There was a star-studded round table session at the World Economic Forum at Davos last week entitled ‘ Online Education Changing the World’. The session was moderated by Thomas Friedman, and the speakers included Larry Summers (former Harvard President), Bill Gates, Peter Theil (Founder’s Fund), Rafael Reif (MIT President), Sebastian Thrun (Udacity), Daphne Koller (Coursera), and a 12-year-old Pakistani girl who has been taking MOOCs.

The video recording runs for 68 minutes which is longer than the average attention span these days, but it is pretty compelling viewing.

Highlights for me included:

  • the whole of Friedman’s interview with 12-year old Khadijah Niazi, which illustrated quite vividly how revolutionary and far-reaching the open education movement can be (the first 15 minutes or so);
  • the Larry Summer’s quote (borrowed from Rudi Dornbusch) that “things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you think they could” (applied to online learning) (24:30);
  • the comments from Peter Theil about why students are not getting value for money in education and how this is serving to drive the disruption in the higher education space (from 30:33 to 35:00); and
  • the remarks made by Bill Gates about peer-to-peer interaction and why online learning is working now when it hasn’t in the past (40:50), and the question of the ‘credential’ (41:45 to 42:05) and how, in the past, it was where you went and how long you spent there, compared with now where it is about proof you have the knowledge, independent of how you acquired it.

The comments made by Theil and Gates have consequences for all universities. Put simply, the economics of higher education has changed, and as a recent  Moody’s report highlights, not even the Ivy League is safe. The business model has to change, and those that refuse (or are slow) to change may find themselves out of business.