Some observations: predictably, MOOCs permeated the discussion in every way possible. Most directly, there was discussion of MOOCs lowering the cost of colleges. This is something that is highly unlikely, at least until brand name matters less and credentials matter more. Parchment, a credentials exchange, is trying to become the system of record for everyone’s qualifications (transcripts, etc.), but the market is very far from having 1) a standard way to assess knowledge from MOOC courses and 2) corporations comfortable with MOOC certifications when making job offers. No one had a sense for when this would happen but the sense is that it will.
A few thought leaders made the case that there is too much talent among the less wealthy and that as they continue to discover that they can never afford / get into branded schools, they will make any schools come to them (and it will be in the form of online learning). Previously, the very bright poor had no way of making an impact and changing the system but MOOCs may be the beginning of how they can start to revolutionize the education system in the US. Especially given how so many elite universities flirt with aristocracy over meritocracy. I’m struck by how closely MOOCs track to Clayton Christensen’s “disruptive” model – less expensive, less functional, but appealing to much larger masses. No one has any ideas on monetization here but the general belief is that VCs who invest in the Courseras of the world believe that when you get to 4mm users, making money will be incredibly easy.
A parallel that hit me during the Google lecture was how the higher ed space is right now going through what the music and movie industry went through a decade ago: the web is enabling the dissemination of previously expensive content as a completely free offering. I know nothing about the modern music industry so I don’t know how studios survived but that model may be somewhat applicable to how colleges survive – and if software plays a role (like DRM), then it could be of interest to us. I know there are a lot of ways in which the industries are different but it’s the closest way I can think of to analogize what the best colleges in the country are facing now with their professors delivering their courses freely and committing college-paid resources (TAs, etc.) to anyone who wants to sign up.
The other big theme, hit on slightly in the above, is the need for education as a way to combat poverty. The Opening panel, the K-12 Update, the Web and Education speech, and the ASU President’s Keynote were about how education is the single best way to improve the lives of the impoverished. There was discussion about the need for universal broadband infrastructure, standards on data collection and interoperability, and outcomes-based compensation, but nothing more specific than that. This conference, clearly, is more of a policy-oriented conference and has little to offer in the way of specific software products besides the haphazardly consummated meetings.