Sunday, June 30, 2013

A Classroom in the Cloud

By Thomas M. Koulopolous

One of my favorite YouTube videos is of a toddler with a magazine on her lap, looking perplexed as she tries to operate it by touch—to her a magazine is a defective iPad.

Why do I bring this up in the context of education? Simple. If you want to know how we will work, live, and learn in 20 years’ time, then just look at how your kids play today. Tomorrow’s workers are being trained to expect a level of instant and always-on collaboration free from the physical constraints of time and place, or even the notion intellectual property ownership. These kids shun the assumption that any knowledge is owned or that anything can be learned without constant sharing and transparency. As a result, the way we educate is in a state of intense change.

Institutions of higher learning, such as MIT, already have open-sourced the entirety of their curriculum by making course content free and available to the public. At Stanford, three professors have opened up their classes, at no charge, to anyone who wants to access them online. One of these classes, An Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, had 160,000 registrants, 35,000 of whom stuck it out and continued the class. The class now ranks as the most widely attended online university class in the world. While non-paying students do not get college credit for the class, they do get a certificate of completion signed by the professors. For many, that is more than enough to demonstrate their ability to themselves and potential employers.

In the critically important segment of K-12, schools in the United States are investing heavily in the concept of Innovation Zones, which are experimenting with personalized courses, virtual learning, and intense interschool collaboration geared to students’ strengths and weaknesses.

New institutions such as the University of Phoenix and Kaplan Learning have started to disrupt traditional classroom education by offering courses online. While these for-profit enterprises often are critiqued for not being as well equipped with traditional Ph.D.-level academic professors, they also are much more likely to be able to scale their business model and leverage talented instructors who are much closer, from an industry perspective, to the materials being taught in a classroom. The point is not that traditional education is at the end of its lifecycle but rather that a blended model is needed, which, according to Robert W. Wrubel, Chief Innovation Officer at Apollo Group, the parent company of the University of Phoenix, “redefines education as a journey that is not episodic—a separate time when you are part of an intensive learning experience, and then you pull out, and you go into the job and workforce—but instead a lifelong process.“

None of this is meant to imply that we should throw out traditional learning. Early parts of the learning process still benefit from a traditional classroom in parts of the world where access to brick-and-mortar classrooms is available and cost-effective. There is nothing like an inspired and passionate teacher to motivate students. I’ve been party to both sides of that equation as student and professor, and I value that interaction immensely. But I’ve also seen the power and reach of learning in the cloud, where knowledge is shared freely in open communities.

Simply put, we should not make the shift from traditional education to learning in the cloud a zero-sum proposition. Instead, we need to look at the merits of both and use each where needed, while also using each to leverage the other.

Yet, for most, the dream of an open virtual university is still just that, a dream. Like the promise of flying cars, it is a vision of the future that always seems to be just a few decades away.

In large part, this is because of the fundamental social and cultural role classrooms and campuses play. Few of us can imagine replacing the bond of trust and intimacy created by the face-to-face interaction of our school experiences fully with any technology.

But, as with any dramatic shift, what we fail to appreciate is the value added after the shift has occurred and the expectations that we bring to the new experience.

In the case of education, we are in the process of retooling a global workforce on a scale never before seen in the history of mankind. You could argue that putting a classroom in the cloud may not provide the sort of intimacy you and I grew up with, but you cannot argue the benefits of providing access to primary, secondary, and post-secondary education to every human being. In addition, we have to accept that the traditional role of education as a means of preparing for the certainty of life is at least equal to, and will soon be surpassed by, the role of education in helping us to deal in the moment with the increasing uncertainty of life.

Again, to put it simply, this means that learning in the cloud is available to every human being, on demand without regard to economics, time, or location; that the interaction with the learning system must provide real-time access to learning throughout our lives, and lastly, that it provides a quality of visual communication that conveys the nuances of an in-person interaction when an in-person interaction is simply not possible.

While that may sound like a stretch, I’ve seen all of this in the experiences of my kids, my students, and myself.

My own children expect that learning not only can but should be instantaneous. In their minds, all knowledge is only seconds away. Whether that means a YouTube video, Kahn Academy, or Skype, there is simply no excuse for ignorance of any topic. My students will Google and fact check me as I lecture, bringing real-time context and information into the classroom rather than expecting my case notes to provide a definitive answer. For my own work, the ability to be constantly connected with a global network of experts has created a richness to my lifelong learning that I never expected to experience.

And don’t dismiss the ability of technology to replace the vast majority of situations that you believe require physical proximity. Leading-edge approaches being developed by companies such as Cisco have created video capability that not only rivals face-to-face but also brings in the full context of the learning experience in a way real-world interactions never could.

Perhaps most important of all is the expectation that we are developing around the notion of intellectual property. My graduate students are consistently split down the middle when it comes to the concept of patent protection, with half arguing vehemently that it only serves to stifle innovation. My undergraduate students are almost entirely opposed to patents. Yes, I know, you’re thinking, “such na├»ve heresy on that part of these youngsters.” Yet it is their expectations that will shape tomorrow.

These dramatic changes in education, which are being shaped by the cloud, may appear to take time as at least two current generations grasp even tighter traditional views of education. After all, we are disrupting a system thousands of years old. But ultimately, the cloud will be the greatest force in altering not only the way we experience education but life itself. It will set the standard for what our personal and professional interactions should feel like.

Still struggling to accept all of this change? Take heart, here’s the good news: To imagine what that future will look like, you only need to venture as far as your nearest 12-year-old. The behaviors and expectations are already firmly in place.

Adapted with permission from “Cloud Surfing: A Way to Think About Risk, Innovation, Scale and Success” by Thomas M. Koulopolous (Bibliomotion, May 2012).

Tom Koulopoulos is the author of nine books and founder of Delphi Group, a 20-year-old Boston-based think tank. Delphi provides advice on innovation practices and methods to Global 2000 organizations and government agencies. Koulopoulos is also an executive in residence at Bentley University, past executive director of the Babson College Center for Business Innovation, and past executive director of the Perot Systems Innovation Lab, which was acquired in 2009 by Dell Computer. For more information, visit and

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