The Web and Education: We Need Scale!

Yesterday, I had a fascinating lunch with some very bright folks from the Gates Foundation.  In addition to public health, the Gates Foundation appears to be ramping up its activities in education.  A key topic at the lunch was the impact of the web on education.   The discussion really helped clarify my own thinking about what the critical missing element is (at least so far): scale.

Scale on the web is unlike anything that we have seen before.  Facebook recently announced that they crossed 300 million active users (I believe that means 30-day active).  It is true that prior to the web there have been global companies that reached that many or more people with their products (e.g. P&G), but it doesn’t compare.  All the people on Facebook are connected to and through a unified experience.  The scale of Facebook, Google, Wikipedia, Craigslist, Skype and a few others (hopefully soon to include Twitter), puts these systems into an entirely new category.

There are huge benefits from operating at such scale.  For instance, participation becomes something that is part of every day life and becomes engrained in language (e.g. to “google” something).  There is so much data flowing through the system, that even tiny algorithmic tweaks can have a huge impact, such as the uncannily good suggestions of people you might know.

Now imagine for a second if we had a platform of this scale for education.  I am not sure what it’s scope would be, but let’s just say for the purpose of this thought experiment that it provides access to course materials and instructional videos.  At such scale it would rapidly cover all subjects and at a levels of instruction.  It would be the place where anyone who thinks they have a better way of explaining something would make the explanation available.  There would be huge reams of data for determining the most effective materials, related materials, etc.  It is hard (at least for me) not to get incredibly excited about what that would mean for the accessibility of education and learning.

What does that mean for philanthropists and venture investors?  We have to find the platform(s) that are the most open and can achieve the biggest scale and then allow them to grow without a pre-mature drive to monetization.  Craigslist would not be where it is today if it charged for every listing.  Wikipedia would not be what it is if it charged a subscription or even if it tried to figure out how to pay contributors.  Scale is the real challenge of education on the web.  Not technology.  Too much of the investing and too many of the grants that I see seemed to be aimed at building advanced instructional technology.  I believe we have all the technology we need and then some.  Lets focus instead on what truly succeeds on the web: scale.

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Posted: 17th September 2009Comments
Tags:  education hackedu scale technology learning

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