The future of education – a ‘world school’ and virtual universities

There was an article in the Telegraph magazine this week about a fabulous sounding new private school in New York.  ‘Avenues’ is known not just as a school, but as a world school or – if you prefer – “an integrated learning community”.

Half of the lessons are taught in Mandarin or Spanish; the children will be trilingual when they leave school; everything is done on iPads; there is “an atmosphere of calm; the ground floor includes a “mom café” in which anxious mummies can spend as much time as they like; moral and ethical values are considered part of the curriculum; and the new ten- storey building is “bathed in light.”

If you are interested in being an Avenues parent (and who wouldn’t be?) you can watch a virtual prospectus on YouTube and think about how you might raise the $40,000 a year fees when the school opens in cities around the world in the next decade.

In the meantime the key point to take away here is one that founder Chris Whittle makes in the piece. “The world has changed”, he says, “but education has changed more slowly than anything else”.

He is right. We have completely changed the way we work and organise our leisure time in the last 20 years, but schools and universities are not only much the same as they always have been, but they are the same all over the world. “If a Martian came to Earth and went to a school in Notting Hill or Beverley Hills or Beijing they would think they were all pretty much the same thing.”

That might be about to change. At Davos this year, the subject of online education was “ultra hot”, and in the FT this week Gillian Tett looks at traditional education and asks “What is the point of university?”

Back in our day we had to be on campus in order to attend lectures, meet tutors and, of course, borrow books from the library. Now everything can be done on Skype and an iPad – MIT puts all its courses online already. When all this takes off, former Harvard president Larry Summers told Davos: “it will be hugely transformative.”

Perhaps it already is. A snippet in the Mail on Sunday makes the point. Edinburgh University offers six online courses known as Moocs (massive open online courses) in subjects as diverse as equine nutrition and astrobiology, and has seen applications for them rise 50% in the last eight weeks alone.

University isn’t going to disappear – it is about “valuable campus experiences” and social insurance for the middle classes as well as about the course work itself, says Tett. However, it is well worth noticing that the 50% rise in Moocs applications at Edinburgh adds up to 300,000 people, and that there are currently a mere 26,000 undergraduates studying at the physical university.

PS You can apply for an Edinburgh Mooc too – they are free and run for five weeks. The Edinburgh programme is part of the wider Coursera Consortium – see for more on the other courses available.

  • dave

    Good article but barely scratches the surface of the opportunity..
    Schools suffer from 2 things a) poor discipline b) poor teachers.
    On-line courses explain concepts better and cheaper than your average high school Teacher.
    Solution is to go for a better and cheaper education model. It is not teachers we need but people to monitor progress, provide discipline and channel people to experts as required.
    And the country could do with the savings!

    Higher education, I have 2 degrees. My 2nd from Distance Learning (when it was much worse than now) was much much better than the degree.
    4 years on campus could be narrowed down to a few weeks or months based on the requirements of the course.

    I agree education is in the stone age and this is huge low hanging fruit for UK PLC

  • Banker

    I never attended lectures at the top university I went to. Never could see a point in attending as books are so much better. For most lecturers lecturer is just his job. For most authors a book is much more than that… Can not see the need for hundreds of universities with lecturers parrotting out the same material. Can not see the need for thousands of schools with teachers parroting out the same material. In the future interactive courses should be written by really top experts and the rest should assist students where they require extra help.

  • Roger

    I will send my kid to Princeton in Sep 2013. No matter what $ that means, being aligne oneself to Ben Bernake is worth paying no matter what other people thinks.

  • Roger

    On line or not, Edinburgh was never on the map.

  • MichaelL

    “bookks are so much better. For most lecturers lecturer is just his job”

    I don’t think so, most lecturers will do research and lecturing would be a small part of their daily ‘work’. Unless you are talking about some of the newer “Universities”.

    I can’t think of anything less appealing to students than studying at home and not experiencing University properly.

    I graduated in 93, and I distinctly remember the socially awkward kids that revealed they were staying at home rather than racking up debts like the rest of us – all a bit sad really.

    Edinburgh has to have on-line courses as nobody would want to live there 😉 Too cold. Too remote. In Scotland.

  • Shinsei1967

    Merryn claims that the world of work has changed dramatically over the last 20 years but that education has stayed the same.

    Really ? So the Moneyweek staff don’t all sit in an office in central London writing their pieces, just as magazine journalists would have done 20 years ago ?

    Yes, there’s a bit more “working from home” and use of technology but then that’s the case with education too. DVDs of Brian Cox, wikipedia, language learning computer programmes, podcasts and being able to email or text your tutor have modernised education just as much as the workplace.

    And I can assure Merryn her history degree from Caius will continue to be worth more than someone else who has watched a degree’s worth of David Starkey on YouTube.

  • Shinsei1967

    Just read the Avenues prospectus.

    The only really original thing about it (being multilingual in NYC is really NOT original and not something you need to pay $40,000 pa to achieve) is the ability for pupils to spend six months or a year in sister schools all over the world. Once they’re built (!).

    Which is all good in theory. The difficulty is that you have to ensure all schools follow the same curriculum and do the same exams. Which in this case will be the US exam and college entrance system.

    So all you are getting is a standard American education just in a Middle Eastern or European zip code.

    International/American schools the world over already provide this.

    And do 16 year olds in New York really want to spend a year in Beijing ?

  • Shinsei1967

    One last point.

    We’ve had distance learning/no campus universities in the UK since the Open University was founded as far back as 1969. Over 250,000 students.

    The idea that “universities are much as they have ever been” is a bizarre claim.

    I think someone has been watching too many old episodes of Inspector Morse.

  • Boris MacDonut

    #6 to 8 Shinsei is right. Merryn is so wide of the mark here as to be in a different country.What is she talking about? The “world of work” isn’t much different than in 1985. You really, really need to read “What are Universities for?” byStefan Collini and stop seeing everything in pound notes.

  • Merryn

    @Shinsei. I haven’t been to the office for weeks… The OU is different to being able to take any uni course you want from all the top unis in the world online.

  • Boris MacDonut

    #10 Merryn. Your world of work may be a bit different. But surely for nurses, plumbers, farmers, waiters, vicars, newsreaders, clowns, soldiers, firemen,schoolteachers, shopkeepers,professional footballers, garage mechanics……..and so on, it is still very much turn up for 8 hours and do a job.Why should education be any different? Why should university not seek to educate kids into the real world instead of sitting at the end of a fibre optic cable….in Shetland?

  • Boris MacDonut

    Oh. Forgot to mention. Chris Whittle is deluded if he thinks everything will be done on Ipads in the future. A bit like the investors who inflated his company to $40 a share only to see it collapse to$1.50.

  • JT

    “The world of work isn’t much different than in 1985”? Even by your standards, Boris, that is the most preposterous things I’ve read in ages.

    The world of work has changed beyond all recognition since I started in the early ’90s, and I’d be very surprised if the same wasn’t true for all the occupations you’ve listed (yes, even waiters use iPads these days, and try fixing your car when it’s run by its own computer that the mechanic can access electronically to diagnose problems).

    And the speed of change is increasing. If you think it will not have changed beyond all recognition again in another 10 years, you must have very narrow horizons.

  • Shinsei1967

    “I haven’t been to the office for weeks… “

    You’re “editor in chief” which I believe means you don’t edit MW on a daily basis. The same job would also be a “working from home” and/or “roving round the country” brief 20-30 years ago too.

    I’m guessing John Stepek is in the office most days, as are 50 (?) members of staff (journalists, marketing, IT, design, editing, finance etc).

    Look at commuter numbers into London, the bustle on the tube, the number of new offices being built.

    Someone seems to be working in London offices.

  • Shinsei1967


    “yes, even waiters use iPads these days”

    Well, hardly any as iPads cost £350 and restaurants aren’t noted for their high margins.

    But even if they were isn’t this essentially exactly what waiters did 10, 50 and 100 years ago.

    You sit at a table and a waiter comes over and takes your order. Whether he writes it on a pad, an iPad or just remembers it does it really substantially change the nature of the job ?

    And the bringing the plates over, topping up wine, persuading you to order a pudding, and fetching coats hasn’t changed one iota.

    The only substantial change in “work” over the last 50 years has been the huge productivity improvement/automation in manufacturing industries and the subsequent collapse in factory employment.

  • Boris MacDonut

    #13 JT .How crass and flippantly ill thought through. How on earth can you say that work has changed beyond all recognition? I am sure for all the occupations I mentioned 90% or more of their day to day work, the routine and so on is exactly the same.
    If you went back to 1990 in a time machine would you be so uttertly out of your depth/comfort zone?I think not. I think you msay these things for the sake of something to say, and it is usually tosh.

  • Shinsei1967

    “The OU is different to being able to take any uni course you want from all the top unis in the world online.”

    You can’t do a Cambridge engineering course online. Engineers spend every afternoon in a lab doing practical stuff. I suspect much the same is true of all the sciences.

    Yes, you can do history or English lit online. You read the set books, possibly podcast a lecture (though most Arts grads go to very few lectures anyway) write an essay a week and get it marked.

    But there is clearly a physical limit to being able to access an hour’s one-to-one supervision with a tutor online. Sure you can “do” the Cambridge history course online but there simply aren’t enough dons to offer online students an hour a week of their time. They’re at capacity dealing with “real” students already.

  • Shinsei1967

    Rarely have I ever agreed so much with Mr MacDonut.

    JT you really are talking rubbish. What is surpising is how little work has changed despite technological advancement.

    I spent 20 years working in the City. The only major difference over that time was getting Bloombergs/computers and thus real time information and data.

    Otherwise it’s a daily commute to an office in London, sit in a dealing room, read brokers report, visit company management, talk to clients, put on orders, and back home via Balls Brothers.

    Friends who are lawyers, accountants, architects, managers etc would all have the same story to tell.

  • Romford Dave

    The workplace has changed significantly since the eighties or at least it has for the majority and for a number of reasons not all of which are necessarily to do with work.

    What’s more interesting is this almost Luddite attitude by some whom I’d have expected different of, to an educational tool that clearly benefits more people than any physical campus could possibly accommodate.

    How can any supporter of broadening the reach of higher education deny the value of such an online facility?

  • Shinsei1967

    Romford Dave

    Are you being serious ? That article refers to social changes within an office environment that have occured over the decades. The lack of sexism in the office and airconditioning are indeed huge boons but they don’t intrinsically change the nature of work. Which is what we were discussing.

    And I don’t think anyone was disparaging online university courses, least of all me, I happen to think they are a great idea. However they are clearly not a replacement for the “real thing”.

    I suspect most of these top university online lectures are actually watched by undergrads at that university or undergrads at other universities. Easier to watch a 60 min decent lecture than plough through a couple of books.

    But it really is just a C21st equivalent of borrowing your mate’s notes when you’ve been out on the razzle.

  • JT


    I’m a lawyer, and used to spend quite a bit of time in Balls Bros. I can tell you that although ‘the law’ doesn’t change very rapidly, ‘the practice of law’ has changed enormously in the 20 years I’ve been working. This is true whether you look at the nature of what lawyers do, how they do it, where they do it or who they do it for. It has been brought about by a combination of technological advance, deregulation and changes in the way clients consume legal services.

    We are now seeing UK legal work outsourced to India where it can be done by UK qualified Indian graduates who will work 15 hours a day at a very competitive wage (non-legal support services like typing, copying and IT went over there 10 years ago, of course)…

  • JT

    …On an average day I will speak to clients and other lawyers in China, India, Singapore or Australia (amongst other places), all of which can be done from my home study via laptop, headset and video conference using a webcam. We can ‘share desktops’ while speaking face to face and draft and amend contracts in real time.

    Companies now positively encourage home working because offices are open plan with hot desks and if everyone came in there wouldn’t be enough space for them.

    The world IS changing, whether or not you’ve noticed.

  • Romford Dave

    That the changes occurred over decades is of no consequence, it simply highlights the difference between then and now.

    An architect then is still an architect now, yet the ease in which visions are created using computer aided design is a lifetime away from earlier drawings by hand, quite apart from the ability to share such visions instantly with anyone having an online capability anywhere in the world.

    City traders don’t even have to be based in the city anymore.

    Doesn’t the final paragraph of your post at #6 contain just a hint of someone being disparaging? Boris could possible argue he was being disparaging about Shetland rather than distance learning per se, but I can honestly say that I’m surprised at the reaction to Merryn’s generally upbeat and positive article about changes to an education delivery system, which I thought on the whole would be welcomed.

  • Shinsei1967


    Three of my best friends are partners in London law firms. They all commute into City or West End offices every day, with the occasional Friday spent at home. Much as London lawyers have always done. None “hot desks”.

    And I can assure you pretty much all City finance firms discourage, if not ban, “home working” for compliance and regulatory reasons. There’s a reason why there are so many skyscrapers in Canary Wharf.

    Of course communications are hugely more sophisticated these days, but people dealt with the colonies in the days of Empire by letter and by telephone and fax in the 80s and now can skype and email. I’d argue that this doesn’t change the intrinsic nature of the work (ie dealing with clients) but just facilitates it.

  • Shinsei1967

    e all based in London. And (as I said earlier) they have to make those markets from their actual desks. Funnily enough compliance doesn’t allow you to book trades and make markets over your Blackberry whilst having a long weekend in Cornwall.

    (And as an historical aside there were pretty major regional stock exchanges in the provinces pre-Big Bang).

  • Romford Dave

    There was a reason why I said they don’t have to Shinsei.

    As you’ve brought up the subject of the big bang, can you still realistically contend that life in the city hasn’t changed since then?

    It’s of little consequence arguing over semantics, the reference was made in relation to education and her comparison broadly stands.

  • Boris MacDonut

    #22 JT .Now you backtrack to say the World is changing.Just now you insisted it had changed already. That’s a lawyer for you.Experts in calling black white.

  • JT


    My father worked in banking for 40 years. He would drive to the office (where there was a parking space reserved for him). His secretary (who he didn’t have to share with anyone), did all his typing, filing and even answered his phone. Her first job in the morning was to bring him a cup of coffee.

    His primary daily task was to go through that morning’s post. Having done so – as he still delights in telling me – you were pretty much free to go home. You couldn’t do anything else until the recipient replied, which would be some time during the following week, if they were prompt.

    Meetings were always face to face in his office, whichwas convenient then because all his customers lived and worked within a 20 mile radius of his desk.

    I don’t doubt that some of the fundamentals of banking are the same now as they were in the 17th century, but I can’t agree that ‘the world of work’, as Boris put it, hasn’t changed even in the last decade.

  • JT


    I was a partner at a City law firm for many years. I agree with you that law firms tend to be late to the party, but the legal market is undergoing a fundamental reshaping right now and those who don’t see it (and there are many) will not be in business over the long term.

  • JT


    A world which has changed, is changing and will continue to change is not a concept I find difficult to grasp. Keep up.

  • Shinsei1967

    Yes, Big Bang has transformed the City. And, yes, technology and globalisation has made most professional jobs very much more demanding.

    However, my central point was how little “online” stuff had transformed the world of work.

    A NatWest bank manager still commutes into an office on the High St just as his father’s generation would have done. And he’ll sit in judgement as to whether X gets a mortgage or Y gets a company loan.

    Whether he does his own typing and picks up his coffee from the local Costa is a detail rather than the essence of the job function.

    Look how online music destroyed CDs and High St retailers within ten years. That is a fundamental change.

    Accountants, architects, bankers and lawyers just haven’t been faced with similar changes.

    Record shops now no longer exist. However Captain Mainwarings bank is still there on the High St with a modern day Pike behind the counter.

  • Banker

    @ Shinsei1967

    Yes traders are still expected to do most of their work from the office with trading from home simply not being allowed. I suppose when trades running into billions could be entered into ny mistake it makes sense to have the extra controls of seeing that the person is sober and is not under duress.

    But for every trader there tens of support staff of varios kinds – almost all of them could work from home. IT WOULD ACTUALLY STRENGTHEN CONTROLS. With employees working from home all forms of communications between them will be fully recorded. Managers will start acting on very little concern escallated etc.

  • JT


    On the contrary, retail banking has changed completely. For a start, computers make lending decisions these days, not people. The ‘managers’ in branch are there primarily to implement targets, not to practice ‘banking’ in any sense which would be recognisable to the bankers of 30 years ago. If you don’t believe me, go into your local branch the next time you get charged a fee in error and see just how much authority the branch manager has. Absolutely none!

  • Boris MacDonut

    #30 JT.You said that work had changed beyond all recognition in past 25 years. Shinsei and Banker ,have helped explain why it hasn’t. You were wrong, it is as simple as that. Average working hours per week in 1985 was 39 now it is 38. Typical commute was 26 minutes,now it is 32. The biggest change is that few wear a suit and tie……..except lawyers.

  • dr ray

    I have to disagree with you once again.
    Sure many people still commute to their offices and sit at a desk but vast amounts of the working day are now spent on Facebook and Ebay and accessing Angry Birds on smartphones. Even commenting on Moneyweek I shouldn’t wonder.
    This is possibly the biggest effect technology has had on productivity. Why even labourers skive off to access their emails during the working day.

  • Boris MacDonut

    #35 drray. I suppose the increase in commuting times is a reflection of more people commuting and not living over the shop. In my experience few office workers access the Interweb. At my office it is forbidden and even if they did it is just the modern equivalent of browsing a newspaper in your lunch hour.
    Desks are still desks, files are still files, chairs are still chairs and the fundamentals of office life are really little different…..other than the smoking ban and the ubiquitous computer screens.

  • JT

    Boris, your stat about average working hours proves nothing, particularly as I’ve never said working hours have fallen – quite the opposite in my experience, as the Internet, globalisation and remote working have made many jobs 24/7.

    As for commuting time, more people are travelling further (partly through flexible working practices which technology has opened up). Your stat tells me nothing.

    If you really want to believe that we’re all still locked in the 80s, be my guest. If that was how my job made me feel I’d want to be doing something else for a living, but each to their own.

  • GFL

    Lectures are a complete waste of time, they generally last an hour with the lecturer pretty much reading the course notes. What else can he do in a hour with 100+ students in the lecture hall? There is obviously no opportunity for debate or detailed questioning.

    I went to a fairly good university (top 10 I believe) about 8 years ago, back then alot of students were asking themselves why they are paying so much money to have a professor effectively read a book to them. It seems this question is even more important day than it was back then.

    In the professional word loads of people are teaching themselves, from accountants to developers – and often in very aggressive time scales.

  • teacher

    I think the theories and processes have changed – it’s just now everyone is expected to do twice (or three times) as much work and be paid half as much – which lately, hardly stretches to the end of the week

  • Michael

    See also a superb article on this subject in The Economist of 22 December 2012. Available online.

  • M.A.Devereux

    Merry Somerset World-Wide-Webb

  • Pingback: Google()