Notes from the Saylor Digital Education Conference April 2013

It’s the money, stupid.

At the Saylor Digital Education Conference, this past week (April 2013), Michael Saylor talked at length about his own educational journey. He came out of MIT with no debt and was able to start a company. A student coming out of college today with over $100,000 in debt or a medical school with $400,000 of debt cannot innovate or take a risk. He stressed that the goal of the Saylor Foundation is free education for everyone. And finally, I understood that he actually meant what he said. He doesn’t mean he will put free content on a website and super-focused students can go through it all themselves. He means a high quality, guided college education for FREE. How that will happen isn’t clear, nor is how that will be sustainable, but that is what many at the conference are figuring out through trial and error yielding the next set of ideas. The argument for free is pretty clear. Right now, a 4 year college degree costs $200,000 or more. A colleague mentioned that colleges themselves claim the true cost is nearer to $280,000. That is just not ever going to scale to universal education, and it truly is limiting the future of even our brightest and most fortunate students.

How about free?

Saylor thinks that universal, free education will happen online, interactively, and will be personalized using software that people at the conference (and others) are developing. It might be paid for through advertising, or through recruitment fees, or through business models as yet unheard of.

I am also convinced that we can learn a lot more with a little help from our digital friends. We will have the ability to interact with digital models, to interleave practice with memory refreshers, to create online portfolios of our vision. We can have all our past knowledge and entire degrees worth of new knowledge at our fingertips.

But don’t spend it all on technology.

I do have worries about all this focus on digital everything transforming education. So far, most of the really dramatic results in education that I know of come from giving smart teachers the ability to interact directly with learners. Technology has never matched the dramatic gains that smart teachers make. More on that in the next post.

OER from the learner’s perspective.

My talk at the conference was chiefly about the power of semantic document formats, open-source content transformation tools, and well thought out user interfaces for authors. But, I also made an attempt to show the vision from the perspective of a learner, benefiting from the sorts of learning that is possible once their textbooks and courses are available in interoperable formats.

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