A rocket aimed at conventional education?

Kevin Carey has a fascinating article looking at the growing number of startups challenging conventional universities with cheap online services. I’ve felt for a long time that education would eventually suffer the kind of disruptive change that has hit the music and publishing industries. Carey takes a close and not totally wide-eyed look at some of the entrepreneurial activity in the education field.

Among the nuggets that caught my eye was his reference to two businesses that allow students to trade lecture notes. Some unis have actually tried cease-and-desist letters against them claiming that student notes remain the intellectual property of the lecturer. Which sounds pretty desperate to me.

At the centre of the argument is scale. The big league American universities have responded to a surge in demand… by not offering any more places at all. Carey argues

Indeed scale is the oxygen feeding the combustible mix of money ambition, and technology-driven transformation in the valley. Low margins, uncertain business models, limited marketing budgets—all of these limitations and more can be overcome by scale. And the rapid growth of mobile telecommunications technology means that the number of people in the world who are potential customers is quickly moving toward the number of people in the world.

Some institutions, like Stanford and MIT are adapting and developing open, online offerings. (Great new piece of jargon: MOOC – massively open online courses.) And then this happened:

In January, some of the Stanford professors broke off from the university and formed a new for-profit company called Udacity, designed to offer the same MOOCs, sans Stanford. In March, some of the other Stanford professors formed another company, Coursera, to offer courses from Princeton, Stanford, Michigan, and Penn, also online, also for free.

He also draws an engaging analogy about tech startups, drawn from rocket science (well, rocket engineering, anyway). With rockets, the biggest factor is the fuel; the more fuel you need in the rocket sitting on the ground, the more fuel you need to get it off the ground. Anything you can do to make it more fuel efficient has exponential benefits. Carey then argues

This, I realize, is pretty much what’s happening to the basic math undergirding the Silicon Valley economy and, with it, the likelihood of higher education encountering some kind of dramatic disruption at the hands of a Musk-like figure. As access to the Internet grows and the cost of everything technological moves toward zero, the amount of money needed to start a company that can grow to scale and just possibly change the world—that can go from 0 to 1—drops along the same kind of exponential scale. When does that cost become functionally indistinguishable from nothing? In the admittedly much less complicated business of photo sharing, it got there nine hours before I arrived at Founders Fund. That’s Instagram, the billion-dollar company that consisted of nothing more than a handful of ramen eaters (on the day it was purchased, Instagram had fewer than twenty employees) armed with ergonomic black chairs, wi-fi, and MacBook Airs.

He may be overstating the case when he offers this thought, but it’s certainly attention grabbing:

In the future, anyone with an idea will be able to build a rocket, aim it at the gigantic trillion-dollar market of education, and light the fuse.

He reckons this may take time, and that startups may not aim directly at mainstream universities but will work in the unregulated private sector. But…

At a certain point, probably before this decade is out, that parallel universe will reach a point of sophistication and credibility where the degrees—or whatever new word is invented to mean “evidence of your skills and knowledge”—it grants are taken seriously by employers. The online learning environments will be good enough, and access to broadband Internet wide enough, that you won’t need to be a math prodigy like Eren Bali to learn, get a credential, and attract the attention of global employers.

Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan, who also points to this counter argument.

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