence third world development investment in this way, the resulting increase in infrastructure would be on a scale which would formerly have only been entrusted to first-world commercial developers who hitherto would never have even remotely considered undertaking development of such seemingly unpromising locations and communities (and aid agencies will tell you that there are literally millions of such places scattered around the globe).

The consequences of such trust, if it were proven to be well founded, would be that everything we have recently seen happening in the BRICS over the last decade or so (massive development) would start happening (quite possibly at an even faster pace) in just about everywhere else that has never seen any really significant development or economic growth.

A whole new ball game?

As dramatic as the BRICS phenomenon has been, it has not been fueled by the kind massive ‘graduate upsurge’ taking place outside the first world that the prospect of zero-cost high quality graduate-level education (which would also affect the BRICS) presents.

As a consequence, we really have no idea what the real impact of such an upsurge would be.

But the way things are going, it looks as if we are about to find out.

Not so fast

At first sight it would seem that these potential scenarios, however possible, are still probably quite some way off into the future.

This sense, that the impact of free and highly productive degree-level education on the third world is not just dependent upon fixing those things missing from current online offerings and may therefore be forestalled by other factors, does need to be taken seriously.

Such factors as a lack of fluency by prospective students in English (or in any other major international language that the free online course material would be available in) and the fact that most students would first need to progress through the kind of secondary education that they would need to undergo (but are unlikely to have received in much of the third world) before embarking upon degree courses would seem, on the face of it, to indicate a relatively slow start to the process, giving the world plenty of time to watch the situation develop and adjust accordingly (whatever that ‘adjustment’ might mean, if anything, in practice).

Not so slow either

But in practice, it is quite possible that other related developments on the educational scene may significantly accelerate the pace at which the potential ‘graduate upsurge’ would start to manifest itself.

What if our expectations of timescale turn out to be unnecessarily stretched-out by established institutional practices which turn out to have no real bearing upon the realities of online education?

A lone individual put this possibility to the test this year, and the results, which were unquestionably breathtaking, have direct relevance to the issues here.

Suddenly: our concept of degree timescales looks hopelessly outdated

This particular student decided to squeeze a four year degree into a single year.

The subject was not chosen because it was particularly easy (it was Computer Science).

The university which produced the study materials does not have a reputation for graduating students with below-par capabilities (it was MIT).

The student did not have the benefit of attending any classes, or of being tutored by university staff.

In many senses, he represents what a student of a free online course represents.

But he successfully completed one of the world’s most respected four year degree courses in one year.

So much for the potential impact of online education being just about proliferation, quality, accessibility and cost.

Putting it all together

Combined with the Coursera phenomenon and  the collapsing cost of Internet access in the third world, his achievements don’t just portend a world turned upside down by the ascendance of those currently marginalised by limited educational opportunities: they open up the possibility that this could all happen faster than anyone would have thought possible.

Online education, of unprecedented quality and variety will soon be affordable and accessible to everyone on the planet.

The poorest can be expected to consume it and to use it with the least inhibition and with the most consequence.

The effects are not likely to be trivial, or slow in emerging.

Affordable education for all: killer app of the Internet?