The future of education: YouTube and iTunes U??

We live in interesting times; a good thing—so far at least. One of the momentous waves of change which is just now starting to roll over universities and academics around the world is a whole new online way of learning, accessible from essentially anywhere, for free. This will have a deep and profound effect on academic life. The Australian recently ran an article on this development, featuring my friend and colleague Chris Tisdell (Google: Tisdell, seismic shift, education to access the article). 

Increasingly you can log onto YouTube, or iTunes U, or other repositories, and start learning about anything you want. While in many areas the offerings are still in a scattered and embryonic form, the amount of material and resources is increasing exponentially, and the process seems clearly irreversible. More organized courses called MOOCS are using platforms such as Coursera, EdX, Udacity and others to train tens of thousands of students (how successfully is still a question). Other platforms are being established as you read this.

No amount of feet dragging by academics, textbook publishers, college administrators, and other entrenched interests will likely stop this trend. The reality is that universities as sole repositories of high-end knowledge and learning is coming to an end. Academics like myself will have to adapt or be prepared to go the way of the harness and carriage-makers a hundred years ago with the advent of the motor car. The lesson is clear: change, or be made irrelevant.

Right now, I have about four tutorials a week in first year Linear Algebra or Calculus. I find myself saying the same things as the lecturer in the next room, and that I have said dozens of times in the past. The same scenario is repeated with little variation in thousands of colleges around the world. This is an unsustainable situation, much as perhaps we would like it to continue, as our jobs largely depend on it.  The reality is that having thousands of essentially identical first year tutorials/classes around the world on, say, “the derivatives of inverse hyperbolic functions”, or “how to apply the normal distribution” is increasingly a situation approaching its use-by date. Clearly it is vastly more logical and practical for a few people to develop the lessons really well, and put them on YouTube for anyone, anywhere to watch whenever they feel like it. Once that happens, and students can access easily the information they need, thousands of academic jobs almost immediately become redundant.

The teaching role of universities, especially for large popular subjects, will inevitably change from providing primarily learning content to providing primarily assessment, support and certification. People will pay to get a certificate of achievement. They will no longer be so willing to pay to get instruction that they can easily get for free online. No doubt there is a social aspect of going to university; meeting other young people, playing cards or soccer during lunch hours, and chatting to your university lecturers. Attending a class can be a positive experience. But it can also be rather lukewarm: some college level lecturers are not stellar teachers, have ordinary communication skills and little real training in education. Once the choice between a mediocre live lecture and a high production video with powerful graphics and an entertaining dynamic expositor is available, I think we all know where most students will go. The core idea that universities and colleges primarily provide instruction, and rather high priced instruction at that, has to change.

Many of my academic colleagues will, quite understandably, be upset at this development. My own efforts at posting lots of mathematics videos online at YouTube (my channel is called Insights into Mathematics, user: njwildberger, check it out!), along with those of Chris Tisdell (his channel is called Understand Mathematics, user: DrChris Tisdell, check it out!) are seen by some of our colleagues as competitive with the traditional lecture format. But the reality is that the changes that are coming are made inevitable by the technology at hand; the question is only whether one is willing to embrace them and move forward on the train, or stand still like deer in the headlights. We see ourselves as potential bridges to the future: establishing UNSW as a key contributor in providing quality mathematics instruction to the world, along with more established and well-funded players like MIT, Stanford etc.

For centuries universities have been elite institutions catering to the sons of the rich to ready them for positions of power and privilege. In the twentieth century that scenario gradually expanded, allowing first women and then more and more middle class and even working class students into the college and university framework. While this has been a great contributor to the rise in equality in the Western world, still most of the rest of the world was excluded from the process, as the high-end educational institutions were concentrated in mostly well-to-do Western countries. The current technology supports a massive expansion of knowledge into the third world, as well as empowering ordinary people, young and old, rich or poor, to learn, learn, learn, as long as they want to! It will be one of the really big game-changers in the brave new world of tomorrow. Education is a killer application for the internet.

14 thoughts on “The future of education: YouTube and iTunes U??

  1. Shaun De Roza

    Interesting thoughts Norman. However I don’t think youtube will be able to make universities irrelevant. Certainly you have a point about the possibility about lectures becoming obsolete but there is so much more to the learning process than that offered by the universities. I am talking about the assessment and feedback that come from tutorials and exams. Also when trying to learn something online there is the possibility of just giving up when it gets too difficult. In a university environment if things get too difficult you are more inclined to work harder to avoid failing plus there is assistance available in the form of consultations and the like . Also education has been accessible for years with public libraries, you can even pay a small fee and have access to university libraries. However trying to learn maths just by borrowing a text book and forcing yourself to read and understand it as well as work through the exercises is, in my experience, a difficult task.

    1. njwildberger: tangential thoughts Post author

      Thanks for the comment. I don’t think, however, that universities will become obsolete; there will be a role for them, but it will have to change. Assessment, support and certification will become bigger aspects of what we do. As for university libraries, I think they have been hit hard, and will continue to be hit even harder, by the move to online resources.
      Wrt your last statement; my guess is that the mathematics video, not the textbook, will be at the heart of replacing the lecture experience. And it will do so very successfully for a lot of people.

      1. paul martin

        Video/lectures/stacks of books are cheap ways of transmitting info, real learning is expensive, time consuming and in my experience fun. The Open University in the UK has been providing videos for decades but if you talk to the students its not the tech that makes OU successful indeed those that are most proud of their OU degrees speak about tutors that do not exploit the new fangled VLE/LMS/MOOC whizz bangs.

  2. gx

    I watched your algtop video in youtube, it helps me understand many concepts in a computer graphics course, thank you.

  3. bnino

    I agree with what you say. I think that the video method of instruction for mathematics combined with other online resources makes it much easier for self – learners like myself to make progress and remain motivated, rather than just relying on textbooks. I have found this to be true even if the videos are very amateurish in quality. A roughly made video with a different “take” on a concept, has often proved invaluable to me in gaining a deeper understanding of an area, which I normally would have abandoned out of frustration in the past.

  4. Stuart

    Interesting thoughts. I certainly agree that video lecturing provides a new and exciting medium. I have watched some of your lectures and they are very good. Whether this throws the current university system into turmoil and also how UNSW should respond to this challenge I’m not so sure but it is a debate worth having and I would add a couple of points.

    Firstly, interaction with humans is incredibly important to learning. Providing an entertaining and informative online lecture series, while a useful tool in delivering education to a wide audience, is no substitute to attending the classes of a charismatic lecturer and learning in unison with your friends around you. There is much more than a social aspect to the university experience and it is from working and interacting with peers, much more than listening to the lecturer, that lasting knowledge is gained. Providing a core online course with some form of distance support and assessment, as many TAFE’s do now is a poor substitute for a higher education.

    Secondly, variation in opinion is the precursor to scientific discovery and there is advantage in having a range of teaching styles on offer. Important concepts can often be taught (and learnt) in more than one way and this is a good thing. Through movement and interaction of students and lecturers among institutions different ideas propagate. This leads me to my third and most important point, that universities are much more than education providers, they are also research centres. Collaboration and research towards the advancement of science should be our primary goal. If this new medium can facilitate that it should be welcomed but therein lies the rub. If universities lose their primary income stream because the education they provide is devalued then this may well harm research capacity.

    1. njwildberger: tangential thoughts Post author

      Good points, I mostly agree with them. However online learning can also potentially provide interaction with peers, shared understandings, opportunities for debate, and human contact. This is one of the points of the success of Facebook; young people are happy to socialize online. Your last statement is very relevant; I believe there is a serious threat here to the economic viability of many universities, and so also their research arms.

  5. Rick

    Yes, surely the next decade or two will see an enormous change away from the almost medieval technology that is still employed in much lecturing. (OK, coloured chalk and ball-point pens were not available in medieval times, but still…)
    Universities may well bifurcate into two largely distinct groups. One will be the ‘research universities’, where graduate students will still largely be trained in more old-fashioned ways (the subject matter being more specialized and rapidly changing) and where the lectures that everyone will watch will be produced. They will have the elite faculty and students, both graduate and undergraduate.
    The other group will be the ‘teaching and training’ universities which will largely focus on improving the parts of undergraduate education and training that are not amenable to on-line acquisition of lectures and other material to work with. For example, the students at my university in my discipline (economics) graduate with little ability to gather published data, make sense of it and write a paper. The resources that could be devoted to getting them to be able to do that well are currently being wasted delivering (likely not very well) garden-variety lectures on basic theory.
    The possibilities you write about will permit such universities to do a better job for less money. Less money for salaries, among other things, but also for buildings, the large lecture halls having been rendered obsolete. If governments recognize that, they will help with the intervening financing issues and encourage leadership among the bold universities who will take the first plunge into new ways of doing things.

    1. njwildberger: tangential thoughts Post author

      Hi Rick, There is one aspect of your compelling scenario which might unfold differently: the lectures that everyone will watch may not necessarily all be made at the `research universities’. There is no reason why the top maths videos could not come from a teaching university, or a private organization, or even an individual—at least for the mainstream calculus/linear algebra/discrete maths type of core courses (admittedly more advanced subjects might require higher levels of expertise).

  6. bnino

    I think that Stuart is over-estimating the importance of direct human interaction for learning. He also fails to mention the possible negative consequences of this. I know people of high intelligence who have bad memories of maths and science classes, made worse by them having to rely on unpleasant and dull teachers in order to gain knowledge to pass exams. Many of these people simply dropped out of education early.
    How much better it could have been for them if they had been able to watch pre-recorded presentations from an interested (and interesting) teacher which can be viewed at their own pace. It seems ridiculous in an age of increasing automation to complain about the lack of human interaction for learning or any other service. Technolgy should ultimately be about freeing up more time for people to pursue their interests, including using learning technology in ways that maximises their potential for gaining knowledge. The “one size fits all” approach of the (unrecorded) traditional classroom or lecture hall no longer seems to make much sense, and is no longer necessary.

  7. Mr. Econotarian

    I really enjoy your YouTube classes, and would encourage you to get them onto iTunes U. Downloading high-quality versions is very useful for commuting, workout, and airplane use!

    I do not believe that MOOCs will colleges irrelevant soon, because most of the value to the student in college is in granting credentials, not in providing knowledge and instruction. Part of that credentialism begins with simply being admitted to the “right college”, then moving on to somehow making it through four drug, sex, and drink filled years while still managing to not fail out despite tough classes. Grade inflation is a clear indication of this.

    With the possible exception of mathematics, most people never utilize the majority of what they learn in college.

    On the other hand, MOOCs will “eat around” colleges – certainly there are many people who may not go through four years of college but need to acquire specific skills. Plus the world of oneline learning for pleasure is exploding, see “The Great Courses” for example.

    You (Norman) should try out for “The Great Courses” for your history of mathematics class! See this one for example:

  8. Mark Fullerton

    Online learning provides incredible opportunities, but also suffers from the problem of “Fake News” – anyone can post educational materiel, and it may be either junk or merely confusing and unclear. For actual news (in the USA) the problem is at least partly solved by going to the NY Times, Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, BBC … these are not perfect but are certainly better than going to “Some Guy”. Similarly, reputable educational institutions have a role to play by providing educational resources that have been in some sense accredited. Of course every once in a while one is able to find an independent source like njwildberger, whose value one can identify by the simple criterion: what he says actually makes sense!

  9. jjk

    Another evolution is sites like run by the US math Olympiad coach. You are fed problems to solve and judging by your answers it feeds you more problems or moves to new ones. Lessons are short youtube lectures or peer written. You could put the wildmath foundations on such a site


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