If you were asked to name the most important innovation in transportation over the last 200 years, you might say the combustion engine, air travel, Henry Ford’s Model-T production line or even the bicycle. The list goes on.
Now answer this one: What’s been the single biggest innovation in education?
Don’t worry if you come up blank. You’re supposed to. The question is a gambit used by Anant Agarwal, the computer scientist named this year to head edX, a $60 million MIT-Harvard effort to stream a college education over the web, free, to anyone who wants one. His point: It’s rare to see major technological advances in how people learn.
Agarwal believes that education is about to change dramatically. The reason is the power of the web and its associated data-crunching technologies. Thanks to these changes, it’s now possible to stream video classes with sophisticated interactive elements, and researchers can scoop up student data that could help them make teaching more effective. The technology is powerful, fairly cheap and global in its reach. EdX has said it hopes to teach a billion students.