Although life-changing technologies are difficult to recognize when they first arrive, it is becoming increasingly evident that we are witnessing the emergence of technologies that will fundamentally change education. With all of the press about the advent of MOOCs, the new massive open online courses, it is natural to question if these and other new internet-based teaching technologies are just a passing fad. Will they really lead to deep and permanent changes in education? There are several reasons to believe that we are seeing changes that will be extensive and lasting. First, we have passed a critical threshold in internet speed that now permits routine streaming of videos and other content. Second, the fraction of the world that has reliable internet connectivity has been growing exponentially, expanding well beyond the developed world so that even large portions of the developing world have regular internet access. Third, younger generations have been exposed to computer-based content throughout their whole lives, and are open to learning and communicating through rapidly evolving platforms.
Indeed, new educational technologies have the potential to vastly increase the percentage of the world that has access to high-quality education and should also lead to basic changes in the structure of brick-and-mortar teaching in the classroom. As one example of changes in traditional teaching, many classes at Stanford are now flipped. What does this mean? I taught two such classes this spring, an undergraduate course on game theory and a graduate course on social and economic networks. The flipped classroom means that students are responsible for watching video lectures before coming class. Those lectures can cover basic material for a course, including much that would usually be delivered in a traditional lecture, thereby freeing up time in the classroom to dig more deeply. This permits not only farther-reaching discussions and interaction, but also hands-on learning involving other emerging technologies. In particular, in the game theory course we used Moblab, a new program through which students can play games in real-time in the classroom. Also based on an internet technology, students can interact in a game-theory laboratory by logging on using a pc, tablet, or phone. Through the Moblab platform, students engage in markets, bargain with each other, choose production levels, make forecasts, play public goods games, and a long list of other interactions. As they choose actions, through a console on my computer I can project their behaviors on a screen at the front of the classroom, and then we could discuss the results immediately. For instance, as they bid in an auction, we can discuss the “winner’s curse” and what sort of information they should be inferring from being the high-bidder – with the full distribution of other students’ bids right in front of them in real time. This gives the students a completely different perspective, helping to make economics and game theory vivid and real topics, and engages them much more intensely.
Even just five years ago this would not have been possible. Using paper and pencil to run any in-class activity takes much more time, and running just a few such exercises during a course would take away valuable time from lectures. Moblab’s new game platform makes setting up and running such in-class exercises easy.
New technologies bring changes and uncertainties that can be frightening, especially when they emerge so rapidly. In this case, the good news is that the advent of new internet-based teaching technologies should lead not only to great improvements in access to education, bringing high-quality education to people world-wide, but should also lead to great improvements in the experience in the classroom for everyone, instructors and students alike.