I am a knowledge worker. Seeking new knowledge in computer science and technologies is part of my job and i know that finding good knowledge is about finding good sources. There are many of them: good language communities, good publishers, good people. But there are places that are real hotbeds, in which all the cool things seem to happen, over and over again. They’re top american engineering and technology universities. It’s where most of the history of computers happened. From Bill Joy coding up Vi for BSD at Berkeley, to Abelson and Sussman teaching SICP at MIT, to Brin and Page starting Google as a research project at Stanford, to many many more. These are places you have absolutely to watch out for good stuff.
Traditionally top universities have always been elitist with knowledge considered a precious good for a few who typically can pay big money. But with the advent of internet something changed. A first wave of web projects came out with the intent of giving free public online education. MIT OpenCourseWare and Berkeley Webcast in 2002 and later Stanford Engineering Everywhere. They all started to give out material of some of their courses and then kept expanding their offer. Free education for the masses, but with one glaring omission compared to their traditional curricula. You get this as a gift, but you’re on your own. No feedback loop, no legal recognition, no tutoring. These are for “real” alumni only.
Today, with internet getting faster, social networks exploding, technology advancing, the snowball is really starting to roll down hill. You can see it from the second wave of sites. Recently born Coursera, Udacity, MITx are now taking online enrollments, giving some tutoring through forums, real-time schedules, exercises automatically checked, short digestible video lectures, certificates of completion. The idea that excellent education, with the help of technology, can stop being a scarce good traded for another scarce good, money, is really catching on. Maybe good education can be abundant, freely available everywhere, so as to improve the entire world, digging up the actual most precious resource: talented, well educated, smart people.
What’s next? The point is education for the masses is not only good for the world, it can be also very good for the wallet. Cutting costs, giving ubiquitous access and making their curricula more flexible and self-paced can open these educators to a new world full of potential clients craving to learn from the best. You can already tell it because these initiatives are starting as private commercial companies backed by investors. It doesn’t take much to figure out which will be the last fig leaf to fall off. In the next years, we’ll see education still given for free, but greatly expanded and side by side with commercial services, more certificates and, in the end, real online degrees with legal recognition. Freemium mainstream education, what a great opportunity. Don’t miss it, start now.