In a world full of answers you start your journey by asking the right questions
I have been following the discussion about the value of Tertiary Education in the USA created by Sarah Lacy’s “Peter Thiel: We’re in a Bubble and It’s Not the Internet. It’s Higher Education.” and Vivek Wadhwa’s follow-up post “Friends Don’t Let Friends Take Education Advice From Peter Thiel” with some interest over the past week.
For those that have missed the debate Peter Thiel asked the very pointed question: Is the degree worth the investment? It is a question that we have asked before (Think Marty Nemko’s America’s Most Overrated Product: the Bachelor’s Degree) and even the creator of Dilbert has pitched into the debate in recent times (See Scott Adams How to get a real education). The only difference is Thiel has decided to put the money up to test the theory by creating a start-up school that pays the best and the brightest to become entrepreneurs.
I agree with Thiel that the real skill we need to teach our best and brightest today is how to Fail Fast, Fail Often and Fail Cheap.
However what I find interesting in this whole debate isn’t so much the argument for and against the need for an education but the extraordinarily high costs of achieving an education in the age of the internet.
After all here was a technology that promised to deliver just in time access to the best minds from around the globe to every student with a PC and a modem. Billions have been spent around the globe putting personal computers and the internet into classrooms.
So the question has to be asked why after all this time and investment hasn’t the internet fundamentally disrupted education? Why hasn’t the way we deliver education substantially changed over the past 20 years? and, why is it more expensive today to deliver education than it was before the birth of the web?
“Ten years ago, students paid about $3,700 to attend [The State Funded] UCLA. Next fall it will be $11,600. The governor has predicted that, without passage of the ballot measure, annual UC tuition could rise to $20,000 to $25,000″ - LA Times 17-4-2010
Some raw numbers for you to consider on the impact of the Internet on delivering a better standard of education in the USA today.
Education is estimated to be $0.9 Trillion Industry in the US this year. Tertiary about $225 Billion.
In 1990 education represented 5.25% of US GDP. By 2009 the cost to the economy of delivering education had risen to 6%.
In the tertiary sector the cost relative to GDP had risen from 1.46% to 1.59%.
If the 2000 estimates for the cost of delivering computers into US classrooms are still current then 1.3% of the total education budget is spent on providing access to computers in classrooms.
Meanwhile the relative value of education delivered via online services in 2009? It was estimated to be between just $12 to $17 Billion or between 1.4% to 2% of the total expenditure on US Education. or about 70% of Google’s revenues in 2009. Now given that education is worth 3 to 4 times more than the advertising industry in the US it is hard to understand why so muchR&D effort has been put into media at the expense of education.
The reality of course is the internet hasn’t changes education at all. It may have added around 1% to the cost of delivering education in the USA today but education remains the industrial age dinosaur it was back in the days when TV promised to deliver into every class room the best minds the world has to offer.
In the end for all the hype about disruptive power of the internet education remains, like much of the activity we undertake in the industrial world, unaffected by the impact of the Internet. Why? simply because the Internet is not a disruptive but an enabling technology. This means it is only useful when placed in the hands of those with the capabilities and ideas and intelligence to utilise and employ its potential to create change.
At the end of the day education is about people and ideas not technology and communications. Disruption will come when people with ideas choose to utilise the technology to communicate those ideas in a new and more compelling way than what can be achieved in the classroom.
40 years into the evolution of the web this has yet to happen – after all the internet was born and nurtured in academic circles well before it went mainstream. The next question then is this failure of the imagination representative of the quality of the intellects residing within the education sector or an inherent limitation of the technology as an educational platform?
I ask that question simply because if “Bricks and Mortar” and “Face to Face” is still the best platform for educating children and adults alike what does it say about the web’s long-term capabilities to disrupt other ”Bricks and Mortar” and “Face to Face” activities like retail commerce?
Could it be that despite all the excitement in the media the role of the web is supplementary (ie. Enabling) rather than central (i.e. Disruptive) to the way we do things in the future? If so how does that change the way we invest and value this current generation of web start-ups? Isn’t the real message coming out of 40 years of online education really that the value of the medium resides in the audience of users rather than the technology creator. After all Facebook, Google, Twitter and WordPress would be nothing if the global audience didn’t turn up everyday and add more content to “keep the adequately machine fed”.
Perhaps the reason online education has failed to disrupt and ignite the imagination over the past 40 years is simply because it has attempted to teach and engage with content rather than to enable the students to create and distribute their own ideas and questions?