Higher education isn’t getting any cheaper. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau student loan debt surpassed $1.2 trillion in 2013. But while the Ivies, or any other universities for that matter, aren’t cutting tuition costs, education itself is more accessible than ever.
Massive Open Online Courses, MOOCs, have grown and evolved since becoming popular in 2011. Private companies with minor connection to universities offer hundreds of courses to millions of students for little to no tuition cost. And students are still learning together in one room—a chatroom.
Some companies are flipping the typical education model even more. San Francisco-based Minerva Project is aiming to bring the world’s brightest students together and send them around the world, living and taking classes together in cities like Shanghai, Delhi, and London for roughly $30,000 a year. But there are no campuses or classrooms. Students will live together in residence halls and take all their coursework online through Minerva’s platform.
While most online courses are lecture-based, Minerva hopes to change that using it’s own course software. “We don’t offer a single lecture at Minerva,” says CEO Ben Nelson. “The role of the university isn’t to lecture you. That’s what online education has become and it’s not revolutionary at all.” Nelson’s high-touch, interactive vision helped net $25 million in venture capital in 2013. Minerva’s pilot class of 19 students starts in fall of 2014 and the first full class is set to follow in fall of 2015.
Nelson sees Minerva expanding into up to 30 cities over the next few years, being as choosy as the most selective U.S. institutions, and costing just $10,000 tuition per year (room and board come out to about $18,000). But with these still high costs, the alternatives of free, online learning remain abundant. Companies like Coursera, Udacity, and EdX are gaining more traction and evolving.
In 2013, the Gates Foundation made a $9 million investment in higher education breakthroughs, namely “adaptive learning.” Donald Clark, a board member at Learndirect in the U.K., sees harnessing these new developments as the vital cog in developing better MOOCs. “Most online learning is flat and quite linear, like reading a Wikipedia page,” Clark says. “But adaptive learning uses the backend power, the clever algorithms. It’s a bit like having a navigation system guide you in your car that knows where you’re coming from, and if you go off course, tries to get you back on.” The first fully-adaptive MOOC is currently being built and scheduled to be at EdX in 2014.
For Clark, the most important element of MOOCs development is the ability to scale. While college-level education has been historically elitist, MOOCs supply the phenomenon of accessible education to an enormous untapped demand. They’re not just degree chasers either. Of roughly 309,000 students taking MOOCs through the University of Edinburgh last year, just 33% of respondents were looking to earn their certificate, while 95% were looking to learn something new.
“There’s been more pedagogy change in the past 10 years than the past 1,000,” Clark says. “And it’s all taking place in the minds of real people in the real world.”