It came out in print a few months ago, but I just noticed that The Focus has just posted my essay “Education 2.0″ online.
Here’s the whole thing.
IN THE LAST TEN YEARS OR SO, the Internet has deeply disrupted many industries. Music downloading sites have revolutionized the music industry and shuttered many physical stores. eBay and Amazon.com and other online retailers have changed the way we shop, especially for harder-to-find items. Free news content online, and aggregators such as Google News, have threatened the profitability of traditional news media. Wikipedia and the new Citizendium have the full attention of reference publishers. The financial industry has been overrun by do-it-yourselfism. The real estate industry is wondering how to respond to the levelling influence of cheap online housing listings, such as Craigslist. And these are only a few examples; virtually no industry has been left untouched by this Internet revolution.
Why has the Internet been so broadly disruptive? Consider what the Internet is: a giant digital network. Much information that was previously available only in a “hard copy” is now instantly available over this nearly universal network. That fact alone is enough to explain why free news content online has threatened the profits of the news industry.
Organizing education online
This giant network makes information dissemination not only easier, but also decentralized. Moreover, it has fostered a new kind of social organization, namely, social interaction that is asynchronous, at-a-distance, and dependent upon decisions made by sovereign individuals rather than a top-down hierarchy. This new kind of social organization describes such startling new developments as Wikipedia and Craigslist, and “Web 2.0” social networks generally.
I want to consider the impact the Internet might be expected to have on the future of one industry in particular: education. The Internet has the potential to bring changes to education on the same scale as the changes to other industries; but most students are still attending brick-and-mortar schools as they did one hundred years ago. This is unlikely to change. I believe an Internet revolution in education would not take the form of enhanced distance education; but while education may not be delivered online for many more students, it can be organized online. And as I want to argue, that is where the really exciting possibilities lie.
Imagine that education were not delivered but organized and managed in a way that were fully digitized, decentralized, self-directed, asynchronous, and at-a-distance. It is not hard to imagine a digital, decentralized degree-granting institution that “lives” primarily on the Internet, and organizes teachers and students to meet face-to-face. Such an institution need not offer courses, pay teachers, or collect tuition from students at all, but could act merely as a middleman and record transactions.
Matchmaking of students and teachers
The bare suggestion cannot be dismissed out of hand. eBay, Meetup, and Craigslist all show that Internet methods of real-world organization can be employed to create vast, complex systems of social organization that would otherwise be too expensive and difficult for humans to administer. With the Internet, such systems can be relatively simple to code and to use – and they can even be largely self-organizing. Indeed, many different ways to organize education via the Internet are possible. But for simplicity’s sake, let me describe just one – first from the student’s perspective, then from the teacher’s.
Let’s say you’re a student and you sign up with The Education Network (TEN). TEN’s business is to arrange end-to-end educational services, but only indirectly, via matchmaking of buyers and sellers, rather than providing the services itself. Other than matchmaking, TEN confirms identity and credentials. It might also grant degrees, though it need not do the testing and portfolio evaluation on the basis of which it grants them. It only determines that course, test, or other degree requirements have been met, in the opinion of some qualified, registered individuals (evaluators).
So, upon signing up with TEN, you learn that a degree in, say, Economics has certain stated requirements. You then choose from a large number of freelance guidance counselors living in your area, who can help you to develop a sensible plan. The counselors’ prices are listed on the website. You choose one, pay her a visit, and agree to a plan. Your progress is tracked by a TEN database, and while the database is created and technically maintained by TEN, the entries in it recording your progress are made by your teachers.
Freedoms of choice
Your next task is to find teachers and courses for the first subjects listed on your plan. You use TEN’s course database. You want one-on-one tutoring for Introduction to Philosophy, and you find several competent, reasonably-priced philosophers to start with you anytime. For Biology, a traditional course (with a lab) is starting in a few weeks with a highly-rated professor. For Introduction to Economics, you opt for a DVD lecture series, while you will have your tests and papers evaluated by graduate students of the author of the course, and supplemented by a very low-cost discussion-only conference led by a local professor.
You are now a registered student. Both TEN and your counselor have requirements of you; your teachers and peers are expecting you at lecture, conference, tutorial, and lab; you have papers due and exams to study for. In short, your life is similar to that of a traditional student. But you are not enrolled as a student at any university. You enjoy freedoms of choice you never could have had as a traditional student. Although you have chosen to be guided and to have external incentives to study, your education is not standardized or centrally controlled. You are also paying a lot less than students pay at a traditional university, because TEN is just a matchmaker, and a highly automated one at that. So you pay for only the services you want, not for the services and infrastructure that a paternalistic bureaucracy forces upon every student.
Next, consider the teacher’s point of view. On the one hand, there is no tenure in this system, and you are paid based on the aggregate amount that students pay you, minus a small cut taken by TEN. On the other hand, this can be a lot of money, since the middleman between you and the students is not a large, expensive university but a computer system and its small administrative staff. Furthermore, you enjoy the freedom to teach what, when, and to whom you like, constrained only by TEN’s very liberal rules. If you are a young professor, you might enjoy no longer needing to please your colleagues to get tenure; if you can make your living this way, you will enjoy a new kind of academic freedom. As a free agent, you take on the risks, but you also enjoy the rewards of independence.
That, then, is what an Internet revolution in education would look like. The system would digitize educational management; it would be radically decentralized in the sense that there is no bureaucracy to enforce anything beyond some very basic rules, and decision-making is placed almost entirely in the hands of individual teachers and students; the participation of teachers and students in the system would be self-directed, as well as asynchronous and at-a-distance. Notice, the education delivered might still be carefully directed, in real time, and face-to-face.
Plenty of potential
Some such system could be made to work, I think. If so, whether it lies in our future depends not on its feasibility, but on whether a critical mass of students and teachers can be organized to make it happen. Students have two incentives to participate: the cost of a quality education would almost certainly be lower, and many decisions that students care about would be in their own hands. It would also appeal to that broad segment of youth culture that is “plugged in” to self-directed online communities such as MySpace, YouTube, or Wikipedia, because it merely applies the general concepts that those websites embody to the problem of managing education.
Faculty, too, would have an incentive to participate. Of course, many faculty love the life of tenure and regimentation within ivy-covered halls, and such newfound freedom may not be for them. But young, struggling, untenured faculty might be willing to give it a try, and even many tenured faculty, suffering the common frustration with departmental politics and top-down control of university life, might want to give it a try, just for a change.
It would be silly for me to claim that anything like this is definitely in our future: mass behavior is one of the hardest things to predict. But it is a straightforward extension of common principles of Internet change to an industry relatively unaffected by such changes. It seems feasible enough from a technical point of view. And there seem to be plenty of potential participants. So, perhaps all that is needed are people bold enough to spearhead the effort.