Rethinking the online education revolution

February 19, 2013, 7:19 PM UTC
Pooja Sankar

I met Pooja Sankar two years ago after she founded Piazza, a collaboration platform that facilitates class discussion among students and teachers. Starting with a few students at Stanford, Piazza now is used at top universities such as Stanford and Princeton and MIT and in 25 countries around the world. With $7.5 million in funding from Sequoia Capital and Bessemer Ventures, Sankar, 32, aspires to play a key role in the transformation of education. But before other entrepreneurs get too revolutionary in this field, she thinks we need to reassess technology’s role in education. Following an epiphany at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Sankar shares her view in this Guest Post.

As the founder and CEO of Piazza, I’m used to cheerleading for technology in higher education. But in the midst of an almost utopian optimism about online education that I witnessed in Davos, I found myself playing an unaccustomed role: gadfly.

And since returning from Davos, I’ve distilled my heresies to this: Education is a personal journey, and right now we’re offering students an online jumble.

I rode into Davos on a spouse’s pass, and I’m not to the manner born. I came of age in interior India, where for seven years I didn’t talk to a single boy outside my family. Many girls in my town were married off by their parents at 16, some of them barely literate. The reason I got out? My father, an educated man, demanded that I study. He painted a picture of a life that was different from the one I could see just beyond the wall that separated our home from the street. Without that guidance, I would never have gone to IIT, Indian Institute of Technology.

At a session in Davos, Salesforce.com  CEO Marc Benioff and Sean Parker of Facebook and Napster fame hosted a roundtable focused on the question, “What’s one global change you’d want to see?” Our panel focused on education, and all agreed that online courses showed great potential. The words “disrupt” and “revolutionize” were spoken solemnly and often. Then someone asked me — as the person at the table least removed from the proverbial mud hut — whether online education would have broadened my childhood horizons.

I had to answer, “No.” What was really most important in my education was that at key moments, I was able to envision to the next step. And usually I did it with the help of a mentor, or at least someone who’d taken that next step before I had. The journey was personal, but guided. And that, more than access to any particular class or bit of educational content, was what saved me from the fate of early marriage and poverty that befell so many others.

In the wealthy world, we have an oddly romantic view of students in the global south: If we can just put educational stuff in front of them, they’ll devour just as they would eat food if we airdropped it in during a famine.

That’s the dream. The reality is: If online education is going to change outcomes on a global scale, we must think more broadly about students’ actual needs. We need to think about their entire educational journey, not just the content or the classes we provide.

Every student needs three things:

First, the plan. Imagine a child in Africa trying to cobble together an educational plan out of a series of online courses. It’s impossible. Consider that Harvard and MIT have pledged $60 million for online education. In addition to building online classes, some of that money should go toward helping students make iterative plans for their education, with help from advisory staff or current students. Who better than Harvard and MIT to help students around the world put together educational plans?

Second, the peer group. If students don’t have peers struggling with the same material at the same time, they’re likely to feel alienated and hopeless. At Piazza, we see spontaneous peer group formation every time we run large online classes. Online educational software must become more social and immediate and fun. Imagine what a gift it would be to a girl in rural India to connect with other girls studying the same material in other parts of the world.

Third. the mentors. Last fall, I helped create WitsOn, an online community connecting 500 professional women with thousands of college students. Students asked the women questions about how they had managed their lives and careers. Interestingly, we saw many of the professionals eagerly learning from the students, many of whom were more accomplished than they were in certain facets of technology. This suggests a giant network of learners, with mentors and mentees learning simultaneously.

I’m a big fan of learning online. But we aren’t being ambitious enough. If children in the developed world fall off the educational track, giving them computers is not going to help most of them. Education is more than lectures, assignments, and exams. It’s a means to envision a different life from the one you’re living. Let’s give every student a shot at that.