Tech & Education

by Pulak Mittal on April 23, 2013

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I love education. My parents instilled in me a deep love of learning and a thirst for knowledge from a young age. That interest has manifested itself in a number of ways. I have been a teaching assistant at Penn for the last 5 semesters, interned at the edtech company, Piazza, after my freshman summer, and now I am working on an edtech startup with a friend at Penn.

Some of the new companies/platforms I’m particularly excited about include Coursera and Khan Academy. How is the world going to be different when anyone with an Internet connection can receive an education comparable to or better than what students receive at 99% of the world’s universities? Picture it – currently thousands of professors around the country teach the same Physics 101, Econ 101, and World History 101 every semester. Many of these professors are hired for their research, not their teaching ability. What could we do if instead students were able to listen to online lectures by the best lecturer for every subject they were taking? And what if they could do that from their home rather than having to pay (tens of) thousands of dollars per semester at a university?

I think the potential here is ridiculous. In two decades – maybe even one – the college experience may be tremendously different from what we are used to now. Khan Academy, for example, has received press in the past few years for trying to “turn the classroom upside down.” In some school districts, rather than teaching during class and assigning problems as homework, classes have experimented with assigning students to watch videos on Khan Academy as their homework while their class time is spent solving problems. In this way teachers can help their students understand concepts they are struggling with, struggles that are easier to identify in the classroom than at home.

I would not be surprised if something along these lines becomes the norm in higher-level education. But I may not even be thinking big enough.  A few weeks ago, Penn hosted the “Coursera Partners’ Conference” to have a discussion about Coursera and online learning. As New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, put it during one of the panel discussions, “If I were to compare this time in MOOC [Massive Open Online Courses] development to Internet search, Alta Vista just got invented — Google hasn’t even arrived yet.” Pretty profound!

So who knows what things could look like in just a few years? I’ve had an awesome experience at Penn, and learned a ton, but some of my best learning opportunities weren’t in the classroom. Organizing PennApps has helped me grow tremendously and made me a better leader, manager, and communicator. Dorm Room Fund has given me the opportunity to evaluate companies from the lens of a real investor and see patterns in what “good” companies do right or what “less good” companies do poorly. Neither of these would have been possible if I wasn’t physically here at Penn. Education is going to improve dramatically because of technology, but hopefully the college experience is not eliminated as a consequence!

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave Howlett April 24, 2013 at 9:15 am

Great thoughts Pulak. My wife did a self-sponsored EMBA a few years back. It cost her $90,000. I’ve reflected on the value of her program came from the curriculum but also on the networking opportunities with other industry leaders. If the world is moving towards a virtual campus format, how will people develop those relationships?

Pulak April 25, 2013 at 5:19 pm

Hi Dave! I agree that the relationship aspect is critical, and one reason that (I believe) we will never move to a purely virtual campus. I guess online education solutions like DeVry (and Coursera-based competitors) will grow, but they will not completely supplant the college experience. The future here is exciting and uncertain, and I hope to see college as a whole get much better in the next few years!

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