me-hacking education

Hacking Education was a session held by Union Square Ventures a few months back and was a meeting of education professionals, academics and entrepreneurs looking to identify opportunities in the convergence of technology and education.

Some of the more interesting excerpts for me focus on trying to move the marginal cost of education to zero,

Bing Gordon dropped a bombshell just before lunch when he proposed that we should work to drive the marginal cost of education to zero, “From an economic point of view, I would say the goal… is to figure out how to get education down to a marginal cost of zero. Somebody mentioned Oxford. I think the marginal cost for a student at Oxford is probably $250,000; at a U.S. university it’s probably $90,000. That’s what it costs per student. That’s not what they charge. Public school, I think, they are trying to do it for $6-8000 per student. So, what if we had to get it to zero? We’ve seen technologies that get the marginal cost [of services] to zero, plus bandwidth.”

This is not as crazy as it sounds. Knowledge is, as the economists say, a non-rival good. If I eat an apple, you cannot also eat that same apple; but if I learn something, there is no reason you cannot also learn that thing. Information goods lend themselves to being created, distributed and consumed on the web. It is not so different from music, or classified advertising, or news.

I think in the future we will see many (more) people turning their backs on traditional education delivery models even moreso than today and leaving traditional institutions to two major groups of learners: 1) those at the top end who want to pursue highly theoretical academic pursuits that require structured learning environments, structured labs, and significant funding outside the limits and opportunities of a profit model; and 2) and those who have not (and don’t thrive in) been able to access the stores of information and interactive learning opportunities found “online.”

With schools participating in the Open Courseware Consortium such as MIT and Carnegie Mellon and UC Berkeley we are already seeing the beginnings of anywhere access to top education. As the delivery of courses becomes easier, th e audiences become larger, the possible for large groups to interact, and the means of monetizing these courses empowered by micro-payments, we can certainly foresee a day when thousands pay a few dollars to attend – and participate in – an online course delivered by a top-level academic to learners distributed around the globe.

If an academic can use technology to create meaningful interactivity then increasing the student base means more people at less cost per person with an improved learning experience. It means entreprenerial academics. It means self-directed, self-timed learning. It means democratized learning across borders and cultures. It means access to top eductors regardless of finances and location. It means people can access learning at their own pace, and choose to ‘learn’ rather than ‘attend.’

Another point related to the challenges – and opportunities – faced by the education industry to those faced by the music industry and traditional media,

Fred is suggesting that the education industry may soon face the same challenges that currently confront the music industry and the newspaper industry. Like those industries, education can be peer produced, delivered as bits, and curated by a community. Like the music and newspaper industries, the cost structures embedded in the education industry’s current business models may be very difficult to support in the face of competition from hyper-efficient, web native businesses.

Unlike the music and newspaper businesses, education plays several roles in current society.

Like I said above, personal learning environments combined with open courseware, new empowerment for educators-as-entrepreneurs, and innovation in technology for delivery and interactivity mean that traditional institutions that cater to the average level of those in the room and which are dependent on the constraints of building, maintaining and managing physical spaces will not have the agility of web native education.

A considerable challenge for innovation is that education is a single term with incredibly diverse implications across cultures and levels of affluence. It is wrong to assume that even the most affluent nations have the cultural conditions and technology savvy from key stakeholders (read: parents and educators) to accept a revolution in the delivery and engagement of learning. However, just as something as simple as homeschooling has empowered people to take a different tack toward learning, new models in innovative delivery of all levels of learning have an audience that can work in tandem to those who need/want a more structured learning environment. Unfortunately, the readiness and ability of some to learn in new ways and take advantage of new delivery mediums could lead to larger gaps in achievement and opportunities. That the top-end accelerates away from the middle even more rapidly with these new tools is a concern, but as in other areas of society, the leading edge typically creates new space for the bell curve to move forward.

And finally, the challenges of peer-delivered and peer-moderated education trying to reach a cost of zero while also dealing with accreditation,

I had a lunch conversation with David Wiley (it’s not in the transcript) about whether or not it would ever be possible to reduce the cost of accreditation to zero. I was stuck on the problem of grading papers. I understood how a computer could grade a math exam, but how could you grade an essay on Aristotle. The best I could imagine was that underpaid, but still costly, teaching assistants grade the student’s essays. David said, “oh that’s easy”. You agree with the students on a set of criteria for how the essays are going to be graded and then have each student read a few essays. The readers critique can then also be read by a couple of students and the students final grade is based on how well they wrote and how well they critiqued according to a jury of their peers. By having every essay and every critique reviewed by multiple people, you eliminate the outliers and arrive at a fair grade. So at least in theory, it is possible to peer produce the critique something of as abstract as an essay on Aristotle.

As a former educator, my main concern with peer review for assessment is that the standards are enforced and judged by non-experts. The risk is that the individuals within the group only achieve as much as the top member within that group. The external instruction and assessment by an outsider – an educator or accrediting body – removes this limit (or at least extends it one level higher).

If the only way to reach a marginal cost of zero to learning and accreditation is to remove the (paid) expert then I fear the short-term financial cost can move closer to zero, but the long-term cost to progress and achievement increases.

I encourage you to read the original article. I also really like the idea of introducing gaming elements into education.