Newsom lauds online courses at TechCrunch convention

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom discusses higher education at TechCrunch in San Francisco.

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SAN FRANCISCO — At a talk Monday morning during this year’s TechCrunch Disrupt SF, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom discussed how technology relates to the future of higher education.

The discussion centered around the changing landscape of higher education due to online learning companies. Online classes, especially massive open online courses (MOOCs), have been hailed as a cheaper and more accessible alternative to standard, on-campus degrees, though some view these online offerings as a threat to brick-and-mortar institutions

On stage with Newsom was Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity, a MOOC provider. TechCrunch, a media group for tech news, hosted the talk as part of Disrupt SF, a technology conference where startups debut and attendees discuss industry issues.

“Any time there’s an alternative educational method, this can be seen as a threat,” Thrun said. “Actually, I’m a big fan of on-campus education, but that doesn’t mean we should stop innovating  — there are still going to be people left out (of higher education).”

Thrun addressed how new information is constantly being added to the human knowledge base. In the world of technology, he emphasized, constant innovation necessitates constant learning.  Thrun said he views Udacity as part of a solution to the ongoing need for contemporary knowledge.

“We can’t really afford to have a single-study education these days — we have to stay up to date,” he said. “We have to change the mindset that ‘you get a degree, and then you’re set for life.’ ”

Newsom acknowledged that higher education could use change, with companies such as Udacity being integral to keeping the question of educational revision on the table, if not necessarily the answer.

“We have a system of higher learning that was conceived half a century ago for a world that no longer exists,” Newsom said. “If it takes someone like Sebastian on the outside to put pressure on people like us on the inside, than I think that’s a good thing.”

Traditional universities must ask themselves if they produce enough talent not only for the jobs existing today but also for the jobs that will exist tomorrow, Newsom said.

“There’s a prediction now that 65 percent of grade-school kids today are going to have a job that doesn’t even exist yet,” he added.

Thrun said innovation is the key to expanding students’ opportunities in higher education. He argued that there is an educational vacuum that companies like Udacity can fill by providing people with skills.

The different learning format presented by online education also can reach a broader base of learners, Thrun said.

“It’s been shown that a C-level math student can move to an A-level just by working at their own pace,” Thrun said. “Why can’t education be as fun as video games?”

Christine Tyler covers academics and administration. Contact her at [email protected].

A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom as saying that 25 percent of today’s grade-school children “are going to have a job that doesn’t even exist yet.” In fact, Newsom referenced a prediction of 65 percent.