Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Making Higher Education Sustainable

Among the many things I expect to see undergo a significant change in the next decade or so is higher education. Our universities are actually based on a model that was developed in the middle ages. At that time, any subject being studied would undergo little change during your lifetime. Considering your education "complete" after a few years of intense study was realistic in the middle ages, but it's far from realistic now.

A university education was once considered common only for people from very well off families. Now it's a necessity to achieve even a middle class lifestyle. Yet the costs are often still structured to be unaffordable to all but those students from wealthy families. And the costs continue to rise at an alarming rate.

Something has to change - the current situation is unsustainable. Education must be restructured to be available throughout an adult's life at affordable rates. Like it or not, technology will need to have an impact on the way classes are taught in order to achieve this.

I'm glad to report that this change is actually starting to happen. The Christian Science Monitor has a wonderful article on the movement to OpenCourseWare, universities putting their course content online for free. The movement started in 2003 when MIT put 500 courses online. Now they have over 1800 online courses, all available for free (You still need to pay ~$45,000 a year to get an official MIT degree though). More than 200 colleges and universities have followed suite and offer course contents online. These are early developments that will likely radically change higher education by the time this finishes playing out.

First Impressions of WolframAlpha

WolframAlpha came finally came online a few days ago (you can try it at www.wolframalpha.com). It is touted by some as the most serious competitor for Google, and possibly its eventual replacement. The major advancement in WolframAlpha is it's ability to actually gather data available on the web and answer questions, as opposed to just supplying you with links that may contain the answer to your questions. Of course if this is successful, nobody expects Google to sit passively by and loose market share. Google will undoubtedly come out with its own capabilities similar to WolframAlpha in the near future. We are on the verge of the next major revolution in making the knowledge on the web more accessible and useful to people, spurred on by the competition between WolframAlpha and Google.

I spent some time test driving WolframAlpha recently, and here are my first impressions.

My first test was to try to get a table of life expectancy listed by nation. I typed in “life expectancy by nation” and hit enter. WolframAlpha gave me a list of possible data, and the very first item was exactly the type of table I was looking for. Score one for WolframAlpha. (The United States was number 50 on the rankings by the way, in spite of the fact that we spend far more than any other nation on health care. Those of you involved in promoting health care reform probably already knew that.) Another great feature at the bottom of the data was a little link that points you to the source of the information. This is actually a critical feature for anyone expecting to use WolframAlpha for serious research. Score two for WolframAlpha.

As a second test, I tried to get a table of the carbon footprint of each nation. I typed in “carbon footprint by nation” and the response was “WolframAlpha isn't sure what to do with your input.” I tried to simplify the query and just typed in “carbon footprint”, but still got the same response. Oh my, it seems there is a lot of work to do still.

To be fair, WolframAlpha is described as “an ambitious, long-term intellectual endeavor that we intend will deliver increasing capabilities over the years and decades to come.” Clearly this is a major advance over the current Google search capabilities which will eventually change the way we use the web to gather data, but it is clearly also early in a long development process.

Unfortunately the creator of WolframAlpha, Stephen Wolfram, has left us all with a difficult problem to wrestle with. Somehow the phrase “I'm going to WolframAlpha that” just doesn't quite work. They will have to come up with a better verb if this is to enter the popular lexicon and replace "googling a question".