Way back before Facebook and Twitter, before Google, before you had an email address or had even used the word "email", the internet was little more than the collective dream of a few Californian techno-hippies. Back then, through the 1980s and early 1990s, people such as Steve Jobs and Kevin Kelley (the bearded, counterculture founder of Wired magazine) dreamed of a network of connected computers that would deliver ubiquitous, open and free access to information to everyone on Earth. In so doing, it would bring all human knowledge to the fingertips of billions; it would usher in a new golden age of learning and creativity; it would change the world.
Now, amid the deluge of Fail videos, LOL cats and status updates, it can be hard to remember those early, high ideals. But every so often a batch of start-ups comes along that helps. So it is this month, with the emergence of an online phenomenon that is set to transform education – and with it millions of lives: massive open online courses (MOOCs).
That emergence comes via news that the MOOC provider Coursera (www.coursera.com) will partner with a dozen top-rank US colleges - including Princeton, Caltech, and Stanford - to offer more than 100 courses starting this autumn. Subjects will range from maths and computer science to Greek mythology and American poetry.
The announcement catapulted Coursera – founded in 2011 by the Stanford computer scientists Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng – into the lead in the race to conquer online education, which also includes the Harvard and MIT co-project edX (www.edx.org), and "21st-century university" Udacity (www.udacity.com), both also founded last year.
MOOCs are simply interactive courses of learning delivered via the web, which anyone can join for free. In itself, that doesn't sound revolutionary; indeed, MOOCs have been around for a few years. What's changing the game now is vastly improved delivery (Coursera courses include online video, auto-graded exercises that provide tailored feedback and final exams) and, crucially, the involvement of Ivy League institutions. And that's adding up to staggering numbers: Ng recently taught an MOOC to 100,000 students. To reach that number of students before, he has says, Ng would have had to have taught his Stanford class for 250 years.
It's apparent, then, that MOOCs are set to bring about a fundamental revolution in learning. Now, US commentators are talking of an "Ivy League Spring" while Forbes magazine asks, "Is Coursera the beginning of the end for traditional higher education?" In short, will students continue to pay Ivy League tuition fees in an MOOC world?
Koller and Ng say Coursera has no plans to offer degrees, though students can earn college credit via some courses. And it's too early to tell where MOOCs will lead the education sector. What's clear, though, is that for the first time, hundreds of millions have access to the kind of learning experiences formerly reserved for a tiny elite. And then there's the one billion people in the developing world set to come online within the next five years. They'll be joining a network in which everyone has access to Harvard maths professors and Princeton historians.
That's a pretty big slice of the dream that digital pioneers such as Jobs and Kelly imagined 30 years ago. We'll soon see if it really does make the world a better place.