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 www.coursera.org for more on the other courses available.