How Technology will Change Education

written for aeon
click to read on aeon
In September 1994, I taught a class to Harvard doctoral students. I finished my lectures the day before the course began, took my slides (printed on paper) to a shop in Harvard Square (Gnomen copy) to produce transparencies. When the course began, I placed the transparencies on the overhead projector in sequence. When all the transparencies were done, the course was over. Everyone was relieved. 

In January 2015, I taught a finance class to undergraduates at Chapman University. During the class, we day-traded stocks, we communicated through the course Facebook page, and we watched (educational) TV over the internet.  As a kid, I saw video phones on the futuristic Jetsons cartoon. In my course, we Skyped with business men and women in a variety of locations from Salt Lake City to Stockholm. One of our video calls was to a finance professional who Skyped from his iphone in a Wall Street Starbucks; Science fiction has become reality.
Video conferencing was science fiction, now mundane

In an way that was unimaginable in 1994, technology is now pervasive in the college classroom. However, the impact of technology on college education is much more profound than day-trading and Skyping suggest. 

Here are three trends that I believe will revolutionize college education

1. Professor as curator of information, not as the expert.

The world’s experts are now available on the internet. This changes the professor’s role from THE expert, to an expert and a curator. Consider the financial idea of the “Efficient Markets Hypothesis.” In the 1994 world, had I taught the EMH, I would have given the entire lecture. Now, I use my expertise differently. Rather than lecture, I find the right video clip of the “father” of the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, Nobel Laureate Eugene Fama discussing the concept.

Professor Eugene Fama
Father of the Efficient Markets Hypothesis

My job becomes selecting parts of Professor Fama’s speaking and writing, preparing the students for the material, and integrating a series of such lectures into a coherent course. I am a curator, not an individual artist. 

Adam Smith discussed specialization in his famous pin factory example in The Wealth of Nations. Today, specialization has become far more granular so that no one is the world’s expert in more than a tiny fraction of even one course’s academic material. 

When Professor Fama teaches Modern Portfolio Theory, for example, he should integrate his thoughts with those of Nobel Laureate Harry Markowitz. Professor Fama knows a great deal about modern portfolio theory, but not as much as the inventor and world expert, Professor Markowitz.

2. Personalized tutor, albeit electronic, for every person.

The Teacher of the Future?

How would you feel about your child being taught by a machine instead of a human? Done poorly, this could be terrible. The dehumanizing aspect of technology was highlighted in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, (which has inspired many others include Lucille Ball). 

Modern factories, however, can be viewed positively as a way for machines to do the boring repetitive parts of manufacturing (see Tesla production). 

Modern factories can be beautiful
Similarly, I believe automated tutorial products can be terrible or fantastic. The key to a positive experience is an adaptive system where each student follows a personalized path. The student’s answers to questions help the electronic tutor identify weaknesses and deliver the correct content. In a classroom, some students are bored because the pace is too slow, some are lost because the same pace is too fast for them. The electronic tutor, however, can set exactly the correct pace the each student.

3. Unbundling the College experience

The traditional, four-year-living-on-campus, college experience delivered three ‘products’ in what economists call a bundle. First, the information content of the academic material. Second, critical thinking including the ability to express that thinking both orally and in writing. Third, the social experience of interacting with students and faculty.

Traditional College is a Social Experience

Just as Netflix is decoupling content from traditional cable delivery, technology is disrupting this college bundle. In particular, the combination of electronic tutors (#2) and instantaneous access to the world’s experts (#1) de-emphasizes the traditional classroom’s role in content mastery.

Continuing the example, the Efficient Markets Hypothesis can be understood by a student working alone in his or her room, along with the correct material. I believe it is much harder to develop critical thinking skills without help. Obviously, the social aspects are even tougher to achieve on one’s own. 

What will the college of the future look like? I am not sure. I suspect that some students are likely to gather in person as they did in Plato’s Academy more than two thousand years ago. Many students will not, however, experience a residential college life. Furthermore, even those students who gather in the traditional manner will be enveloped within technology.

Plato’s Academy

I am optimistic that, after some decades of struggle, a new paradigm will coalesce that allows broader, deeper, and more personalized education.


  1. Fascinating as always.

    In Robert Frank"s "winner take all economy," he says that there is no longer need for an Grade A tenor in every European town as long as the town's opera buffs can download favorite Placido Domingo recordings or he goes on tour nearby.

    If most professors become gatekeepers/curators of superstars' videos, will PhDs be needed in academia except in the upper echelons? Will teaching be done by curators with Master's degrees, and research done by just a few at the top?

    And what will become of all those schools below the top?

  2. Dear lastexposfan,

    I think you are exactly on target to mention Robert Frank's Winner take all.

    College education is likely to be disrupted by technology in ways similar to Netflix in content delivery and Amazon in retail. Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, and the other great schools are likely to prosper. Schools in the middle will have to change dramatically or die.

    I like to explain some concept and then show my students the same concept being taught for free at online at the Kahn Academy. Here is a clip teaching that bond prices rising is equivalent to bond yield declining: https://www.khanacademy.org/economics-finance-domain/core-finance/stock-and-bonds/bonds-tutorial/v/treasury-bond-prices-and-yields

    As a professor at a 2nd tier school, one ought to try to stay ahead of the always improving free options.

    thank you for your comment,


  3. Thanks for proding this good information.

  4. You are a professor at what you term a "2nd tier school." I don't know how many tiers there are, but I am likely at the lowest tier there is. I don't want to denigrate my school or my students--I love them both--but the reality is that we are a very small school in a small town on the U.S./Mexican border and our students are those who were not good enough or motivated enough to go to a larger school in a larger town. I appreciate your reminder that this does not impede us from accessing the world's experts! But I see my role not just as a curator, but also a guide, interpreter, and motivator . . . my students will not find their way on their own, are not at a level where they can understand what is coming from the experts on their own, and many lack the desire to build their base of knowledge on their own (I would love good electronic tutors to help them fill their knowledge gaps, but my experience so far is that such "tutors" are not yet motivating). My challenge is getting them onto the same playing field as their "smarter" peers at other institutions, and preparing them well enough that once on that field they have a chance at competing. Do you think technology will most favor those already at an advantage, thus widening the gap, or do you think technology will fill the dream of helping most those who have the greatest needs?

    1. Thank you for your comment and my apologies for being so long in responding.

      That is an excellent question. My hope is that the technology will become captivating and inexpensive. I agree with you that so far, that is not the case. So great instructors like yourself who motivate and prod and cajole are super important