Less than a week until TNW València 🇪🇸 Get a last-minute 30% discount on your ticket

This article was published on April 22, 2011

How the Internet is Revolutionizing Education

How the Internet is Revolutionizing Education
Courtney Boyd Myers
Story by

Courtney Boyd Myers

Courtney Boyd Myers is the founder of audience.io, a transatlantic company designed to help New York and London based technology startups gr Courtney Boyd Myers is the founder of audience.io, a transatlantic company designed to help New York and London based technology startups grow internationally. Previously, she was the Features Editor and East Coast Editor of TNW covering New York City startups and digital innovation. She loves magnets + reading on a Kindle. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter @CBM and .

As connection speeds increase and the ubiquity of the Internet pervades, digital content reigns. And in this era, free education has never been so accessible. The Web gives lifelong learners the tools to become autodidacts, eschewing exorbitant tuition and joining the ranks of other self-taught great thinkers in history such as Albert Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell, Paul Allen and Ernest Hemingway.

“Learning is not a product of schooling but the lifelong attempt to acquire it.” -Albert Einstein

10 years ago in April 2001, Charles M. Vest, the MIT President at the time, announced that the university would make its materials for all its courses freely available on the Internet. This initiative, found at OpenCourseWare, has enabled other teachers and lifelong learners around the world to listen and read what is being taught at MIT. 5 years later, in April 2006, UC Berkeley announced its plan to put complete academic courses on Apple’s iTunes U, beginning what is now one of the biggest collections of recorded classroom lectures in the world. One year later, in October 2007, the school launched UC Berkeley on YouTube. According to Benjamin Hubbard the Manager of Webcast at UC Berkeley, the school has had well over 120 million downloads since first sharing videos online, which they began doing in 2001.

He says, “I think there’s a wide array of reasons why faculty should be engaged in recording and publishing lectures online. The first is wanting students to have access to materials. The second is for cultivating a really great affinity for a public university that’s providing research and community service. The third is closely aligned with this opportunity to provide educational resources all over the world to those from all walks of life, despite what disadvantages they have faced. It’s so important that we recognize as a public institution that this is something people value greatly and has great value for us too.”

Both Yale and Stanford have followed suit, and even Harvard has jumped on board in the last two years. Open Yale features free and open access to a selection of introductory courses taught by distinguished teachers and scholars, supported by funding from the William and Flora Hewlitt Foundation. Outside of the U.S., some of the most selective universities in India have created a vast body of online content in order to reach more of the country’s exploding student population. At Stanford, you can freely “attend” The Stanford Mini Med School featuring 3 year long series of courses by more than thirty distinguished faculty, scientists and physicians.

The world’s encyclopedia is as weightless, free and instantly accessible as Wikipedia, which is quickly gaining legitimacy in the education sphere. Using the Internet, you can learn a new language or delve into the depths of metaphysics with just a click of a mouse. The Web has unlocked the keys to a worldwide virtual school, potentially leveling the playing field for students around the world.

Open Culture

Should knowledge should be open to all to both use and contribute to? Yes, and it’s this intuitive philosophy that forms the base of The Open Education Movement, which has been gaining momentum since 2006, the same year Dr. Dan Colman, launched Open Culture, the greatest free cultural and educational media website I’ve ever come across. Almost 5 years old, Open Culture is the largest database of free cultural and educational media in existence. Open Culture is edited by Colman who received his PhD from Stanford in 1997. After graduating from Stanford he worked at About.com in the early days, then later worked for the Stanford, Oxford, Yale Consortium. He now runs Stanford’s continuing education program and works on Open Culture in his spare time.

“I’m trying to bring the best good ideas to the rest of the world. There currently exists too much of a gap between the university world and the general public.” -Dr. Dan Colman

The site has two dimensions: First, it acts as a portal, collecting external links so users are able to access materials directly from the distributor, whether the media be on a site, YouTube or iTunes. Second, it includes blog-style content with 2-3 posts a day of handpicked media bites like “The Existential Star Wars: Sartre Meets Darth Vader.” Open Culture features over 350 courses in its collection: links to epic TED Talks, over 380 high quality streams of classic movies and tens of thousands of hours of audio book material. In fact, 50% of Open Culture’s collection is audio content.

In the future, Colman would like to implement a social feature so that users can rate certain classes and share those ratings. Most importantly, he wants to add what he calls “the critical element” to Open Culture and the Open Education Movement. How can users get feedback as if they were in a classroom? How can they receive due credit? And perhaps, how can we measure learning in this new way?

Khan Academy

With just a computer and a pen-tablet-mouse, one can educate the world! Even better, the content never goes old. My (or your) great-great-great grandchildren could learn from the very same videos! -Sal Khan, Founder of Khan Academy

Khan Academy is an online collection featuring over 2,100 educational videos ranging in intensity from 1+1=2 to college level calculus and physics. Khan Academy includes an important recording feature; every time you work on a problem or watch a video, the site remembers what you’ve learned and where you’re spending your time. It keeps all of this data private but exposes powerful statistics to each user. Coaches or tutors can also log into Khan Academy through Google or Facebook and track their students progress. Khan Academy’s knowledge map shows all of its exercise concepts.

Watch more about The Khan Academy here.

Academic Earth

Academic Earth is working its way up to being the Hulu of academic videos and courses. However, they don’t cover audio, which is a shame because a lot of courses are only taped and released in audio since it’s easier on the budget. Academic Earth features the videos on their site, as opposed to pushing you directly to iTunes if it’s available. How about watching an entire semester’s worth of lectures on Science, Magic and Religion from an esteemed UCLA professor? Check it out here.


John Britton, now a developer evangelist at Twilio, spent his first year at RPI studying nuclear engineering, then switched to computer science. He quickly realized he didn’t like school, but not wanting to drop out, he had to game the system. He spent the next year in Spain learning the local language and customs. Upon returning, he set up an internship for himself at a company he launched, “faking the school out” as he says. Finally, when beckoned back to the books, he spent another year abroad in China; 3 months in Beijing and 9 months in Hong Kong. At the end of it all, with one semester left, he dropped out. He now has $60,000 in loans.

“I don’t like school. It’s why I’m working on starting my own.”
-John Britton, Entrepreneur and Unicycler

Britton now works with the founders of P2PU, “a grassroots open education project that organizes learning outside of institutional walls and gives learners recognition for their achievements.” P2PU’s Founders include Philipp Schmidt, Delia Browne, Stian Haklev, Neeru Paharia and Joel Thierstein.

“It’s kind of like couchsurfing but for learning,” says Britton. P2PU started in 2008 and launched its first 6 peer-based, free courses on 09/09/09. The courses had 15-20 people enrolled for 6 weeks. Each subsequent cycle, the number of courses nearly doubled. The most recent, 4th cycle had 60 courses with 20 people in each course. P2PU had to turn down nearly 17,000 additional people who applied.

Learn more about P2Pu here:



In the past year, they teamed up with Mozilla to create the P2PU School of Webcraft, a new way to teach and learn web developer skills. Classes are globally accessible, 100% free, and powered by learners, mentors and contributors. Their goal is to provide a free pathway to skills and certification to help people build careers on open web technology.


We were the first to write about Skillshare when the NYC startup launched in early April 2011. Simply put, Skillshare is a community marketplace that enables users to learn anything from anyone. Teachers can host classes anywhere, literally; classes are happening everywhere from NYC to Boston to San Francisco right now.

At the end of Sir Ken Robinson’s “Bring on the Learning Revolution” TED Talk, he encouraged everyone in the room “who represent extraordinary resources in business, in multimedia, and the Internet to combine technology with the extraordinary talent of teachers to revolutionize education. Not for ourselves but for the future of our kids.” I mean… who doesn’t want to make the world better for the kids? After watching this TED Talk it planted the seed and inspiration to really revolutionize education.

Last year, I played in the 2010 World Series of Poker (yes, completely random) for charity. I donated 100% of my poker winnings and got coached by some of the top professional poker players in the world. When I got back to NYC, my friends asked me to teach a class on what I learned, which is when everything clicked. And thus, Skillshare was born.
-Michael Karnjanaprakorn, Founder of Skillshare

So how does Mike K envision the future of education? He says, “Technology has the opportunity to completely disrupt education by democratizing learning. There’s something fundamentally wrong when a college degree can cost upwards of $100,000 when all of the information can be learned for free on Khan Academy. We need to go back to the true goal of education: learning new skills.” So what are you waiting for? Learn the basics of Ruby on Rails for $50 from the Chief Product Officer of DesignerPages.com or how to make chocolate for $40 from a holistic health and nutrition coach.

“Human communities depend upon a diversity of talent not a singular conception of ability.” -Sir Ken Robinson in his 2010 TED Talk


Want to learn about genetics? Cell biology? Ecology? Scitable is a free science social network with a peer-reviewed on library built on top of it. The network, which launched in 2009, is a product of the Nature Publishing Group, one of the largest, most prestigious science publishers in the world. It’s dedicated to encouraging students to take part in science education and science in general, which is a huge problem today. In fact, science high school education has a depressing 40% attrition rate in undergraduate science students. The site, which has just over 1 million users, recently launched The Green Science and Science In Africa sections, as well as a mobile site.

Skype’s Role

As our Midwest Editor Alex Wilhem wrote earlier this year, without a doubt, technology has changed education in the classroom. And Skype’s global platform and massive user adoption makes it one of the most influential technologies in changing the reach of education.

Ever heard of “The Granny Cloud“? A professor of education technology at UK’s Newcastle University named Sugata Mitra, whose work inspired the film “Slumdog Millionaire,” decided he could use Skype to improve literacy and education around the globe by getting 200 story telling Grannies to read to children in India over Skype.

Jacqueline Botterill leads Skype’s CSR (corporate/social responsibility) initiatives for Skype in Europe. Skype in the Classroom, which launched March 30th, 2010, is one of the company’s first forays into the education sphere. “We created Skype in the Classroom to help like-minded teachers collaborate on projects and share resources. Skype can connect children globally for shared learning experiences and is low-cost and simple to use,” she says. Since it’s launch over 12,000 teachers have signed up for Skype in the Classroom.

Betsey Sawyer, a middle school teacher in rural Groton, Massachusetts integrated Skype into her classroom to regularly connect students with an Afghan youth peace volunteer group. As part of her “Bookmakers and Dreamers club,” students ask questions about Afghanistan to their virtual pen pals, while sharing their own experiences in return. Already, the program of 10-17 year-olds has grown to 125 members.

Teach the World Online is using Skype to give young students in Haiti and Cambodia access to English teachers. The News Literacy Program is also using Skype so journalists can give guest lectures to students all over the world on how to sort fact from fiction in the digital age. At the moment, Skype is speaking with a number of different organizations that are trying to level the playing field of access to education.

Hungry for more? One of our favorite fellow tech reporters, Audrey Watters put together a list of 10 more open educational resources and OCW resources that you should know about including Smarthistory, a free and open multimedia website and OpenStudy, a social learning network.

But can the Internet really replace higher education?

As a journalist, I essentially creates my own courses and earn a living asking smart people provocative questions all day long. At this time, I’ve never been happier or more satisfied that I didn’t pay $150,000 to go to graduate school. However, I would hope that my gynecologist or dentist didn’t feel the same way.

There’s a lot of debate right now about whether or not paying for a degree is worth it, a particular problem facing entrepreneurs. TNW’s U.S. editor Brad McCarty recently wrote a piece titled, “Stay in or drop out? The entrepreneur’s education fiasco.” [Read it here.]

Entrepreneur Peter Thiel has recently sparked a big debate lately focused on: you don’t need to go to college, smart people should go out in the world and do.

Education is a bubble in a classic sense. To call something a bubble, it must be overpriced and there must be an intense belief in it. Housing was a classic bubble, as were tech stocks in the ’90s, because they were both very overvalued, but there was an incredibly widespread belief that almost could not be questioned — you had to own a house in 2005, and you had to be in an equity-market index fund in 1999. Probably the only candidate left for a bubble — at least in the developed world (maybe emerging markets are a bubble) — is education.

It’s basically extremely overpriced. People are not getting their money’s worth, objectively, when you do the math. And at the same time it is something that is incredibly intensively believed; there’s this sort of psycho-social component to people taking on these enormous debts when they go to college simply because that’s what everybody’s doing. It is, to my mind, in some ways worse than the housing bubble.

There are a few things that make it worse. One is that when people make a mistake in taking on an education loan, they’re legally much more difficult to get out of than housing loans. With housing, typically they’re non-recourse — you can just walk out of the house. With education, they’re recourse, and they typically survive bankruptcy. If you borrowed money and went to a college where the education didn’t create any value, that is potentially a really big mistake.

-Peter Thiel

Likewise, innovators such as John Britton, Sir Ken Robinson and Mike K of Skillshare, see the future of education as something of a necessary revolution, thriving on the powers of the Internet.

Education is going to move away from antiquated accreditation systems and towards a focus on real-world skills.  Our vision is to unlock this knowledge and allow people to share their skills with those who want to learn them. Let’s be honest – by the time a college has a class on how to build an iPhone app or use social media to market your business, it’ll be completely outdated because the world is moving so fast.

-Mike K, Founder of Skillshare

But what do the academics have to say about this?

“I think courses on the Internet are a great way to continue learning and to acquire new information and new knowledge, but they only partially address furthering education. An education is more than just passively listening to lectures.”

-Dr. Dan Colman, Editor of Open Culture

Replace? Oh no. The Internet is an amazing tool. But it’s also a tool that’s built on the capabilities of the people who are using it. The Internet alone won’t be able to replace higher education. I’m looking to enhance the experience of the user whether they are sitting in their dorm room or half way around the world…I wouldn’t say hitting play and pause for an hour can replace the experience of being in the classroom and interacting with a faculty member but perhaps for a larger class size that’s less true…

We need a better integration between the videos we’re capturing in the classroom and the experience learners have when interacting in a social context. Online, you don’t get that same sort of feedback. What are the ways we can take the data about these videos and analyze that and understand if students are having trouble understanding something?

-Benjamin Hubbard, ETS, Manager of Webcast at UC Berkeley

So where does that leave us? To pay or not to pay for a quality education? Much of it depends on the job you want, but then again it always has. If you want to be a fireman, you don’t need to go to graduate school. But if you want to be an orthodontist, please don’t just watch YouTubes and practice pulling out cavities on your dog.

The world is moving faster than it ever has before. As we learn more about ourselves and more about the world around us through massive amounts of data collection and data transfer at ever increasing speeds, surely the foundations of learning must change too.

After all, our current education system is broken, from the bottom up. If we’re going to continue to evolve as a species and as a culture, we’re long overdue for an education revolution.

The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion.

-Abraham Lincoln, December 1, 1862

Get the TNW newsletter

Get the most important tech news in your inbox each week.