A couple of years ago, I showed my daughters a video put online by the Khan Academy, which has become famous as a pioneer in open-access education. The video was an amateurish but charming explanation of basic arithmetic. We had fun but the girls were not transformed into mathematical prodigies. Their mathematical education remains the sole responsibility of a rather traditional school in North Oxford. The only thing YouTube has taught them is how to draw manga cartoons.
That experience would not surprise the British educational establishment. Massive Online Open Courses (Moocs) are all the rage but the top universities seem to regard them as mere amusements, unlikely to threaten traditional methods, which may be costly but are exclusive and of excellent quality.
The vice-chancellor of Cambridge university, in a speech in January, said that online courses would “challenge the nature of higher education” but that they would not change what happened at Cambridge.
Educational expert Karan Khemka seems to agree, explaining in this newspaper’s comment page that the Mooc approach would eventually improve higher education, but “through incremental change rather than massive disruption”.