Back to the Future (Part 3)

The State of Online Education Part 3

In Part 1 and Part 2 we looked at the past development of online education. In this 3rd and final blog post of this series we will hypothesise how online education might evolve in the future. It’s always dangerous to predict the future but as they say “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” In our case, all predictions are wrong, but some may be useful. Let’s go. 

The Direction of Legitimacy

Up till now, online education has been about IRL(in real life) institutions moving some part of their offerings into the “digital” space e.g. universities replicating their courses on MOOCS or textbook publishers moving to digital textbooks.

But this will soon flip the opposite way. Future successes will come from people who have gained legitimacy from things they did in the digital space – moving into the ‘IRL’ space. This includes Youtubers, Twitch streamers, Tik Tokers, Twitter accounts which I will now refer to collectively as ‘Internet ppl’.

This is already happening in many other contexts:

Internet ppl are starting to translate their online reputations into the real world and capture part of the value that they can offer to their followers (e.g. fan meetups, merchandise, online courses, conferences, intensive short courses).

On the other side we have existing institutions which are trying to maintain their control over their monopoly on legitimacy in society by translating their IRL reputation into an enduring online one.

The question is will the Internet ppl replace the functions of a university (credentialing, signaling, social networks and learning) faster than a university can learn to dominate the Internet space as much as they did pre-internet.

Who will win?

It would be easy to look at the current base of legitimacy that universities have (alumni networks, large endowment funds, beautiful campuses with modern buildings, societal respect) and think that they will take this social capital and translate that into dominance in the digital world. Compare this to the legitimacy of Youtubers, Twitch streamers, Tik Tokers – which many people still consider as not serious or something for fun (Tik Tok dances, Youtube pranks, live stream gaming etc). 

The great innovations of the past were ridiculed as a joke or toy when they first came out and this was true for a whole bunch of innovations:

  • Western Union (the telegram company) passed on the telephone patent because it could only transmit voice over 1-2 miles. 
  • When Thomas Edison released the first practical light bulb, a British Parliamentary committee concluded it was “good enough for our Transatlantic friends… but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men.”  
  • The Internet was dismissed for most of the 90’s:

    “The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works … Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet. Uh, sure.” — Clifford Stoll for Newsweek

My hunch is that the same is true for online education that we are dismissing internet platforms as they exist today as either not serious or a toy, something “unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men” (and women!).  

‘Internet ppl’ will find it much easier to translate their legitimacy into the ‘real world’. It’s going to be much harder for universities to reprogram themselves to be relevant in the internet world. This is true for a number of reasons: 

  • Internet ppl have already won the attention war. People spend more and more time connecting with people that they meet online, consuming content by creators and following influencers.
  • Universities are tied to a legacy base that is unrelated to delivering online education (research institutions, physical campuses, semesters)
  • Universities have become increasingly worse at giving people job relevant skills. Companies are beginning to cut out universities completely by going direct to students offering learning and accreditation (distributed through online platforms!). For example Google offers their own developer certification and AWS (Amazon’s cloud computing arm) operates a Twitch livestream.
  • The individuals who would have gone and worked in universities in the past now have new distribution channels to build their followings (Youtube, Substack, Twitter, Maven, Twitch). They will choose to work for themselves instead of an existing institution, which further reduces the power of the institution.
  • In the foreseeable future – no one individual or group will surpass the legitimacy of a university institution (i.e. I doubt we will all be getting degrees from Elon Musk University, although that might be cool). However! For every topic there will be some individual, influencer or group who is much better than what a university can offer. Universities become a jack of all trades and a master of none.

A Blueprint For Success

What will it look like?

The first thing to say is that the thing that replaces universities won’t look like a university at all. It won’t have a permanent physical campus, it won’t be staffed by academics with PhDs and it won’t have a calendar based around semesters or trimesters. 

There is no one size fits all approach. The thing that replaces universities will not be an “online university” but the collective actions of individuals and groups on the internet will work to replace the function of the university. The blueprint for an online learning community may look something like this:

  1. Persistent online ‘space’ (subreddit, codeacademy, Discord channels, websites) where most of the “learning material” is hosted. Discussions between the learners and teachers and between learners themselves happen here.
  2. Intensive short courses or ‘meetups’ in real life where students can gather together physically to complete some crash course, work on a project together
  3. Persistent evaluation & new forms of accreditation (e.g. some record of your online performance + portfolio of work created through short courses + different forms of ‘testing’ e.g. some form of oral test or project /coding task.

Direct to Students

It will deliver value directly to students. The best products will replicate the whole value proposition that universities provide (learning, credentialing, signaling, social networks) instead of being an input into the existing higher ed system.

It won’t rely on some outside aggregator (existing institution) or going through a university orifices. Will need to focus on delivering value to students, instead of optimising for some third party decision maker (HR, University lecturer, course administrator etc).

Solve for Signalling

Long term- will need to eventually solve for signalling (ranking). As we know – learning skills and knowledge is probably the least important thing that universities do. Right now online courses are hyper focused on specific skills (How to become a Youtuber, Writing Online, Photography, Music production etc). They don’t need internal ranking e.g. there is no GPA for the Part Time Youtuber academy. Success is determined by what the students do with this knowledge i.e. how successful their Youtube channels are. However to really replace the university sector there will be some need to solve for how we can signal differences in abilities of different students when the course load is split across many different providers.  

Below- I’ve compiled a list of interesting companies that are expressions of the ideas I’ve talked about above.

Interesting Companies