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To drive home the point of just how cheap it is to be Quizlet, one of its executives asks me how much money the United States spends per year to educate a single student in K-12 education. About $15,000, I say. That’s more than what it costs us per month to host the entire site, serving millions, the executive responds. Quizlet has no sales force, a very small marketing department, and more than seven million monthly unique visitors. (There are about fifty million public school students in the United States.) Quizlet, in its busiest months, during the school year, is among the top 500 most visited sites on the entire Internet. Now they’ve expanded beyond flash cards. You can create study groups, convert your content into multiplayer games, and search for cards and games that other people have created. We think we can get to 40 million users, then 100 million, says the executive. The question that drives the company, he says, is this: How can we create amazing learning tools for one billion people? This is the way most of the people in the valley talk.

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Perhaps Udemy’s democratic nature will give it a leg up in the coming war to build the dominant higher education platform. Maybe the three titans of Harvard, Berkeley, and MIT will propel edX to victory, or maybe the user experience expertise and facility with the economics of Silicon Valley will help Udacity carry the day. Coursera’s marriage of world-class brands with valley know-how seems like a formidable combination. Pearson, the British textbook giant, is working to build a platform of its own. There is a great deal of money and power at stake now. We may not know who and we may not know when, but someone is going to write the software that eats higher education.

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It will probably take a little while to digest. Cars and automobiles almost entirely killed the long-distance passenger train industry, for example, but railroads today carry more freight than ever, and it would be almost impossible to build automobiles if railroads did not exist to transport the raw materials. Similarly, TV did not replace radio, but merely diluted its influence. Older models often adapt and endure in significant if less important forms. As the platform wars commence and huge online courses grow in prominence, most of the first adopters won’t be American students forgoing the opportunity to drink beer on weekends at State U. Instead, they’ll be students like Bali, among the hundreds of millions of people around the world with the talent and desire to learn but no State U to attend. The initial MOOC statistics bear this out—according to Udacity’s founder, Sebastian Thrun, more people from Lithuania signed up for his Stanford class than attend Stanford itself.

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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. Companies like OpenStudy, Kno, Quizlet, Chegg, Inigral, and Degreed will provide all manner of supportive services—study groups, e-books, flash cards, course notes, college-focused social networking, and many other fabulous, as-yet-un-invented things. Bali isn’t just the model of the new ed tech entrepreneur—he’s the new global student, too, finally able to transcend the happenstance of where he was born.

That’s when American colleges and universities will eally start to feel the pain. Political pressure will continue to grow for credits earned in low-cost MOOCs to be transferable to traditional colleges, cutting into the profit margins that colleges have traditionally enjoyed in providing large, lecture-based college courses. At the same time, people with huge student loan burdens from overpriced institutions will be undercut in the labor market by foreign-born workers willing to work for less because they incurred no debt in getting valuable credentials in the parallel higher education universe. Colleges with strong brand names and other sources of revenue (e.g., government-sponsored research or acculturating the children of the ruling class) will emerge stronger than ever. Everyone else will scramble to survive as vestigial players.

At least, that’s what people are dreaming of in the valley. If history is any guide, some of them are going to be right.

There are so many education experiments going on right now.

Most of them won't get very far, right?

Not sure. One hopes! The average success rates of startups aside, I think many will fail and if their team is solid get purchased by the likes of Pearson, Blackboard, or Chegg.

Kinda like SoMoLoCo

SoMoLo can point at Facebook as a startup worth billions.

Does Edutech have any such examples?

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