Teaching methods will need to change if educational institutions expect to keep charging thousands for learning that is available free on the internet, an expert in online education told New Zealand's tertiary leaders yesterday.
American Salman Khan was a keynote speaker at a summit Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce has convened at Auckland Museum this week to discuss what developments in online education will mean for learners, and for the bricks-and-mortar institutions that have so far taught them.
Mr Khan has been named by Time magazine as one of the most influential people in the world and has attracted financial backing from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Google.
He told the audience via Skype that the rise of online learning would not displace universities but would lead to a change in approach.
"In my mind, the ones that will thrive are the ones that can articulate what is special about what happens when the human beings get together.
"And right now, for better or for worse, at some of the top universities in the world ... you are in a room with 200 or 300 people and someone is lecturing. I think institutions that continue to do that in 10 years are going to be in trouble.
"The ones that instead take those students and bring them into an equally large-sized room and they create simulations or projects or team things for them to work on, I think they are going to do very well."
So-called "flipped classrooms" — using videos to pre-teach ideas before class, then using lessons for collaborative work and individual tutoring — are starting to be used at some New Zealand schools.
Mr Khan said he had seen such an approach turn around the grades of at-risk students in the US, but the "real transformation was the mindset".
"As a parent, yes, it's nice to know that my kid can quote Shakespeare or know calculus. But the real thing I want my kids to have is this ability to take ownership over their own learning. To say, what's my goal and what are the resources at my disposal and how can I put them together to reach my goal. Anyone who can do that is going to do very, very well."
Each month more than 10 million people use the Khan Academy, a not-for-profit website Mr Khan created, to access more than 5100 instructional videos covering everything from basic maths to university-level science and economics.
The rise of khanacademy.org comes as universities in NZ and overseas put more resources into offering free online courses known as "Moocs" (massive open online courses).
The short courses enable someone sitting in their lounge in Auckland to watch video lectures and complete assessments offered by an elite university such as Harvard.
The potential some see in Moocs and online learning has been criticised as over-blown by sceptics, who see the developments as a distraction — or threat — to face-to-face teaching.
But Mr Joyce told the conference to hold off final judgments as it was a rapidly evolving field.
Cousin's maths led to website lessons
The Khan Academy is an online learning website that has given more than 300 million lessons and has been hailed as a leader in the future of education.
But its origins were a little more low-key. Salman (Sal) Khan simply wanted to help a young cousin with her mathematics.
Because of the distance involved, the Boston hedge fund analyst tutored her by phone and using an interactive notepad.
"Word got round the family that free tutoring was going on," Mr Khan said. Soon other cousins signed on, then non-family members.
It became difficult to manage all their lessons, and a friend suggested he upload video lessons to YouTube.
He was initially reluctant, but the move was a success. When the website had 100,000 users he quit his job to concentrate on it full-time.
The not-for-profit venture received financial backing through the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and Google.
Mr Khan is now a believer in on-demand instruction — which he says can help supplement, not replace, lessons at school or university.