Over the next decade, it is estimated by the World Economic Forum (WEF) that the
global economy will need to create some 600 million new jobs to preserve social
cohesion, and ensure sustainable growth. In the midst of ongoing economic
fragility across much of the world, this poses a monumental challenge, and was a
key topic discussed at WEF’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, which ended
Education is key to delivering this agenda. Human advancement
and development has always been driven by knowledge, and by our capacity to
impart this, cumulatively, to succeeding generations. And, this is perhaps truer
now than ever: • In developed economies, such as Europe and North America (where
millions of manufacturing and lowskilled jobs have been lost since 2008),
recovery will be powered – in large part – by creation of highly skilled
employment opportunities, many of them requiring degrees.
• In high
growth-economies, including China, India and Brazil, there are rapidly rising
numbers of higher education students. In India, for instance, the ambition is to
increase the portion of the population with a university education from 12
percent to 30% in 2025 (from 12 million to over 30 million students).
In other developing markets, like Africa and the Middle East, human capital
development is also crucial to the next generation of economic
But as the global pool of education and knowledge continually
expands, and demand for access to it increases, traditional means of sharing and
disseminating it are under unprecedented strain. UNESCO estimates that, by 2025,
there will be at least an additional 80 million more people than now seeking
To meet this “game-changing” new demand through
conventional means would require construction, each and every week for the next
12 years, of three universities/ higher education colleges accommodating 40,000
students. That’s simply not going to happen, especially given reduced government
budgets in much of the world.
So how can this issue therefore best be
addressed? MUCH OF the answer lies in realizing the full potential of digital
technology and the Internet. They already provide access to vast resources of
information, most of it free. But not all this data is reliable, and even
credible information is only a stepping stone to real knowledge.
why, a decade ago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology made all its
educational materials available online – for free. About 300 educational
institutions have followed suit since, including Delft University where I am
secretary general. Together they created the OpenCourseWare Consortium, which
now provides some 21,000 courses and has some 360 million online visits per
Instead of searching the Internet for information, learners across
the world can now access focused courses, along with support materials such as
sample tests that gather, assess and organize information into coherent blocks
of knowledge. This has played a pioneering role in what is nothing less than a
global educational revolution.
Despite the major benefits of providing
educational materials online, this development has not been without critics.
Some, for instance, scorn online learning as exclusively “virtual,” but for many
(if not most) young people, digital communication is the new
They increasingly video-chat via platforms such as Skype; use
web-based forums to search for and share useful information; connect with
friends via social media like Facebook; purchase their goods online; and play
games, albeit to their parents’ irritation! Other critics have justifiably
pointed out that online programs are often not interactive and focus too much on
content. And that content cannot be equated with knowledge and that learning
needs interaction between students and teachers.
However, as pressure on
higher education intensifies, the reality of campus-based study is that teachers
often find themselves mere content providers to hundreds of students in a
lecture hall, particularly at the undergraduate level. The personalized,
interactive learning experience that critics of online education uphold as an
ideal is simply not what many students get on-campus today.
the past two years, major steps have been taken in open and online higher
education that deal with exactly the questions of how to enable the learning
process, provide structure and facilitate interaction online.
almost every aspect of education can be found online: content, homework,
interaction among students, automated feedback, testing and
Good examples are Stanford’s and MIT’s MOOCs (Massive Open
Online Courses) which have attracted around 100,000 students per
These are all top-level quality courses. And, on top of content
they include structure – a starting and finishing date for everybody joining –
homework, a community and a final test.
This example has been followed by
many other institutions.
For instance Open Study and the OpenCourseWare
Consortium have provided interaction by building student communities around
online materials, the largest one being Mathematics, with 83,000 students. They
have also started granting informal certificates to students who finish a
course. EdX, a joint MOOC platform of MIT and Harvard, is doing the same and the
first US university has already decided to formally recognize edX
TAKEN OVERALL, digital technology and the Internet are thus
key to tackling several of the grand global challenges in education, including:
allowing people from around the world, especially in developing countries,
access to educational materials that they would not otherwise have;
circumventing the rising cost of “traditional” education in many (especially
developed) countries; accommodating the massively increasing number of students
seeking higher education; and bridging the gap between education and the world
of new generations of students.
As with all upheavals, the full
implications of this revolution are not easy to predict. However, it can only be
positive for human development and advancement across the globe at a time when
both are badly needed to help ensure social cohesion and sustainable
The writer is secretary-general of Delft University and global
president of OpenCourseWare.