U.lab team wins Best Entrepreneurial Educator | UTS News Room


Published on UTS News Room on 5 Nov 2014

Jochen Schweitzer, picture by Joanne Saad
In summary:
  • The co-founders of UTS’s U.lab have been recognised for an outstanding collaboration between business and higher education
  • Dr Jochen Schweitzer and Dr Joanne Jakovich have been jointly named Best Entrepreneurial Educator in the annual Business/Higher Education Round Table awards

Dr Jochen Schweitzer and Dr Joanne Jakovich, the co-founders of UTS’s U.lab have been jointly named Best Entrepreneurial Educator in annual awards that recognise outstanding collaboration between business and higher education.

The awards are made by the Business/Higher Education Round Table (B/HERT), whose members come from higher education, business, industry bodies and research institutions.

Dr Schweitzer is a Senior Lecturer in Strategy and Innovation at UTS Business School and co-founder with Dr Jakovich of U.lab, an open innovation platform that brings students from multiple disciplines together to work on real-world problems. Dr Jakovich was a Senior Lecturer with the Faculty of…

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Beyond the IT crowd: the pitch for Google’s Australian Big Tent

By Jochen Schweitzer, University of Technology, Sydney and Joanne Jakovich, University of Technology, Sydney

Will the web create more Australian culture than it destroys? How do we tell Australian stories in the digital age? Why would Google host an event and ask questions such as these?

On Friday, Google will host Australia’s inaugural Big Tent event at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Sydney. It’s the latest of several Google Big Tent events that have taken place around the world.

Highlights of the recent Google Big Tent event in Rome.

The Sydney event is being billed as an “irreverent, high-energy discussion”, featuring speakers such as Amit Sood, Director of the Google Cultural Institute, former News Corp Australia boss Kim Williams, Bondi hipster comedian Christiaan Van Vuuren, and historian journalist Peter Fitzsimmons.

Recently business leaders around the world have reported not only a lack of innovation capability in their organisations but also that they’re not feeling prepared for a future where continuous innovation is needed.

For Google – as much as for any other leading internet technology company – maintaining and expanding the capacity to innovate is crucial, especially in increasingly complex and uncertain business environments.

What’s more, technology companies have come to realise technology alone cannot solve the big and convoluted problems of our times. People do! People have ideas and ideas need to seed, grow and spread.

Although technology is still one of the most important drivers of innovation, new dynamics are emerging that could determine which firms get the competitive edge.

I am not a number

One of those drivers is that people expect to be treated as individuals. While this is not new, businesses now need to know in much greater detail than ever before what their customers value, what they believe and what their habits and idiosyncrasies are.

Through technology-driven connectivity, abundant information and ubiquitous digitisation, internet businesses – and especially Google – have valuable information at their fingertips.

While the internet is already a solid infrastructure supporting the economy, it is on the cusp of a much larger expansion with emergence of the so-called “internet of things” – in which the majority of objects, and information about those objects, is connected via the web.

This raises many important socio-economic and political issues for stakeholders, as economies and societies become increasingly inter-meshed. How can we use this information best?

Less talking, more listening

Governments, businesses, the cultural sector and civil society are caught up in a historical switch to digital, and are looking at the opportunities that brings for innovation, creativity, economic development and jobs.

This is leading to a proliferation of crowd-funded, open-sourced and horizontally-distributed solutions to systemic challenges, and in turn redefining organisational and governance paradigms.

With radically overhauled business models and industry dynamics comes a trend for much more open, and closer, relationships between businesses and the communities they serve.

Organisational boundaries are becoming more porous, enabling greater collaboration with employees, customers and partners.

Where once a company would go it alone, and be successful doing so, it must now open up its innovation processes for feedback from the wider community. Priorities are shifting from intra-organisational efficiency to a new model that emphasises outside engagement, transparency, collaboration and dialogue with multiple audiences and all characters within them.

Firms realise the groundswell of opinion and innovation being shared online on social media, blogs, text chats, as well as offline in public gatherings and in conversation, is akin to customers influencing organisational strategy itself. Industry leaders don’t just invite stakeholders in for a chat; they increasingly rely on stakeholders’ real influence.

Accepting the crowd as stakeholders in shaping an organisation’s future has enormous cultural and managerial implications.

The innovative organisation is no longer only customer-centric, but crowd-activated, where firms must be ready and willing to pursue strategies that create shared value. The interested, active, informed, amateur expert and expert crowd that has ideas and views about how a field evolves becomes a valuable source of innovation and strategy development.

Rise of the creatives

Internet companies such as Google need to solve issues such as how big data and big ideas apply to fast growing industries, such as Australia’s creative industries.

Creative industries are comprised primarily of many small, dynamic firms that increasingly refuse to play with the big establishments in the conventional client-creator-consumer framework, and are instead innovating new ways to co-create value amongst their networks.

The growth potential of this style of “value creation” is emerging as greater number of entertainment, media, design, and lifestyle experiences are produced by a variegated army of mini-agencies.

Once more, the emergence of social, mobile and digital networks plays a big part in democratising the relationship between organisations and their stakeholders.

Maile Carnegie, Country Director for Google Australia New Zealand. AAP Image/Google

It is in this context that Google hosts an event that encourages the shared envisioning and discussion of how, exactly, the internet can effect change in an economy.

If not technology-driven, innovation comes from ideas that collide and inspire, instilling new thought and action. The Google Big Tent event aspires to do exactly that – it allows discourse, promotes the exchange of views and builds a community of thinkers.

Some may imagine tomorrow’s Big Tent event will be little more than a gated gathering of elitists and technology geeks, miscellaneous politicians and public figures big-noting themselves, or a tedious gathering of Apple product aficionados.

Others will see it as an opportunity to meet and mingle with interesting people, some great ideas.

The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
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CrowdShare Sydney – a field experiment

via CrowdShare Sydney – a field experiment | CrowdShare Sydney.

by Joanne Jakovich

CrowdShare Sydney is an experiment in urban participation. We don’t really know what’s going to happen, but like all scientists we hope for the unexpected. Experimentation is about doing and reflecting. By sharing thoughts and deeds we hope to discover new territory together.

Why is participation important? It’s important because we care about each other. It’s as simple as that. We care about others’ wellbeing, their happiness, and their purpose in life. Not everything’s about me. Nor is it simply about ‘us’. Participation is about everyone. It’s about young, old, rich, poor, left, right, green, atheist, religious, agnostic, local, international, immigrant, refugee. Our life here is everyone’s life.

When we set out to design this program, we wanted to discern two frames to work within when considering participation in the future of our city.

The first is the observation that digital isn’t staying. At least it will no longer be the focus. Like electricity, digital will become invisible. Our attention will be on network density. It won’t matter whether something is connected or not. The density of connectivity resulting in denser human relations will be important. How we are connected, the quality, and the agency of this connection is what will count.

The second frame observes that that in the future you (aged under 26, studying at university) will be old. Yes you. Youthful exuberance often clouds a sense of transference—the knowing that what we make and do today is ours for tomorrow. So the question is to you: in 2031, when you’re at the height of your careers, families, investment, and you’re realising the impact of transference, do want to be undertaking urban participation like we do today? Do community forums attended by disgruntled retirees offer you hope for your city?

  • A forum organised by a community group to voice concerns about the proposed NSW planning legislation, 2013.

City engagement should focus on more than feedback (which often descends into mutual contempt). The current approach assumes a lack of capacity of the community. Youth are barely engaged, let alone have some idea of how their future will be affected. Likewise, mass participation is assumed too arduous. We should be surprised that only 4000 submissions were received for the NSW planning White Paper. In a city of 4 to 6 million, what does 0.1% of the population’s feedback mean?

To truly consider the future of our city, a far-reaching culture of participation must come first. This is the central motivation of CrowdShare Sydney. We need to recognise and support all kinds of active agency in the city. We should celebrate the diversity of ways people do things to collectively create their neighbourhoods, their communities, their networks, and their shared places. We need to elevate the small, local things that can grow to have greater impact.  Surrounding this, fluency and skills to empower others are required. To start on this agenda, we need to turn around expectations of participation. Working towards making – not simply critiquing – our shared future is essential.

It’s no coincidence that now, when we are more connected than ever, we are seeing a thriving trend in participation. The web is not taking us away form each other. Both online and face-to-face interactions are on the rise. For example, the Meetup and Open IDEO platforms enable this digital-physical blend on a massive scale. Meetup has instigated 111 million face-to-face interactions around the world. These are individual contributions to agendas, not simply social events. Meetup groups frequently collaborate to solve problems not being addressed by conventional mechanisms.

Through this heightened activity, we are witnessing more awareness and diversity of participation in the public realm. The impact of this is not only one of breadth. There is also a case for sheer volume. Take, for example, the transformation of consumption and production. Conventionally, mass media, produced by a powerful few, attracted a large audience, who were primarily consumers. In comparison, in the current collective media paradigm, as enabled by web 2.0 social media and mobile technologies, there is a greater volume of both consumption and production. Those creating content are avid consumers of their peers’ contributions. The diversity of production is greater, and the diversity of consumption is multiplied.

In fact, a binary notion of consumption and production no longer applies. The interactions between players are complex. Often they are actively collaborating while being in competition. Influence is granular, but can also swell beyond its original authority. While the producers of mass media remain, the disaggregated crowd exists in an expanded state of high-production-meets-high-consumption. Resultantly, there is more detailed, diverse and articulated attention being paid to participation of all kinds.


  • The relationship between production and consumption in a mass media paradigm.

  • The relationship between production and consumption in a collective media paradigm.

In this activated flattened field, citizens are more empowered than at any time in history. Not only are we able to edit, mash, publish, trade, monitor, enforce, crowdsource, and meet our future spouse at the swipe of a finger tip, we can create things in ways never before possible. Creativity bestows a seductive power. Conventionally, ways of making were passed on from master to apprentice. In the open source culture of the web, creators leverage this seductiveness to engage and educate new audiences in making practices.

Increasingly, this online movement is shifting from a focus on coding to ‘making real stuff.’ The tactical urbanism and maker economy movements exemplify this object-based connectivity. As ‘makers’ they are not interested in individual objects isolation, but in their collaborative agency. Members donate unlimited energy to uploading evidence and sharing knowledge about the making of their physical things. Collectively, these objects have a network effect beyond their mere physicality.

In this context, traditional institutions are struggling to understand how to interact with an empowered constituency. One example is the story of the TripView app, which was created at a weekend hackathon in Sydney. By hacking the database of transport timetables, its creators brought Sydney’s complex public transport offerings to users in real time. RailCorp threatened legal action, even though they offered no equivalent service to commuters, and then withdrew. Increasingly, the empowered crowd is creating the services we usually expect from the public service.

Corruption is seen by many as a characterising feature of our city’s largest stakeholders – government and business alike. A digitally expanded, creativity-driven approach to city participation does not distract from the need to address this properly. The distribution of influence, if not power, to a broader audience might aid greater transparency. Activation of citizen attention towards city participation of all kinds aims to increase mutual responsibility and discourse.

In this redefined hierarchy, everyone is a leader. In fact, traditional leaders need to lead by observation and empathy. We no longer want to hear about statistics and mission statements. Stories grab our hearts. We want meaning. We want our actions to have perceivable impact on a real person’s life, if not our own. We don’t expect to have bold and courageous decisions from the top. We demand ways to enable bold and courageous action from amidst the field to better shape decisions that affect us all. Governing agencies will increasingly compete with commercial entities that can offer meaningful urban participation in a seamless way.

If we think about the opportunities described here, a greater sense of ownership and agency in the city is possible. Collaborative tools of making, rather than critiquing, can empower new solutions to specific issues. Creativity can become a tool of action that seeps into every part of society.  The number one skill we’ll need won’t be a skill. It will be an attitude: “Let’s just try it and see.” By working iteratively and collaboratively, we can evolve an approach to creating our city that is inclusive. By recognising that different needs arise in different contexts we can interact appropriately and with relevance. This is not an agenda to exacerbate the digital haves and have-nots, or to further separate the savvy and the disconnected. It’s about people reaching out to each other and giving a damn. It’s about using the tools at their fingertips to share and inspire.

This is why we have established CrowdShare Sydney. When we looked at the phenomena described here, we came to two realisations. First. The detailed disaggregation of attention based on passion rather than necessity creates focussed impact. In effect, we can do more when we know we want to—and better still, when we know we’d love to. Second. We are no longer interested in designing participation. Even this dictates too much. Our job is to curate attention and flow. Once we have gathered the deep, concerned and humble attention of our ‘crowd’, we can work together to achieve great things.

To get started, we set up the ten-part CrowdShare Sydney panel to talk about these concepts with a range of activators and audiences. We set out a platform for actions in the city. These are bottom-up explorations of participation that you, me—anyone—can be involved in. In curating this field, we open the invitation to you: Your task is to activate and interact with your crowd in your own custom way. Our task is to humbly follow you.



Rethinking innovation: harnessing the collective creativity of the crowd

By Jochen Schweitzer, University of Technology, Sydney and Joanne Jakovich, University of Technology, Sydney

The past few years have seen a resurgence in design as a driver of innovation. This has been visible in the popular managerial press and also the scholarly debate in management and design. Many foreign organisations and governments have already successfully embraced design-led approaches to innovation. While Australia can boast an emerging capability in business and government centres in Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne, our design-led innovation culture is still in its infancy.

The term “design thinking” has become a buzzword, aiming to capture designers’ creativity-driven approach to innovation that can be applied to anything from physical products and intangible services, to formulating and solving complex social problems.

Innovation via design is to open up to – rather than narrow down – the inputs for solving a problem. Design thinking promotes a particular mind-set that takes the user experience, or a human-centred perspective, as point of departure. Design processes are experimental and non-linear, and focus on asking questions as much as searching for solutions.

Central to the concept of design thinking is the ability to visualise ideas and complexity using sketches and prototypes that through their temporary and incomplete nature are essential to the process of knowledge development and innovation.

While design thinking has the potential to empower innovators to approach complex challenges armed with a toolbox of tested design techniques, we also see a trend towards opening up innovation processes.

From crowdsourcing to crowd-share innovation

Crowdsourcing suggest that organisations open up, combine internally and externally developed knowledge, and take their products and services to markets via external paths.

In crowdsourcing, the “crowd” comprises a group of individuals of varying expertise and heterogeneity, who respond to a call to undertake a task. Individuals voluntarily participate by contributing their effort, money, experience or skills in an exchange that is mutually beneficial. The crowd gains social recognition, personal satisfaction, economic return, or skill advancement; the crowdsourcer gains access to the knowledge, ideas and work that the crowd has contributed.

In the worst case, crowdsourcing for innovative ideas is like throwing a hook in a school of fish. You’ll be sure to get an idea, but it’ll be bound to be just like the others. In the best case, unexpected pools of ideas can be explored and new possibilities opened up. But in both cases, the problem arises that although the ideas might be diverse, and represent breadth in thinking, they are conceived individually and therefore lack the potentially game-changing quality that we seek in widely accepted and truly disruptive innovations.

Complex problems need more than just a willing crowd of individuals. They need a whole new approach to collective creativity. New collaborative ways that build perspective on issues and harness experience interactively with and amidst the crowd need to be found.

We devised an experiment to test a combination of the breadth-generating power of crowdsourcing and the intensively human-centred and collaborative practices of design thinking. We call this hybrid approach “crowd-share innovation”.

In an intensive seven-week collection of creative workshops called “Groundbreaker”, we set out to define new tools and methods in this emerging practice. We partnered with some courageous organisations that were excited about expanding their innovation process beyond the boardroom into the unpredictable domain of the crowd.

While problems are often only visible once they reach catalytic impact, the Groundbreaker participants engaged with numerous ethnographic, pictorial, three-dimensional and theatrical explorations in order to create a new perspective on the origin of the problem itself. We called this first step the “public think”.

The second step invited our partner organisations back into the design pressure-cooker for a private (yet definitely non-boardroom) chance to revisit their challenge based on the insights from the crowd. Once again we implemented the intensive, human-centred design processes. We called this part the “private think”.

One of the tools we tested was the 5×5; a rapid innovation competition between teams of five to ten people, comprising of five steps of five minutes each. Teams work through stages of empathy, visioning, ideation, prototyping and pitching to come up with new insights and solutions to a problem. This all happens in the space of 25 minutes, enabling participants to leap through common barriers and conflicts, and freely associate ideas between physical representations and abstract concepts.

Groundbreaker participants engaged with numerous ethnographic, pictorial, three-dimensional and theatrical explorations in order to create a new perspective on the origin of the problem itself. Grounbreaker

Crowd-share innovation, we discovered, is about the shift between the looser realm of the crowd and the tighter reflection of the knowledge holders. In each scenario – public or private – the key is to get the right amount of tension, speed, compulsion, and reflection amongst teams of diverse and open people to allow new kinds of conversations to happen.

We saw that when the collective mindset gets shaken up, new insights become available. By collaboratively building messy physical models and envisioning new futures with a wide array of props, we noticed that latent ideas moved beyond the limits of conversation and into the territory of gestalt. Once a collaborating team gets going, imagination fires across otherwise inert thoughts, and partial ideas rapidly combine and evolve into complex, nuanced approaches to previously unnoticed perspectives on a problem.

Crowd-share innovation is a way to tap into collective creative intelligence and augment the personal interactions between consumers, community, business, and innovators. It is taking them from the online, massive user world to the intimate, living lab of design thinking. It not only opens up innovation to new perspectives, but creates communities committed to an idea. If we get this kind of thinking right at the crux of a complex problem, and gain a shared vision and leadership from real interactions in the beginning, we might be on a better path to solving complex problems with the crowd.

The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

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About the beauty and difficulty of being creative

Radio host Julie Burstein has found the perfect analogy for creativity—raku pottery. A Japanese art form in which molded clay is heated for 15 minutes and then dropped in sawdust which bursts into flames, what makes this pottery so beautiful is its imperfections and cracks. Burstein interviewed hundred of artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers for her book, Spark: How Creativity Works, and heard many of them describe their process in similar terms — that the best parts of their work came from embracing challenges, misfortunes and the things they simply couldn’t control. As Burstein explains in this talk given at TED2012, “I realized that creativity grows out of everyday experiences more often than you would think.”

In this talk, Burstein identifies four lessons that creative people should embrace:

  1. Pay attention to the world around you, and be open to experiences that might change you.
  2. Realize that the best work often comes out of the life experiences that are most difficult.
  3. Get comfortable with the fact that pushing up against a limitation can actually help you find your voice.
  4. Don’t be afraid to explore loss — be it rejection, heartbreak or death — because making beauty out of these things is so powerful.

To hear how Burstein learned these lessons from filmmaker Mira Nair, writer Richard Ford, sculptor Richard Serra and photographer Joel Meyerowitz, listen to her wonderful talk. And after the jump, nine more talks on the nature of creativity.

Elizabeth Gilbert: Your elusive creative genius
Author Elizabeth Gilbert is confused by how our culture regards writers and other artists—as people on the brink who are too easily undone by their talent. In this talk from TED2009, Gilbert reframes how we think about creativity—that rather than there being “geniuses” among us, that all of us have a bit of genius within us.
David Kelley: How to build your creative confidence
David Kelley of IDEO fully agrees with Elizabeth Gilbert. In this talk from TED2012, he shares why he believes it is problematic to think of society as split into the creatives and the technical-minded. Here, he shares how people who think of themselves as the latter can build up their creative muscles, as we all have them — whether we know it or not.
Isaac Mizrahi on fashion and creativity
Where does Isaac Mizrahi get ideas? From pretty much everywhere. In this talk from TED2008, Mizrahi shares how his creative process heeds him to pay attention to tarot card readers and to the unique coloration of film, as well as to hop out of cabs and follow people who strike him as interesting on the streets of New York City.
Amy Tan: Where does creativity hide
Amy Tan became a writer because she found herself fascinated with one question: why do things happen the way they happen? In this talk from TED2008, Tan shares why it is so appealing to be the creator of her own universes — the one responsible for pulling strings and creating meaning.
Steven Johnson: Where good ideas come from
When people tell the story of an invention, they usually describe a “eureka” moment. But author Steven Johnson wonders if that might be a fallacy. In this talk from TEDGlobal 2010, Johnson looks at how breakthroughs are slow to build and usually happen in dialogue with other thinkers of the time.
Janet Echelman: Taking imagination seriously
Artist Janet Echelman is known for creating enormous, undulating sculptures out of fishnets. So how did she come up with this unconventional form? In this talk from TED2011, Echelman explains that she found her voice when her paints went missing on a trip to a fishing village in India, and she was forced to work in a new medium.
Kirby Ferguson: Embrace the remix
In this talk from TEDGlobal 2012, Kirby Ferguson unleashes a bold idea: that maybe creative types shouldn’t be so concerned with originality. As Ferguson sees it, creativity is all about copying, transforming and remixing things that already exist. In Ferguson’s eye, everything is a remix.
Malcolm McLaren: Authentic creativity vs. karaoke culture
The manager of the Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren helped shape the counterculture of the late ‘70s and ‘80s. In his final speech before passing away in 2010, McLaren shares his fears about what he calls “karaoke culture,” where success is about mimicry rather than emotional honesty. Because as McLaren sees it, no one should be shielded from the messy, difficult struggle of creating something new.
Tim Brown: Tales of creativity and play
What is the difference between being a designer and just playing around? Not as much as most people think, says Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO. At Serious Play 2008, Brown shares how building a successful firm was as easy as giving employees a place to experiment without fear of being judged — just like kids do on a daily basis.


Do online courses spell the end for the traditional university?

By Carole Cadwalladr, The Observer, Sunday 11 November 2012

Two years ago, I sat in the back seat of a Toyota Prius in a rooftop car park in California and gripped the door handle as the car roared away from the kerb, headed straight towards the roof’s edge and then at the last second sped around a corner without slowing down. There was no one in the driver’s seat.

It was the prototype of Google’s self-driving car and it felt a bit like being Buck Rogers and catapulted into another century. Later, I listened to Sebastian Thrun, a German-born professor of artificial intelligence at Stanford University, explain how he’d built it, how it had already clocked up 200,000 miles driving around California, and how one day he believed it would mean that there would be no traffic accidents.

A few months later, the New York Times revealed that Thrun was the head of Google’s top-secret experimental laboratory Google X, and was developing, among other things, Google Glasses – augmented reality spectacles. And then, a few months after that, I came across Thrun again.

The self-driving car, the glasses, Google X, his prestigious university position – they’d all gone. He’d resigned his tenure from Stanford, and was working just a day a week at Google. He had a new project. Though he didn’t call it a project. “It’s my mission now,” he said. “This is the future. I’m absolutely convinced of it.”

The future that Thrun believes in, that has excited him more than self-driving cars, or sci-fi-style gadgets, is education. Specifically, massive online education free to all. The music industry, publishing, transportation, retail – they’ve all experienced the great technological disruption. Now, says Thrun, it’s education’s turn.

“It’s going to change. There is no doubt about it.” Specifically, Thrun believes, higher education is going to change. He has launched Udacity, an online university, and wants to provide mass high quality education for the world. For students in developing countries who can’t get it any other way, or for students in the first world, who can but may choose not to. Pay thousands of pounds a year for your education? Or get it free online?

University, of course, is about so much more than the teaching. There’s the socialising, of course, or, as we call it here in Britain, drinking. There’s the living away from home and learning how to boil water stuff. And there’s the all-important sex and catching a social disease stuff. But this is the way disruptions tend to work: they disrupt first, and figure out everything else at some unspecified time later.

Thrun’s great revelation came just over a year ago at the same TED conference where he unveiled the self-driving car. “I heard Salman Khan talk about the Khan Academy and I was just blown away by it,” he says. “And I still am.” Salman Khan, a softly spoken 36-year-old former hedge fund analyst, is the founding father of what’s being called the classroom revolution, and is feted by everyone from Bill Gates (who called him “the world’s favourite teacher”) down.

The Khan Academy, which he set up almost accidentally while tutoring his niece and nephew, now has 3,400 short videos or tutorials, most of which Khan made himself, and 10 million students. “I was blown away by it,” says Thrun. “And frankly embarrassed that I was teaching 200 students. And he was teaching millions.”

Thrun decided to open up his Stanford artificial intelligence class, CS221, to the world. Anybody could join, he announced. They’d do the same coursework as the Stanford students and at the end of it take the same exam.

CS221 is a demanding, difficult subject. On campus, 200 students enrolled, and Thrun thought they might pull in a few thousand on the web. By the time the course began, 160,000 had signed up. “It absolutely blew my mind,” says Thrun. There were students from every single country in the world – bar North Korea. What’s more, 23,000 students graduated. And all of the 400 who got top marks were students who’d done it online.

It was, says Thrun, his “wonderland” moment. Having taught a class of 160,000 students, he couldn’t go back to being satisfied with 200. “I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill,” Thrun said in a speech a few months later. “I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen wonderland. We can really change the world with education.”

By the time I sign up to Udacity’s beginners’ course in computer science, how to build a search engine, 200,000 students have already graduated from it. Although when I say “graduate” I mean they were emailed a certificate. It has more than a touch of Gillian McKeith’s PhD about it, though it seems employers are taking it seriously: a bunch of companies, including Google, are sponsoring Udacity courses and regularly cream off the top-scoring students and offer them jobs.

I may have to wait a while for that call, though I’m amazed at how easy Udacity videos are to follow (having tips and advice on search-engine building from Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, doesn’t hurt). Like the Khan Academy, it avoids full-length shots of the lecturer and just shows a doodling hand.

According to Brin, if you have basic programming ability – which we’ll all have if we complete the course – and a bit of creativity, “you could come up with an idea that might just change the world”. But then that’s Silicon Valley for you.

What’s intriguing is how this will translate into a British context. Because, of course, when it comes to revolutionising educational access, Britain has led the world. We’ve had the luxury of open access higher education for so long – more than 40 years now – that we’re blasé about it. When the Open University was launched in 1969, it was both radical and democratic. It came about because of improvements in technology – television – and it’s been at the forefront of educational innovation ever since. It has free content – on OpenLearn and iTunesU. But at its heart, it’s no longer radically democratic. From this year, fees are £5,000.

In America, Thrun is not the only one to have taken the pills. A year on from the Stanford experiment, and the world of higher education and the future of universities is completely different. Thrun’s wasn’t the only class to go online last autumn. Two of his computer science colleagues, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, also took part, with equally mind-blowing results. They too have set up a website, Coursera. And while Udacity is developing its own courses, Coursera is forming partnerships with universities to offer existing ones. When I met Koller in July, shortly after the website’s launch, four universities had signed up – Stanford, Princeton, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Just four months later, it has 33 partner universities, 1.8 million students and is having venture capital thrown at it – $16m (£10m) in the first round. And it doesn’t stop there. It’s pretty remarkable that Coursera and Udacity were spun out of the same university, but also the same department (Thrun and Koller still supervise a PhD student together). And they have the dynamic entrepreneurial change-the-world quality that characterise the greatest and most successful Silicon Valley startups.

“We had a million users faster than Facebook, faster than Instagram,” says Koller. “This is a wholesale change in the educational ecosystem.”

But they’re not alone. Over at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Anant Argarwal, another professor of computer science, who also cites Khan as his inspiration (and who was, in a neat twist, once his student), has launched edX, featuring content from MIT, Harvard, Berkeley and the University of Texas System.

Argarwal is not a man prone to understatement. This, he says, is the revolution. “It’s going to reinvent education. It’s going to transform universities. It’s going to democratise education on a global scale. It’s the biggest innovation to happen in education for 200 years.” The last major one, he says, was “probably the invention of the pencil”. In a decade, he’s hoping to reach a billion students across the globe. “We’ve got 400,000 in four months with no marketing, so I don’t think it’s unrealistic.”

More than 155,000 students took the first course he taught, including a whole class of children in Mongolia. “That was amazing!” says Argarwal. “And we discovered a protégé. One of his students, Batthushig, got a perfect score. He’s a high school student. I can’t overstate how hard this course was. If I took it today, I wouldn’t get a perfect score. We’re encouraging him to apply to MIT.” This is the year, Argarwal says, that everything has changed. There’s no going back. “This is the year of disruption.”

A month ago, I signed up for one of the Coursera courses: an introduction to genetics and evolution, taught by Mohamed Noor, a professor at Duke University. Unlike Udacity’s, Coursera’s courses have a start date and run to a timetable. I quite fancied a University of Pennsylvania course on modern poetry but it had already started. This one was 10 weeks long, would feature “multiple mini-videos roughly 10-15 minutes in length”, each of which would contain a number of quizzes, and there would also be three tests and a final exam.

It’s just me, Noor, and my 36,000 classmates. We’re from everywhere: Kazakhstan, Manila, Donetsk, Iraq. Even Middlesbrough. And while I watch the first videos and enjoy Noor’s smiley enthusiasm, I’m not blown away.

They’re just videos of lectures, really. There’s coursework to do, but I am a journalist. I am impervious to a deadline until the cold sweat of impending catastrophe is upon me. I ignore it. And it’s a week or so later when I go back and check out the class forum.

And that’s when I have my being-blown-away moment. The traffic is astonishing. There are thousands of people asking – and answering – questions about dominant mutations and recombination. And study groups had spontaneously grown up: a Colombian one, a Brazilian one, a Russian one. There’s one on Skype, and some even in real life too. And they’re so diligent! If you are a vaguely disillusioned teacher, or know one, send them to Coursera: these are people who just want to learn.

Four weeks in, Noor announces that he’s organising a Google hangout: it’s where a limited number of people can talk via their webcams. But it’s scheduled for 1am GMT on Sunday morning. I go to sleep instead. However I do watch the YouTube video of it the next day and it’s fascinating viewing. Despite the time, Richard Herring, a train driver from Sheffield, is there, bright and alert and wanting to tell Noor how much he’s enjoying the course.

“Richard!” says Noor. “Nice to meet you! Your posts are amazing. I often find that before I have a chance to go in and answer a question, somebody else has already answered it, and it’s often Richard. Thank you.”

“I just love science,” says Richard. “I was never any good at school, but I’ve just picked it up along the way. It’s a brilliant course. To get something like this without paying anything is marvellous. I’m loving it.”

So is Sara Groborz, a graphic designer who was born in Poland but now lives in Britain. And then there’s Naresh Ramesh, from Chennai, who’s studying for a degree in biotechnology, and Maria, who lives in the US and is using the course to teach her students in a juvenile correction institute. Aline, a high school student in El Salvador, comes on. She took the course, she says, because she goes to a Catholic school where they don’t teach evolution. “And you’re the best teacher I’ve ever had!” she tells Noor.

How gratifying must it be to be a teacher on one of these courses? When I catch up by email with Noor the next day, he writes. “I’m absolutely LOVING it!” By phone, he says it’s one of the most exciting things he’s ever done.

What’s more, it means that next semester he’s going to be able to “flip the classroom”. This is a concept that Khan has popularised and shown to be successful: students do the coursework at home by watching the videos, and then the homework in class, where they can discuss the problems with the instructor.

There are still so many issues to figure out with online education. Not least the fact that you don’t get a degree out of it, although a university in the US has just announced that it will issue credit for it. At the moment, most people are doing courses for the sake of simply learning new stuff. “And a certificate, basically a pdf, which says this person may or may not be who they say they are,” says Noor.

And while computers are excellent at grading maths questions, they’re really much less hot at marking English literature essays. There’s a preponderance of scientific and technical subjects, but the number of humanties courses is increasing with what Koller says is “surprisingly successful” peer assessment techniques. “It can’t replace a one-to-one feedback from an expert in the field, but with the right guidance, peer assessment and crowd-sourcing really does work.”

And in terms of content, the course I’m doing is pretty much the same as the one Noor’s students take. At Duke, they have more interaction, and a hands-on lab environment, but they are also charged $40,000 a year for the privilege.

It’s a lot of money. And it’s this, that makes Udacity’s and Coursera’s and edX’s courses so potentially groundbreaking. At the moment, they’re all free. And while none of them can compete with traditional degrees, almost every other industry knows what happens when you give teenagers the choice between paying a lot of money for something or getting it for nothing.

Of course, education isn’t quite an industry, but it is a business, or as Matt Grist, an education analyst from the thinktank Demos tells me, “a market”, although he immediately apologises for saying this. “I know. It’s terrible. That’s the way we talk about it these days. I don’t really like it, but I do it. But it is a market. And universities are high-powered businesses with massive turnovers. Some of the best institutions in Britain are global players these days.”

Grist has been looking at the funding model of British universities, and sees trouble ahead. The massive rise in fees this year is just the start of it. “We’ve set off down this road now, and if you create competition and a market for universities, I think you’re going to have to go further.” He foresees the best universities becoming vastly more expensive, and the cheaper, more vocational ones “holding up”. “It’s the middle-tier, 1960s campus ones that I think are going to struggle.”

When I ask Koller why education has suddenly become the new tech miracle baby, she describes it as “the perfect storm. It’s like hurricane Sandy, all these things have come together at the same time. There’s an enormous global need for high quality education. And yet it’s becoming increasingly unaffordable. And at the same time, we have technological advances that make it possible to provide it at very low marginal cost.”

And, in Britain, the storm is perhaps even more perfect. This is all happening at precisely the moment that students are having to pay up to £9,000 a year in fees and being forced to take on unprecedented levels of debt.

Students, whether they like it or not, have been turned into consumers. Education in Britain has, until now, been a very pure abstraction, a concept untainted by ideas of the market or value. But that, inevitably, is now changing. University applications by UK-born students this year were down almost 8%. “Though the number who turned up was much lower than that,” Peter Lampl, the founder of the Sutton Trust, tells me. “They were 15% down.”

The trust champions social mobility and nothing accelerates that more than university. “That’s why we’re so keen on it,” says Lampl. “We’re monitoring the situation. We don’t know what the true impact of the fees will be yet. Or what the impact of coming out of university with £50,000 worth of debt will have on the rest of your life. “Will it delay you buying a house? Or starting a family? People compare it to the States, but in America one third of graduates have no debt, and two-thirds have an average of $25,000. This is on a completely different scale.”

And it’s amid this uncertainty and this market pressure that these massive open online courses – or Moocs as they’re known in the jargon – may well come to play a role. There are so many intangible benefits to going to university. “I learned as much if not more from my fellow students than I did from the lectures,” says Lampl. But they’re the things – making life-long friends, joining a society, learning how to operate a washing machine – that are free. It’s the education bit that’s the expensive part. But what Udacity and the rest are showing is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be.”

The first British university to join the fray is Edinburgh. It’s done a deal with Coursera and from January, will offer six courses, for which 100,000 students have already signed up. Or, to put this in context, four times as many undergraduates as are currently at the university.

It’s an experiment, says Jeff Hayward, the vice-principal, a way of trying out new types of teaching “I’ll be happy if we break even.” At the moment Coursera doesn’t charge students to receive a certificate of completion, but at some point it’s likely to, and when it does, Edinburgh will get a cut.

But then Edinburgh already has an online model. More than 2,000 students studying for a masters at the university aren’t anywhere near it; they’re online. “And within a few years, we’re ramping that up to 10,000,” says Hayward.

For undergraduates, on the other hand, study is not really the point of university, or at least not the whole point. I know a student at Edinburgh called Hannah. “Do you have any lectures tomorrow?” I text her. “Only philosophy at 9am,” she texts back. “So obviously I’m not going to that.”

She’s an example of someone who would be quite happy to pay half the fees, and do some of the lectures online. “God yes. Some of the lecturers are so crap, anyway. We had a tutorial group the other day, and he just sat there and read the paper and told us to get on with it.”

Max Crema, the vice-president of the student union, tells me that he’s already used online lectures from MIT to supplement his course. “Though that may be because I’m a nerd,” he concedes. “The problem with lectures is that they are about 300 years out of date. They date back to the time when universities only had one book. That’s why you still have academic positions called readers.”

I trot off to one of them, an actual lecture in an actual lecture theatre, the old anatomy theatre, a steeply raked auditorium that’s been in use since the 19th century when a dissecting table used to hold centre stage, whereas today there’s just Mayank Dutia, professor of systems neurophysiology, talking about the inner ear.

He’s one of the first academics signed up to co-deliver one of the Coursera courses come January, although he defends the real-life version too: “Universities are special places. You can’t do what we do online. There’s something very special in being taught by a world leader in the field. Or having a conversation with someone who’s worked on a subject their whole lives. There’s no substitute for this.”

There isn’t. But what the new websites are doing is raising questions about what a university is and what it’s for. And how to pay for it. “Higher education is changing,” says Hayward. “How do we fund mass global education? There are agonies all over the world about this question.”

There are. And there’s no doubting that this is something of a turning point. But it may have an impact closer to home too. Argarwal sees a future in which universities may offer “blended” models: a mixture of real-life and online teaching.

Coursera has already struck its first licensing deal. Antioch College, a small liberal arts institution in Ohio, has signed an agreement under which it will take content from Duke University and the University of Pennsylvania. And a startup called the Minerva Project is attempting to set up an online Ivy League university, and is going to encourage its students to live together in “dorm clusters” so that they’ll benefit from the social aspects of university life. Seeing how the students on Coursera and Udacity organise themselves, it’s not impossible to see how in the future, students could cluster together and take their courses online together. For free.

There’s so much at stake. Not least the economies of dozens of smallish British cities, the “second-tier” universities that Matt Grist of Demos foresees could struggle in the brave new free education market world.

At Edinburgh, fees are having an effect – applications are down – but “most students seem to see it as mañana money,” says Jeff Hayward. “It’s still hypothetical at the moment.”

But this is the first year of £9,000 fees. An English student at Edinburgh (it’s free for Scottish students), where courses are four years, is looking at £36,000 of debt just for tuition. And maybe another £30,000 of living expenses on top of that.

These websites are barely months old. They’re still figuring out the basics. Universities aren’t going anywhere just yet. But who knows what they’ll look like in 10 years’ time? A decade ago, I thought newspapers would be here for ever. That nothing could replace a book. And that KITT, David Hasselhoff’s self-driving car in Knight Rider was nothing more than a work of fantasy.


How Might We Design for Behavior Change?

By Tim Brown, via LinkedIn

If you talk to people at the Santa Fe Institute, or read any of their books, you’ll learn that a key characteristic of a complex system is that the more complex a system is, the more information flows through it. If this is true, then we ought to be thinking more about these information flows when we are designing for behavior change in complex systems.

Harvard’s Nicholas Christakis has studied the relationships between people with respect to their health, and one of the conclusions he has come to is that if you are in a network of obese people, you are three times more likely to be obese yourself. Conversely, if you are in a network of non-obese people, you are three times more likely to not be obese. This is a very important insight for design: that the behavior of those around us significantly affects our behavior. Intuitively we might know this, but we don’t necessarily always think about it when we’re designing systems.

One way to exploit this insight is to put the tools of design themselves into the hands of people in the networks who may be delivering services. For example, at IDEO we’ve been working for several years with Kaiser Permanente, teaching nurses and doctors and technicians how to use design thinking to improve patient care. Kaiser now has its own consulting group made up of nurses who have become experts at this. They go around to hospitals working on different problems, creating wards and hospitals of the future, and evolving the designs over time as needed.

Another way of thinking about design for information flow in behavior change is to focus on increasing the quality of the information that flows through the network. In other words, if we can increase the amount and quality of information, might we make improved behaviors a more likely outcome? The ‘quantified self movement’ seems to point in this direction. For the moment, much of the attention is on the individual rather than the network. I suspect that as we respond to a more accurate picture of the state of our bodies it will have an effect on those around us. For example, there are weighing scales now that do something very simple: each time you weigh yourself, they send the data to your iPhone. Over time, you can build up a clear picture of the relationship between your behavior and your weight, because you get to see it on a graph. As individuals respond so, Christakis’ work suggests they will affect the behaviors of those immediately around them, increasing the impact. It might be even more interesting if it were easier to see group behavior through some of these new appliances.

For more on behavior change, New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit is well worth a read.

What’s inspiring you these days in the world of behavior change?