The dream that new technologies might radically disrupt education is much older than Udacity, or even the Internet itself. As rail networks made the speedy delivery of letters a reality for many Americans in the late 19th century, correspondence classes started popping up in the United States. The widespread proliferation of home radio sets in the 1920s led such institutions as New York University and Harvard to launch so-called Colleges of the Air, which, according to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, prompted a 1924 journalist to contemplate a world in which the new medium would be “the chief arm of education” and suggest that “the child of the future [would be] stuffed with facts as he sits at home or even as he walks about the streets with his portable receiving-set in his pocket.” Udacity wasn’t even the first attempt to deliver an elite education via the Internet: In 2001, MIT launched the OpenCourseWare project to digitize notes, homework assignments, and, in some cases, full video lectures for all of the university’s courses.
And yet, all of these efforts have been hampered by the same basic problem: Very few people seem to finish courses when they’re not sitting in a lecture hall.
For the past 10 months, children in Indonesia’s Banten province have been commuting to school on narrow bamboo rafts—along a river best known to tourists for its whitewater rapids—because local authorities still haven’t fixed a bridge that collapsed in January in a flood. In China, a group of children in Guangxi province, some as young as four years old, also travel to school along a river on flimsy rafts because other routes to the school, along a flooded mountain path, are even more dangerous.
...Progress has slowed most in Sub-Saharan Africa, home to more than half of the world’s out-of-school children. In countries like Nigeria, the population is outpacing the build-up of needed infrastructure.
Take the results of a recent survey by The Washington Post and the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, which asked workers whether they had undertaken training to keep skills and knowledge up to date or learn new skills. Among workers with household annual incomes of at least $75,000, two-thirds say they underwent training in the past year. But the training rate dips to 55 percent among middle-income workers ($35,000 to $75,000 a year) and falls further to 41 percent among workers with annual incomes under $35,000.
According to the survey, low-income workers are quite aware they are being held back by lack of training. When they’re asked what their biggest obstacle is to getting ahead, “education” tops the list at 29 percent, while 19 percent of middle-income and 11 percent of higher-income workers point to education as a main obstacle. In the survey, nearly nine in 10 lower-income workers lacked a college degree.
Thanks to a decade-long economic boom in Washington, D.C., the median monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the nation’s capital is now $2,190, making it the fourth-most expensive American city for renters, behind New York, San Francisco, and Boston. Commercial tenants are also feeling the pinch. Asking rents for D.C. office space are second only to those in the Big Apple. Meanwhile, after decades of stagnation and decline, Washington’s population is growing steadily, promising a tighter housing market and even higher rents in the future.
An increase in the supply of leasable square footage in the district would solve the problem. But D.C. real-estate developers are constrained by a 113-year-old federal law, the Height of Buildings Act of 1910, under which no city building can be taller than the width of the street it faces plus an additional 20 feet. The maximum building height on a commercial thoroughfare—with a few minor exceptions—is 130 feet. The maximum height in a residential neighborhood is 90 feet. The district also has its own municipal height limits; and in many neighborhoods, the local limit is actually lower than the federal one.