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New Learning and the Post Apocalyptic Fate of the University

New Learning

The uptake of web enabled learning technologies is far too slow in educational institutions. This will inevitably mean extinction for some. If our universities are the dinosaurs then the coming meteor is the “category killer course”. The university course that is so good, so cheap, so universally available, so universally respected and so universally job procuring that it wipes out its traditional competitors. On the brighter side fantastic careers abound for talented educators who embrace a career in teaching with the new media.

The Category Killer that Wiped out a Faculty

Please consider this scenario:
EDUcorp is a for-profit corporation  focussing on business opportunities in education. It partners with industry and a professional engineering society to create an electrical engineering degree program that is delivered over the web. Its partners are the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Boeing, Google, BHP and so on.

A Motivational Video for Systems EngineersEDUcorp’s electrical engineering degree becomes an international standard sought after by students and employers alike. It becomes the Google of electrical engineering courses with a 65% global market share – the one course that every electrical engineer does. How did it achieve this? Let’s look at it from the perspectives of both the student and the entrepreneur.

Why Students Sign Up

  1. There are no entry qualifications or restrictions. The course is hard but if you do the work and pass the exams you get the qualification and a new life.
  2. The course is cheap. The asking price is 10% of the cost of an Ivy League university. The course is more affordable for individuals and governments can sponsor more of their poor, brightest and best.
  3. The learning materials and teachers are the best in the world. The course materials promote rapid learning, are engaging and fun. Even the most complex mathematical concepts are presented in an easy to understand fashion with inspiring talks from the originators of the technology — the best in the world.
  4. The WEB delivery mechanism integrates seamlessly with the student’s lifestyle. The younger generation is used to getting its information from smart phones and tablets. Texting and Facebook have become an obsession, electronic devices are a normal part of life. Protestations by academics that teaching and learning is a social experience requiring human contact have merit but it doesn’t seem to be recognised by the modern student who is increasingly absent from lectures and tutorials if the information can be sourced online.
  5. Probability of success is high. The high quality learning process encourages student candidates who would not normally attempt traditionally difficult courses of study. Students sign up for complex mathematics, science and engineering programs, they are motivated to try and they succeed.
  6. The course is motivating.The course not only imparts knowledge but also instils belief. Belief that the material is important and useful (refer video: Motivating the Systems Engineer). Motivated by gender specific advertising using female role models, women sign up in droves.
  7. Students learn faster. Animation, graphics and interactive simulations help students learn complex concepts faster (refer video: The Project Planning Process).An Overview of the Large Project Planning Process Adaptive learning techniques allow students to progress at their own pace. Smart software detects the student’s weak points and automatically adapts the course materials to improving their understanding.
  8. The course can be taken anywhere in the world. All learning materials and lectures are delivered over the web. Practical work is done with simulations. Where this is not possible, on site training is achieved with short-term residential colleges and internships at major corporations, working with real-world problems.
  9. Students make useful international contacts. Students meet their international lecturers and classmates in special interest groups with forums and videoconferencing. Cross-cultural relationships are formed that endure for the rest of their professional lives. You’re a computer nerd and you get to chat with Bill Gates.
  10. Short-term residential training integrates with surfing. Australia is a very popular venue for short-term residential training when necessary.
  11. The graduate has a 100% probability of getting a well-paid job. The qualification is recognised and sought after world-wide because: a) the degree is endorsed by the IEEE and b) many of the world’s corporations (the employers of talent) are directly involved in the training effort.

Postscript: See Stanford professor Daphne Koller’s initiative at the end of this post.

Why an Entrepreneur Would Target Education

  1. There is significant pent-up demand. The world has millions of competent people who are locked out of higher education due to lack of capacity. Harvard has a 5.9% acceptance rate. The Khan Academy has four million users.
  2. It’s profitable. The user community is endlessly scalable. The business is not restricted by buildings and places in lecture rooms. Course development costs are high but the reach is global. The cost of adding 10,000 students to a course is trivial compared to that of the traditional university model.
  3. It’s not capital intensive. The business is intellectually intensive. It requires talented brain cycles as opposed to bricks, mortar and machinery. Online universities do not have to fund sporting teams and research facilities that do not directly address teaching technologies.
  4. Staffing is not a problem. The availability of funds allows EDUcorp to hire the best in the world to produce the best course materials. EDUcorp has no trouble attracting talented employees and joint-venture partners. Its work environment is Utopia for a committed teacher and highly stimulating for world renown technologists and artists. You get to interact with the best scientists, mathematicians, inventors and creatives of all professional persuasions. Ridley Scott meets Stephen Hawking and you.
  5. Research provides a rapid return on investment.EDUcorp spends millions with cognitive scientists to better understand how people learn without a teacher in the room. Teaching technologies are constantly researched and upgraded. Research on teaching has an immediate return on investment.
  6. Competition is minimal.The business model is hard to replicate. Innovation in teaching becomes a nonnegotiable necessity. EDUcorp views course development as a creative industry performed by a cross disciplinary team. Each learning unit has input from technologists, mathematicians, cognitive psychologists, script writers, moviemakers, animators and graphic artists. There is an aggressive focus on creating the best in the world hitherto unknown in education. This will be easy to justify because it will be shown to the world – adored by the world – paid for by the world.
  7. Barriers to entry are high. Traditional universities are starved for funds by uninspired government policy and unable to apply these types of resources to course development.Earned Value Management in 13 Minutes The courseware that many universities have put online is not competitive. Lessons follow the traditional model of chalk and talk. For example, MIT Open Courseware’s exposition of the calculus has a lecturer with a cheesy grin pointing at equations on a blackboard. He obviously knows his stuff but from the student’s perspective he’s flat-out boring. Putting a lecturer on TV adds no value. In contrast an adaptive learning approach with exciting graphics and animation would convey the same information in much less time with much more student interaction.
  8. High quality makes the product unassailable.EDUcorp differentiates its product from the competition by its stunning high-quality. It achieves this by applying standard quality management processes to learning unit development. The effectiveness of teaching methods is constantly monitored by learning unit managers supported by cognitive psychologists. Where concepts are not well understood by students, learning materials are redesigned to improve cognition. For example, a project management class has difficulty absorbing and applying the fundamental principles of Earned Value Management. The course is redesigned with a 13 minute video featuring an animation that describes the big idea, how it came about and how it is applied to projects (see: Earned Value Management Basics). This process is repeated relentlessly for every concept in every learning unit. Over time the quality of the educational product makes it universally attractive wiping out any competition.
  9. There is easy access to funding.Corporate partnerships fund the business. Close cooperation between the educator and the employer is mutually beneficial. The educator understands what the employer needs. The employer gets to evaluate and employ the graduating talent. The benefits are a no-brainer for corporations who provide funding with a highly predictable return on investment. Investments in US education technology companies have tripled in the last decade reaching $429 million in 2011, according to the National Venture Capital Association. Adaptive learning company Knewton alone received $33 million.
  10. The opportunities for spin-offs are endless. EDUcorp not only provides full feature degree courses but also publishes useful stand-alone components of its learning materials as just-in-time learning modules for people who have task-based learning needs. For example, “How do I plan a project?” Google indicates that 13.6 million people a month ask this question.
  11. The business model is sustainable.Broadband telecommunications will continue to support and enhance the networked education model. For example, technologies such as 3-D high-definition television and haptics will make hitherto undreamed of teaching methods possible. Imagine a trainee surgeon reaching into a virtual human body and feeling the liver.
  12. It has massive growth potential. Business growth will match population growth. The business will scale with population. This is not possible with the current university model. There is not and will never be enough teachers to educate the growing population of planet Earth. We are making babies faster than we are graduating teachers. Our only solution is to adopt a model that leverages the skills of our forever limited teacher community.

Someone Will Do This

The Internet focuses the intellectual power of the world’s innovators. Some refer to it as “the singularity”. At some point this focus will be turned with burning heat on education. As a developer of web applications I can guarantee you that if you think of it, it’s probably been done or is about to be done.

Someone will do this.

Someone is already doing this in various educational sectors. For example, your need to learn about any PC tool or web technology can be satisfied at for an annual subscription of $250. A community college course is no longer necessary. Other online education resources include Mitx, Knewton, The Khan Academy, Udacity, Udemy and UniversityNow. Upcoming startups include the Minerva Project, an online university conceived by Ben Nelson the CEO of Snapfish. Nelson has raised seed funding of $25 million.

The online education community also has its own news outlet: EdSurge. Other organisations such as Educause track and aggregate advances in learning technologies.

American venture capitalists have also been busy. Rethink Education and Learn Capital are good examples. Just check out the amazing portfolio of investments on Learn Capital’s web site. Matt Greenfield at Rethink Education has interesting perspectives on the future of ED-Tech. He recently blogged:
I would not be at all surprised if, someday soon, Google or Facebook or Microsoft bought a young education company for over a billion dollars. Education is at the core of civilization, and every other human activity now revolves around it.

Arguing for and Against Online Education

Professional educators point out that there are three essential components to a university education:
1. Learning
2. Socialisation
3. Credentialling
and that the online university is inadequate as it deals with item one only, there being no socialisation and any credentialling that may be attempted is by its faceless nature, highly suspect.

People with immediate experience of running global online universities counter with the following arguments:
Addressing socialisation: students who, but for the existence of an online university, would have no access to higher education at all are happy to forego social interaction. Some special interest group clusters do form in various cities. People meet in coffee shops and socialisation does occur. The Minerva Project plans to formally organise clusters offering students the opportunity to join a cluster in their hometown or the country of their choice. This already happens in locations such as New York where many schools have no campus, the campus is New York City.
Overall the feeling is that a lack of socialisation outside the traditional Internet chat room is a negative but it does not seem to significantly impact the graduate’s performance in the workplace.
Regarding  credentialling: companies desperate for skilled labour are increasingly willing to interview candidates with certificates from online universities. As these institutions build brand recognition this will become commonplace. You could say that the ultimate validation of a student’s qualifications will move from the university exam room to the workplace.

Extinction of the Traditional University

If you are a university and do not aggressively engage with this model you risk extinction. The commercial opportunities offered by new media in education are too compelling to be ignored by for-profit enterprises. Failure to engage with these technologies will therefore be the end of the road for some of our educational institutions.

Even if a university does offer an online degree it will still have to fight to survive. To enter the Internet marketplace is to stumble into a giant cacophonous bazaar with millions of rug salesmen competing for attention, some of them the best in the world at what they do. The Internet community is harsh and demanding, judgement is swift, capturing thirty seconds of a user’s attention span is a bonus, but one negative impression and click your gone. There is no respect, your academic stature counts for nothing, you are simply what you’ve placed on the web page. Communities of interest tend to select only one or two winners in any application genre. There is only one Google and one Facebook. By the same token it is likely that only one or two electrical engineering degree courses will attract the brand recognition necessary to make them a viable business. To go viral you must do something special, something “insanely great” as Steve Jobs used to say. How many people do you have with the innovative insights of a Steve Jobs in the hallowed halls of a traditional university? How many of your academics have the wherewithal to survive in the viciously competitive Internet environment?

I suspect the apocalypse will not arrive as a meteor. It will be slower and more subtle. Education will become more compartmentalised, more focused and more contextual. People will learn at their desks with web delivered training. Category killer courses will arrive and slowly eat away at the bread-and-butter of the traditional university. Professionals-to-be will slowly gravitate to the cyberspace Ivy League. They’ll be driven there by the forces of high quality, low cost, ready availability and high return on investment: a certain high-paying job. The best and brightest educators will be attracted away from backward looking universities into utopian jobs in the new educational paradigms. The less talented will be left to bore the socks off a diminishing student body. Enrolments will slowly drop off and, over time, the lights will dim to an eternal dark.



7 August, 2012

Aggregating the Best of the Best On-line

In this Ted talk Stanford professor Daphne Koller presents the Stanford initiative to aggregate all the best lectures on any subject into a single portal and to promote online education. It has been hugely successful with hundreds of thousands of students from all over the world. Its big advantage is that it is free.

The portal is located at:

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