Sramana Mitra: Absolutely. I am not totally convinced about the Coursera business model and whether it is going to scale to the extent to support the amount of venture funding they have raised. EdX is a different story, because it is non-profit funded. As long as they sustain themselves, they are going to be fine. But with a MOOC business model, can you be a venture-style multibillion dollar business? I am not at all convinced about that.
Shaul Kuper: I agree with you. Unless you are going to start selling advertising, I just don’t understand that model. I typically believe that you get what you pay for.
SM: The other thing you said about corporations and employability – in the case corporations paying for students’ scholarships – corporations would probably want to drive what they study. If the corporation is Google, they are probably not going to fund you to study philosophy or history, they would want you to study computer science.
SK: I think you hit the nail on the head. One of the biggest issues corporations have right now sending students to university is that [what the students are studying] is not related to what these corporations are doing. That is something that is going to have to change. Universities and colleges are going to have to realize that their market has shifted and that they are going to have to meet the new “pay master” and understand what it is that they are looking for.
We did some research on this very topic last year. Seventy percent of employers we spoke to said that their employees need continuous learning just to keep up with their jobs. It is moving so quickly. At the same time, they said that only a small percentage of what they pay goes to universities. The material just isn’t the right material for them. It is going to have to become much more aligned in terms of what is needed.
SM: What is your prognosis vis-à-vis the liberal arts education system in America? I actually went through a good liberal arts college. Even though I went to MIT for my graduate work, I am a very big fan of the American liberal arts education system. This doesn’t fit with the view you are presenting, though.
SK: Liberal arts gave you a good foundation. They taught you how to think, how to think critically, how to write and read, etc. This gave you the foundation to do what you do.
SM: I also did computer science and economics, even for my undergraduate work. I did not study philosophy or history. The philosophy of liberal arts education embraces what you are talking about – critical thinking, communication, reading, writing, etc. I do believe that we as a society are operating at a layer of innovation that promises to put what is called human-centric computing. There is so much going on through social media and other technology disciplines that carry huge promises of being able to improve society at scale. We are seeing that in politics, in education and in a variety of other areas. I believe that liberal arts do have a very big role in the future of innovation. If employers are going to demand certain specific skills without paying attention to that innovation that is emerging, liberal arts education is going to be in trouble.
SK: I don’t think any of this is one size fits all. You have people today who go into very specific learning endeavors. They learn a trade and go and apply that trade without getting any liberal arts education. I did my undergraduate work in molecular biology and genetics, which I look at and ask myself if it is related to what I am doing today. No. Was it a good foundation? Yes. I learned to learn. I learned a lot, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
If you look at the average online learner today, she is 33 years old and female, working full-time and taking business degrees. Most people don’t have any inclination of what they want to become when they grow up. I also don’t think that most people want to jump into a workforce right away and get trained for something specific. In my opinion, many people want a pause to be able to experience different things in life and to understand where they want to go, where they can be most productive, and what they enjoy doing. I don’t think that is ever going to go away.
A lot of the stuff that we look at today will be on top of that. The liberal arts education is perhaps going to be delivered in a different way. I worry a bit about the effect of every 10-year-old now having a smartphone, and they text each other even if they are sitting next to each other. People in the future are not going to know how to speak to each other.
SM: Every time we have friends over who have small children, the children go to the next room and play with their gaming devices, and they are not learning how to converse. That is really irritating to me.
SK: That is going to be a big problem. And it is also where it ties in to a liberal arts education. Part of the liberal arts education if you go to the university is the experience of getting out of your house, living on your own, living with other people and experiencing what they have to offer. I think that is a big part of growing up. We are also those who can afford it, but I think that it is going to become awfully expensive.
SM: It was a pleasure talking to you, Shaul.
SK: Likewise. Thank you very much.