The Democratization of Education

The digital transformation of education is altering the traditional model to make education more accessible to the world.


The digital transformation has had significant impact businesses. One of those is the education industry. Most notably, Harvard University and the development of HarvardX – the free/low cost online courses offered by the university[1],[2].  An individual can learn about topics ranging from supply chain to human rights, as shown below. Through this expansion, Harvard can improve academic excellence and expand access to more people.

Example of HarvardX online platform
Example of HarvardX online platform


What is online education?

Traditionally, Harvard offered education in the physical realm. Students would attend these classes in-person, when scheduled at a fixed time throughout a semester. However, with a rapidly evolving bundle of software and web-based tools that leverage the power of the internet to provide access to text, audio, and video content at any time and any location, the organizational & business model have been impacted. With this evolution, online education can be offered at a near-zero marginal cost[4] which allows a great number of people to access the content, at their convenience (as with HarvardX) for little or no cost.



How digital technology changing the business & organizational model?

Traditionally, Harvard has offered the Extension School program whose mission is to educate individuals through non-degree granting programs. These are paid courses that an individual enrolls in[5]. With digital transformation, this platform has an opportunity to expand through the democratization of the traditional model to enable a more widespread reach of education.

As alluded to, the organizational model is shifting in three main ways: Learning content management, course delivery and evaluation of results. First, learning content management systems are evolving to act as storage, indexing and management of digital educational material such as courses, syllabi, textbooks, videos and much more. Harvard can use this aspect of the platform as a repository for open educational content. Although these systems have been in classrooms for some time, they’re evolving to allow professors manage a class, transmit info to students in real-time and offer multi-view video for real-time seminars[6].

Second, digitizing methods of course delivery are expanding the organizational model of education. Through developing web-based tech, courses can be delivered online, anywhere and anytime. For example, a philosophy class can be broadcasted to allow individuals to not only watch the class but also to receive practice exercises through the learning content management platform. As usability and design have improved, these systems can provide creative learning space[7].


Third, with evaluation, the digital transformation can offer an additional vector for improving education. Internet-based assessments can be baked into the classroom experience to allow for continuous feedback to both students and professors. Not only can problem sets be implemented online but also analytics can be used to formally assess web-based student discussion and assignments to check for understanding.

Through the organizational evolution, the business model also evolves. As mentioned, Harvard is better suited to reach more people at an affordable cost[9] that were otherwise unreachable[10] while further spreading the core mission to “educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for society[11]”. However, this transformation also raises unanswered questions such as how does Harvard manage the brand as its scope becomes larger and how does Harvard make digital education impactful and sustainable into the future?


Recommendations for further improvement:    

Essentially, the digital transformation has enabled the democratization of education. Courses are self-paced and offer access to material that was previously restricted to only a fortunate few. This is no longer the case. However, there is more work to be done to continue and improve this democratization. To improve academic excellence and expand access, Harvard should develop a consistent outcome measurement to help in improving learning and teaching results. By building systemic assessment and learning quickly from feedback, the professor/university can greatly improve, and continue to modify, the course quality.

Furthermore, the university should provide seed funds to support the development of high-quality research on online teaching and learning. What works in the classroom doesn’t necessarily work well in the e-classroom and funding research can help pave the path to a sustainable, high-quality program.

Lastly, Harvard should use the Extension program as an incubator for online education to explore a combination of partnerships with professional schools. Given that the necessary approval for non-degree programs at the Extension school is easier to obtain, the school should test different programs and see what works and doesn’t work. Professional schools can design programs offered via the extension to serve as feeder programs for additional online degree programs.

Over the coming years, online education will certainly play a more significant role and help to continue to democratize education.


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@harvardbiz. “The Industries That Are Being Disrupted the Most by Digital.” Harvard Business Review. N.p., 2016. Web. 16 Nov. 2016.


“HarvardX.” EdX. N.p., 2016. Web. 16 Nov. 2016.


“The Disruption to Come.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 2014. Web. 16 Nov. 2016.


“About Us.” Harvard Extension School. N.p., 2016. Web. 16 Nov. 2016.


“Can Online Education Technology Improve Excellence and …” N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2016.


“University of the Future – EY.” N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2016.


“Mission, Vision and History.” Mission, Vision and History | Harvard College. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2016.









[9] According to the website, the course is free though for $49, a person can receive a certificate




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Student comments on The Democratization of Education

  1. Yes, democratizing education is awesome! It’s great to think that individuals of all backgrounds will be able to access Harvard lectures. A few questions:
    1.) Is there anything that you see as being fundamental to an in-person education that can’t be replicated online (e.g. case method classes)? How does this impact your view on online education?
    2.) Do you think Harvard could eventually move to a model where degrees are offered completely online and where someone who views all of the lectures and submits work could receive the same degree as someone who took the courses in Cambridge? Is this a viable business model? What would it do to the education landscape?
    3.) If Harvard were to ramp up its online education (which I believe it will), what investments in technology and teaching will it need to make?

  2. This was a very entertaining post to read!

    I have a couple of questions about how virtual education would work in practice:
    1. What is the selection process that the university would have to decide who can opt for virtual education? How does this affect the goal of “educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for society”?
    2. How do you think the market will evaluate the merits of the people educated virtually versus the people educated in person at Harvard (or any other major institution)? Could they possibly be perceived in the same way?

  3. I love this topic and totally agree that digital transformation has enabled the democratization of education. I think e-clasrooms massively open up the sea of opportunities for people from all over the globe. I also think that Harvard as a leader in education is perfectly positioned to lead this change.

    You write that the university should provide seed funds to support the development of high-quality research on online teaching and learning. This would ensure that the program can improve and grow thus providing education that could be affordable (or even free?) for many. It would be great to have a digital library on Youtube or an equivalent of online college courses for anyone to see for free – to expand beyond just ‘degree-seeking’ students.

    This is a super interesting article on how to really make college free – especially for people who seeks degrees and college credit from their online courses. you might enjoy reading it:

    I love your idea that Harvard should use the Extension program as an incubator for online education to explore a combination of partnerships with professional schools. I worry however that given that the necessary approval for non-degree programs at the Extension school is easier to obtain, Harvard’s brand might be diluted. Does this worry you at all?

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