Technology education startups are aspiring to be moderately popular in the last couple months. I have the pleasure to be surrounded by couple them. Recent comments by Bill Gates or the Kauffman Foundation stating that "Education is a more than $1 trillion market..." drive the aspiration of hundreds of entrepreneurs to enter into this market in order to make 100 millions of dollars. The most prominent and clearly visible markets they are targeting are the K12, University and Corporate Training/Continuos Education market. The majority of startups will try to get a piece out of these three spaces by offering some kind of incremental improvement. In the consumer facing space the improvements range from better & more learning material, to better methodologies, to more transparency and better learning management. An example for that could be the Kahn Academy with a great variety of tutoring videos or Knewton - they developed an impressive adaptive learning technique or schoology which is yet another learning management system with a little bit more functionality. Its an illusion that the education market will stay in these three markets and that the value chain will or should stay the same. But all the startups named above will certainly not help to change anything - they successfully help repairing the existing flawed system. The closest to being disruptive are startup like the School of Everything or Supercool School. Both of them democratize and decentralize the less rigid continuos education space by creating an entirely new education infrastructure.
The sad truth is that most people do not understand the meaning and mechanics of education at its core. I just recently met an entrepreneur who literally switched from building an ad network to starting a education company. There is nothing wrong with that. But if you see the education market as just another market where you can make hundred millions of dollars using mobile, localization and new funky realtime technologies - then you will literally improve nothing for anyone. The misunderstanding begins with mixing up the real need for education with the needs of our existing education market. Little understand the context of why and how our education system has developed over the last thousands of years to what we have today, what the implicit & explicit values or our current system are and why education generally is crucial for our society. Until you really understand - your perceived innovation will go as far as digitalizing content, fancy lms or using mobile phones and ipads instead of a blackboard. The disruption of education system requires the understanding of how learning really works and the awareness for the actual demand. I will write in more detail in the coming weeks about that. For now ...
1. Lets kick it off with a definition :)
Education in the largest sense is any act or experience that has a formative effect on the mind, character or physical ability of an individual. In its technical sense, education is the process by which society deliberately transmits its accumulated knowledge, skills and values from one generation to another. Etymologically, the word education is derived from educare (Latin) "bring up", which is related to educere "bring out", "bring forth what is within", "bring out potential" and ducere, "to lead". (Source Wikipedia)
2. Now look at your personal learning curve: When, where and from whom have learned the most in your life?
I personally have learned roughly
- 90% from my friends, family and people I worked with.
- 5% I learned in school, university, trainings, seminars, kindergarten, etc.
- 5% I learned from books, forums, blogs, various communities, wikipedia, ted, etc.
3. Now add five of my assumptions to that
1. content will be abundant and instantly accessible online
(wikipedia, quora, twitter, google, open courseware, itunes u, etc.)
2. institutional certification will be replaced by community driven reputation
(linkedin, twitter, odesk, github, etc.)
4. the half life of knowledge is exponentially accelerating
(the amount of time that has to elapse before half of the knowledge in a particular area is superseded or shown to be untrue)
5. the borders between learning, innovation and work are rapidly shrinking
(google 20% rule, ideo, etc.)
Why I feel our education system is long overdue
As education has the purpose to prepare you for the labour market - let me start with that. Out of more than 50 people I hired in the last 6 years - I didn't hire one single person because of their university education - some didn't have one. I admit a CS degree from Stanford or MIT is a great indicator but it doesn't help my at all to define wether or not he/she is a talented engineer. Already today a great github profile or "10 five star ratings" for HTML5 projects on Odesk are way more valuable than a CS degree at any University on this planet. For a pr person a 100.000 followers on twitter are not just a way better indicator than any university degree they are also an invaluable asset for any company from the first day. I work with a couple of wonderful people on odesk that I chose based on their ratings, the chemistry and some sample work - one of them turned out to be a Professor from India another one is a young girl from the Ukraine that wants to become an actor. Both are doing the same work.
I personally have learned all about how to build an internet business by following hacker news and living & working in the Silicon Valley for the last year. I doubt within the next 5 years there will be one university course that will even partially incorporate my learnings. But I am sure the learnings will be accessible to entrepreneurs in even in the most remote areas of Kasachstan through communities and online resources.
A good friend & one of the most talented and creative engineers I have ever worked with is a high school dropout. In fact from my experience good grades at a university generally tend to be more of a negative indicator than a positive. Top students were typical people who created massive social friction in my teams, under delivered and were very slow in adapting to change.
Long term studies have shown that almost 50% of the children that attend a school for retarded children in Germany are actually genius. All of you reading this know how painful & destructive school is for a free mind. Its great news that Peter Thiel - a respected Silicon Valley investor - decided to pay students under 20 up to 100.000$ to drop out of school and work on their own projects.
Now - just for a moment close your eyes and imagine a world without an education system - no High School, no Harvard.
Imagine you would have to invent education for your children - how would it look like?
The frightening suspicion that may arise inside of you is that our traditional education system in fact already lost its entire fundament. Subsequently our traditional education markets are in fact really large bubbles that will not just burst within the next 10 years - they will burst, implode and shrink to a bare nothing of what they were before.
Of course this hypothesis sounds incredibly arrogant today and 99.999% of all mothers out there will not take their children out of school and to have them watch TED videos, work at odesk and socialize on irc and github. Although I would bet my life that the kids personal development would accelerate 10 fold being "home schooled" + they would be happier :)
The illusion of the trillion dollar education market is unfortunately based on assuming that the existing market-size would simply transform and be taken over by new, more innovative companies. In fact the new education market will be deeply engrained into the evolving social ecosystem of massive knowledge sharing, collaborative work & online communities. Step by step the education market will become less and less distinguishable from everyday and work communication. If you want to empower and accelerate this process then you need to anticipate a completely new education ecosystem and value chain. For example there will be no market for monetizing educational content - all content will be digitalized in realtime and will be accessible or free. Education is inherently social and based on action - thats why watching educational TV is not an education but little more than a visual drug that keeps your brain busy. Content that is not embedded in social context is useless. There is also no value in optimizing the process of making people reproduce content if they can actually become content creators and build a valuable online reputation.
Instead people are already today more than willing to pay to be part of "global learning community". The majority of the Schools on Supercool School are monetizing with member fees instead of charging for content. More prominent life long learning communities are Palomar5, TED or Singularity University that provide not only an intense learning experience through personal interaction & prototyping but also massive recognition.
Finally - I guess the message of this is that you should think "out of the box" of the existing education market - if you really want to contribute to redefine our education ecosystem of tomorrow. If you are just in it for the money go ahead and contribute to keep status quo alive.