Xavier Niel

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MOOCs feel mostly like misses for the moment but so did the phonograph and automobile originally. Outsize ambitions still abound, with Sebastian Thrun of Udacity having recently said, “If I could double the world’s GDP, it would be very gratifying to me.” Yes, that would be nice. In John Thornhill’s smart Financial Times piece about online education, the former Google driverless guru has a more sober quote: “It is not clear that the existing universities are the right places to create education.”

Higher education’s endless layers of administration, insane sticker prices and pauper professors have left an opening for MOOCs, but this nouveau learning industry will likely be only as successful as its products are good. Thornhill opens his piece about EdTEch with a story about French education innovator Xavier Niel:

With no teachers, timetables, or exams, Ecole 42 is a strange kind of educational institution, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Students shuffle into this tech-enabled school whenever they want and work as hard as they need.

Is this the future of education?

Xavier Niel, the French internet and telecoms billionaire who founded the coding school for young adults in Paris in 2013, certainly thinks so. He chose the school’s number for a reason. As fans of Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy know, 42 is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything.

So sure is Mr. Niel that he has found the answer that he has committed himself to funding Ecole 42 for the next decade and is spending a further $100m on a new school in San Francisco. There are several ironies in a French entrepreneur teaching Silicon Valley geeks how to code.

Mr. Niel argues that smartly designed online courses are more effective than traditional classroom teaching methods. Students learn best by pursuing online projects by themselves and by interacting with each other. Peer-to-peer lending may be going through a rough patch, but peer-to-peer learning may be on the rise. “We are preparing people to learn together,” he says.•

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