Vision for America

Re-imagining Education

There are two major organizations that have remained relatively unchanged for the last several hundred years. One is the Church and the other is Education. This section will propose new concepts for education.

In 2012 I was doing a monthly blog post for Skilled Up, a web site that given a subject or vocation would provide a list of online courses that would correspond to the area of interest. The site was acquired by the Apollo Group and blended into the University of Phoenix’s offerings. 

You Get What You Measure

How do you measure a Knol?

Bill Sams,

[email protected]

Updated 4 May 2021 from original Skilled Up Blog Post, May 2012.


There is a truism in business that you only get what you measure. When you apply this to education, it is no wonder that we have the current problems. The central daily unit of measurement for education is seat time. Any administrator can tell you exactly how many seats were filled in any given class for any given hour on any given day. Not a single administrator can tell you how much learning is taking place in any given classroom at any given hour on any given day. Why is this? It is because no one has created an actual measurement of learning.


This lack of measurement is why we need Knols. Knols are finite units of measurement of learning. Up until recently, Knols have not existed. State standards are an attempt to create Knols, but standards generally represent a whole pile of Knols, and they are indeed not measured on an hourly basis by class. 


The Khan Academy has over 3000 short videos (8 to 12 minutes) that describe a single concept; let’s call it a Knol. These videos are like “the sage on the stage.” Where the videos differ is the narrowness of the subject presented and an assessment system that ensures mastery.


The assessment system is what makes the Knol powerful. By setting up a class as a group on Google Docs or Facebook, the teacher has access to powerful new tools. Now the teacher can see the activity of each student down to specific exercises (Knols), time on task (to the second), and location of work (home or school). With the Khan Academy assessment system, teachers now know the amount of learning that has taken place for each student and the class at any given hour of the day. Summary reports show the progress of each student and highlight the stuck students. It is a short step with this system to create summary data by school and school district for principals and superintendents as well as a state-level report. Imagine if the Governor of the State knew every day how much learning took place and how the State’s rate of education compared to other states and countries.  


Such a system has the potential to change the teaching and learning experience, entirely freeing students to move at their own pace. And now, the teacher can use technology to provide the majority of content so that the teacher will now have the time to focus on precisely the students that need help and know exactly the specific item that is causing them problems. Knols have the potential to change the teaching profession from a broadcaster of general information to a highly successful and fulfilled coach, mentor, and facilitator of learning. 


By establishing the concept of a Knol, then it is possible to build higher-order assessment systems, much like a group of atoms forms a molecule, and a group of molecules forms a protein, and a group of proteins forms a cell. Using this approach, a group of Knols would develop into Tols (mental tools) that represent skills or abilities to combine Knols in a recognized process (think biochemistry) that represents a higher order of knowledge. Tols, in turn, form the basis for the creation of Vols (Value Added Knowledge Concepts). 


With such a conceptual structure, an entirely new assessment system is created that includes not only the quantity of Knols that each person possesses but also their ability to apply those Knols to a variety of Tols to create innovative Vols. Such an assessment system modeled after the Khan Academy assessment system would no longer be historically static. Still, it would be dynamically updated daily to the most recent change in Knols, Tols, or Vols. Such a real-time system would lay the foundation for not only the measurement of human capital but also would enable informed ROI decisions about updating, repurposing, and improving individuals and organizations.


So at the end of the day, you get what you measure.


All we need is a Knol.




The Google Knol project has just moved to Annotum, and as of 1 May 2012 has been disbanded.

Asking the Right Question

The Right Question

Bill Sams

May 2013

Some time ago, it occurred to me that the most important factor in developing the right answer to solve a problem was to first be sure that I was asking the right question. For decades education has been asking the question of “how to get more money for education?”. Over the last several decades many solutions have been tried: parents and students paying more for tuition, states increasing subsidies, foundations and the federal government increasing grants and scholarships, and still the question remains unanswered. In almost all cases these approaches involve taking funding from someplace else to give it to education. This is a zero sum game.

What if instead we asked the question of “how do we get more education for the money?”. I would like to suggest that this is a far better question, and one that leads to numerous possible answers. This question goes to the issue of productivity, efficiency and effectiveness. As the business community, which of course is not the same as the education community, has discovered time and again this question leads to better, faster, and cheaper products that are then consumed on a grander scale thereby creating more value. This is not a zero sum game, but rather one that improves the well being of the consumer of education and the knowledge wealth and resources of the community.


There is now a clear model for students, parents and legislators to see the power of asking the right question. Legislation is being drafted in California (SB 520) that will make it possible for students to take free online courses and then to test out of required on campus courses via proctored exams. For students that pass the exam, the state funded colleges and universities will be required to provide transferable course credit. Once this legislation is in place, students in California will have a choice of either paying $1,000 or so for the privilege of physically taking a class or of paying the $100 assessment fee for validating the learning provided by a free online course. While the actual course experience may not be the same, the student will now have a choice about how much education can be provided for their money. 


Another example is the Khan Academy. At many state colleges and universities as many as 30% of incoming freshmen cannot pass the entry level math test and are required to take remedial math courses at college level costs. In the public school system all too many schools, especially in rural and interurban districts, have a shortage of well qualified math teachers. These schools cannot find the money to hire enough teachers.  It is no wonder that so many students arrive at the college gate not prepared in math.


However, the Khan Academy has math courses from the most basic 1 + 1 all the way to Calculus. All of the courses are online for free. Along with the courses, the Khan Academy provides a free online assessment tool that can be used by teachers, coaches or parents to track the progress of students. The assessment system requires mastery of a topic before the student is allowed to move to the next topic. Mastery assures that the student understands each core concept before they are allowed to advance. So with detailed content provided from Arithmetic to Calculus and mastery required and documented every step of the way, there should be no reason that a college freshman will need to take a remedial math course. 


However, for school boards to champion the use of such a tool, they need to shift from their current focus of getting more money for education to getting more education for the money. 


The explosion of MOOCs in early 2012 is sending shock waves around the world as people realize that they now have highly cost effective options to the traditional academic system. However, in developed countries such as the United States where there are strong entrenched vested interests championing the traditional system, it will take an effort by students, parents, and legislators to change the question from “how to get more money for education” to “how to get more education for the money”. Only after that will the answers be found that will s

olve the problem.





From Just in Case to Just in Time


Bill Sams, May 2013


With the dramatic explosion of information brought by the Internet the historical idea of Just in Case, JIC knowledge is no longer appropriate. How many times can you recall having asked a teacher why you needed to study something only to be told “because someday you will need this”? Perhaps not for you, but certainly for me a large portion of what I learned in obtaining three degrees has either never been needed or was forgotten long ago. 


About fifty years ago industry realized that the just in case approach to inventory resulted in huge unnecessary costs, often still resulted in shortages and time sensitive materials became outdated and had to be discarded. This is a pretty good assessment of the current state of just in case education.


As industry moved to Just in Time, JIT systems they found they could operate with lower costs and higher quality while providing the customer with the newest possible material. Oh, if education were only like this. The good news is that the education industry is now moving from just in case knowledge to just in time knowledge. However, the champions of change to just in time are not the traditional Colleges and Universities, but rather the Internet giants such as Apple with Siri and Google with Google Now. 


Siri and Google Now represent a new type of teacher / professor that is at the moment best described as a just in time omniscient informer. These informers can answer any factual question by drawing on a nearly infinite data base. Additionally, the informers can provide you with ongoing daily news summaries curated for your interests and perspectives and correlated to what your friends and associates are viewing. With the support of an informer a person need only briefly pause before they know the answer to almost any factual question.


With this level of capability as the starting point, it is easy to speculate that in the future this informer technology will advance to provide you with information that you not only want to know but also that you will need to know just before you know that you need it. All ready sites such as Facebook, Linked In and Twitter are making suggestions about the people that you need to know. 


So what should replace the just in case knowledge paradigm that is now the hallmark of the traditional system? To maximize the use of just in time knowledge the student of today needs to put more focus on learning how to quickly learn. Education will no longer be for a finite number of years as a part of youth, but rather will be at an accelerating pace for an entire lifetime. Every year we will need to get better at quickly learning just in time knowledge.  As information and knowledge change from words and numbers to colors, sounds and movement entirely new skills will be required to comprehend and appropriately respond to the flood of data that will be pouring through our lives on a daily basis. 


Certainly, there will still be a set of core skills that need to be mastered. But these  core skills need to be viewed through the lens of just in time rather than just in case paradigm. A strong math and programming background as well as graphical analytics and statistics will be very important for higher level work. An argument can be made for stronger skills in the creative arts that involve music, movement, colors, forms and textures since these will be important to appreciate the nuances in the flow of information. So while we apply industrial principles to move from JIC to  JIT in education, the result is a need for renewal of the Fine Arts

The Case for Just in Time Knowledge

reak in case of zombies

Our Just in Case approach to education forces students to learn various topics they have little interest in and will have no use for. We may as well be preparing our youth for a zombie attack or being deserted on an island.

How many times can you recall having asked a teacher ‘Why do I need to know this?’ only to be told ‘because someday you will need it’? It’s been common wisdom for some time that an education that covers a broad range of subjects is critical for our youth. Only recently with the Internet has this idea of Just in Case (JIC) knowledge been challenged. In fact, I’d argue that Just in Case knowledge is a massive waste of resources. In my own experience a large portion of what I learned in obtaining three degrees has either never been needed or was forgotten long ago.

About fifty years ago, it was common practice (even best practice) for businesses to regularly stock excess inventory. The attitude was that having this inventory was valuable, “Just in Case” customer demand proved to be stronger than expected. As we know now, this approach results in huge and unnecessary costs, often failing to curtail product shortages, because a lot of inventory is perishable or time-sensitive, and stock that becomes outdated must be discarded. In many ways, we are at a similar moment regarding the common practice of “Just in Case” education.

As industry moved away from Just in Case (JIT) to Just in Time (JIT), they found they could operate with lower costs and higher quality while providing the customer with the newest possible materials. Oh, if education were only like this. The good news is that the education industry is now moving from just in case knowledge to just in time knowledge. However, the champions of change to just in time are not the traditional Colleges and Universities, but rather the Internet giants such as Apple with Siri and Google with Google Now, and dozens of other companies combining advanced Artificial Intelligence with a human interface.

Just In Time Informers

Siri and Google Now represent a new type of teacher / professor that is – at the moment – best described as a just in time omniscient informer. These informers can answer any factual question by drawing on a nearly infinite database. Additionally, the informers can provide you with ongoing daily news summaries curated based on your interests and perspectives, and even correlated to what your friends and associates are viewing. With the support of an informer, a person need only briefly pause before they are able to access and make use of the entirety of human knowledge.

In many ways, this capability has been around for years in the form of Google and Wikipedia. However, with a human interface such as speech, and the ability to parse language, these informers represent a smarter knowledge bank that is more usable for anyone — including those that are less technically proficient or search-savvy.

Knowledge is Worthless. Knowing how to use Knowledge is Priceless.

With this level of capability as the starting point, it is easy to speculate that in the future this informer technology will advance to provide you with information that you not only want to know but also that you will need to know just before you know that you need it. Already, sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are making suggestions about the people that you need to know.

So what should replace the just in case knowledge paradigm that is now the hallmark of the traditional system? To maximize the use of just in time knowledge, the student of today needs to put more focus on learning how to quickly assimilate new information — how to learn. Education will no longer be for a set quantity for a finite number of years as a part of youth, but rather will be gained at an accelerating pace for an entire lifetime. Every year we will need to get better at quickly learning just in time knowledge.

We need to rethink what we really need to know from our earliest years into our senior years. Something that we learn only to be forget or never use it is an intellectual luxury that we can no longer afford.  

Sensing Information

Sensing Information

Bill Sams, May 2013

George Orwell, in his book 1984, predicted that the solution to an overload of information would be the daily consolidation of all the information in the world into a five letter word. Once you knew the word for the day you knew everything that there was to know. While this has the benefit of extreme simplicity, with the technology of today we can do much better.

As the volume of daily information with which we deal continues to increase at an exponential rate, it is a fair question to ask at what point do we become overwhelmed? Many of us probably feel that we are already very close to the point where we will no longer be able to deal with the words and numbers that are poured over us everyday. 

A possible way out of this situation is a return to our primeval senses. We are genetically designed to sense colors, forms, movement and sound as well as tastes and smells. These sensory keys to survival for our ancestors may hold the key to our survival soon. Words and numbers are creations of only a few thousand years ago. Words and numbers have served us well until now, but perhaps we are now approaching a point of returning to our innate senses.

Our ability to distinguish nuances in colors, forms, movement as well as sounds demonstrate highly developed abilities that, when associated with information, offer the possibility of entirely new ways of displaying and understanding information and gaining knowledge. An excellent example of this approach is the AlloSphere at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The AlloSphere represents “an entirely new way to see and interpret scientific data, in full color and surround sound inside a massive metal sphere. Dive into the brain, feel electron spin, hear the music of the elements” as presented by JoAnn Kuchera-Morin in her TED presentation.

Remember the old saying that “one picture is worth a thousand words”? Well, with today’s technology a five megapixel picture is equal to about 50,000 words (roughly 100 pixels/word). Add in colors, movement and sound and the printed word is no longer a match for the amount of information that can be presented visually.

Modeling this concept a step further, please take a moment to move from these words to viewing Blaise Aguera y Arcas from Microsoft with his TED presentation on SeeDragon and Photosynth. 

Since the early 90s we have moved from Heat Maps to the election eve SmartBoards that slice and dice data in a multitude of colors. We are well on our way down the path of returning to an increasing use of our natural senses for a larger share of the information that we must process every day. Now part of our focus should turn toward improving the acuity of our senses. 

This is the point at which technology needs to take a hard turn toward a renewed appreciation of the Fine Arts. With a deeper understanding of color, texture, shapes, and movement in the visual and melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo, pitch and timbre of audio it is possible to create a multidimensional infinitely nuanced presentation of information that is orders of magnitude beyond our current system.

Imagine that instead of starting your day with the most shocking events of the day spread before you in a newspaper, that instead you see a glowing map of the world with some blinking spots, some dark, some dazzling white. You start with a perspective that while there are problems there is also a lot going well. You zoom in on one of the dark spots and by the colors and sounds you know from experience the surrounding context of the event. As you get down to the finest level of detail there are the familiar words and pictures with an interview or two, but now they are seen in a much larger perspective. You are no longer led daily from one shocking event to another, but rather you control how you navigate your world of information as a flowing stream of understanding that has the nuances of color and sound to enrich the experience.

As in a previous post I argued for the industrial principles of moving from Just in Case Knowledge to Just in Time Knowledge, I am now making the case for an equal and renewed emphasis on the Fine Arts to improve our ability to understand the world with our senses.

ISO 9000, Quality

ISO 2020: The Importance of Standards in Valuing Education


Higher Education is one of the few industries in the world where a single person can design, develop, deliver and assess the quality of a product with little oversight or supervision. When educators point out that education is not like industry as an element of pride, they fail to realize that they are really defining a core issue of the problem with education today. If education were more like industry with quality programs such as those outlined below, students would be getting a better, faster and cheaper education than they now enjoy. 


With the explosive growth of online MOOCs and the embryonic development of Badges, the world of education is facing a rapidly rising tower of Babble of unlimited and fragmented worldwide educational resources creating infinite skills that can neither be valued nor connected to the needs of employers. Nothing short of a global effort is required to rapidly define, develop and implement a new set of standards both in terms of quality and quantity that defines holistic learning for individuals and organizations, just as ISO 9000 did for quality management systems. 


Created in 1987 the ISO 9000 family of standards defined an international process of quality management systems that ensure that products and services meet the needs of customers and stakeholders. The standards are published by the International Organization for Standardization, ISO and are distributed through National standards bodies. The adoption of the ISO standards by industries as divergent as manufacturing to health care has led to both improved customer satisfaction as well as lower costs to produce higher quality goods and services. 


Here is a listing of some of the core features of an ISO 9000 program: Wikipedia


    The business determines customer requirements.

    The business has created systems for communicating with customers about product information, inquiries, contracts, orders, feedback, and complaints.

    When developing new products, the business plans the stages of development, with appropriate testing at each stage. It tests and documents whether the product meets design requirements, regulatory requirements, and user needs.

    The business regularly reviews performance through internal audits and meetings. The business determines whether the quality system is working and what improvements can be made. It has a documented procedure for internal audits.

    The business deals with past problems and potential problems. It keeps records of these activities and the resulting decisions, and monitors their effectiveness.

    The business has documented procedures for dealing with actual and potential nonconformance (problems involving suppliers, customers, or internal problems).


    The business:


1.    Makes sure no one uses a bad product

2.    Determines what to do with a bad product

3.    Deals with the root cause of problems, and keeps records to use as a tool to improve the system.


The rise of MOOCs providing online courses to hundreds of thousands of students around the world creates a requirement that demands a similar international standards system to define the global currency of human capital. As economies move from tangible to intangible capital assets as the primary means of creating economic value the ability to define and determine the value of human capital possessed by individuals, communities and countries becomes essential for a successful global knowledge economy.


With worldwide course delivery comes the opportunity to create worldwide standards beginning with the adoption of international quality standards as an excellent first step. The time has come to move away from the localize silo mentality of education and for those responsible for the national and international discussion of education to come together to define an ISO 2020 global standard for quality education with a process such as was done with ISO 9000 to implement those standards.


From Mediocrity to Mastery

Educate for mastery rather than mediocrity

Bill Sams, April 2014

Our current education system institutionalizes mediocrity. The use of seat time as the primary measurement of learning, combined with the concept of the bell curve, has worked reasonably well for a hundred years, but is now hopelessly outdated and urgently needs to be replaced. In the last several years online instructional technology has advanced to the point where the current system can be easily and cheaply replaced with a system that institutionalizes mastery. 


Sal Khan, of the Khan Academy, makes the point that using time as the constant and learning as the variable is exactly backwards. Learning (mastery) should be the constant and time the variable. Currently teachers/professors have a given amount of time to present material.  In that given amount of time, some students grasp the material quickly, while others either need more time or miss it entirely. The resultant learning is illustrated by a bell curve on which most are average (mediocre), a few are stars, and an equal few are losers. Insidiously, it’s generally believed this result is somehow a fact of nature, an immutable part of human reality, But while this result is true when time is a constant, it is absolutely not true if time is the variable, and learning (mastery) is the constant.


The Khan Academy has proven, through its analysis of the learning rates of millions of students, that with a few exceptions all students can achieve mastery (an A) if given enough time and different approaches to the presentation of content. In one experiment students who were stuck, but then allowed time to work through their problem, resumed their learning at the same rate as those who did not get stuck. 


Our current system has been described as a Swiss cheese system made up of an ever-increasing number of holes in a student’s knowledge.  Eventually the number of holes reaches a point where further learning is nearly impossible . In another Khan Academy experiment middle school math students were divided into two groups, those who were doing well and those who were struggling. The doing well group started using Khan Academy content going forward from where they were. The struggling group was required to start the Khan Academy math program from 1 + 1. By the end of the experiment the struggling group had caught and surpassed the doing well group. 


About five years ago, in Columbus, Ohio, the Metro School was created through a working partnership with the Ohio State University and Battelle.   The Metro School, organized to be a school of mastery based on proven research, is part of the Columbus public school system. Acceptance into the school is not based on grades but rather on a willingness to do the work. Its student body is representative of the main districts it serves with 54% being Caucasian, 28% African American, 8% Multi-racial, 8% Asian, and 3% Hispanic. Approximately 28% of the student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch. Any performance less than 90% is considered a Work In Progress (WIP). Currently, in the Metro School system, 10th grade students have essentially completed their High School Requirements with the remaining two years spent taking college courses, doing internships or individual research. Of the 2012 graduating class 82% went to four-year colleges and the remaining 18% went to community colleges.


In a wonderful demonstration of doing what is right for the students rather than the organization the College Board, producer of the SAT, has partnered with the Khan Academy. The Khan Academy is now developing a curriculum that will provide mastery of the concepts that are being tested by the SAT. The wonderful irony is that if the students have mastered the concepts the SAT will become irrelevant, since it will no longer distinguish between students’ abilities. 


Additionally, the Khan Academy is partnering with the groups that have created the Common Core to develop a curriculum that covers the standards. Imagine the impact if the vast majority of students achieve mastery of the Common Core Standards.


A nation cannot expect to be great when its citizens are educated by a system effectively designed to produce mediocre people. Every person deserves to be as great as her or his potential allows. With the educational concept of mastery we can move our people and country forward to a better life. The decision to change lies in the hands of Legislators, Boards of Education, Administrators, and Educators. We owe it to the students to raise them from mediocrity to mastery.

Peak Higher Education

DisruptEDU: Peak Higher Ed and the Rise of the Rest

Authorship uncertain. 

In the early part of the decade, it was all anybody could talk about: education would be changed forever. Every school in the country desperately jumped onto the bandwagon, setting up courses that could be taught from a distance, and enrolling 4x more students than in all the nation’s colleges and universities combined. Within a decade though, most were calling the courses sub-par (or worse), and only a tiny fraction of enrollees actually completed the courses. Faculty and administrators quickly lost interest, and the enthusiasm for distance education was lost.


That was nearly 80 years ago, when mail-based correspondence courses took America by storm, only to be called out for what they were: lackluster and incapable of replacing higher education. Today, many naysayers, especially those employed in higher education, make similar claims about MOOCs. A March survey of Professors showed that only 28% believe those that succeed in MOOCs deserve formal credit for doing so. Yet for every higher education professor claiming that things aren’t changing that much, there are 10 outside of higher education that see the beginnings of a creative destruction much larger, and possibly more violent, than anything before it.


Peak Higher Ed

There is a term in the oil business called Peak Oil. It is the belief that globally, oil production has peaked, and will now decrease each and every year until there is no more left in the ground. The idea is scary for some, whereas for others, it’s a simple reality that must be dealt with and planned for.

There are many in education today that believe we are getting very close to reaching Peak Higher Ed. That the spending, employment and revenues associated with traditional higher education are reaching a maximum point that is unsustainable, and that we must prepare for a world where this huge infrastructure will be replaced by new, lower cost ideas that offer similar benefits. Sebastian Thrun of Udacity has gone on record saying that in 50 years, there might be only 10 universities still delivering “higher education”. Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, believes that printed textbooks – a $6B industry – should be made obsolete. 


In many ways, the top institutions in higher education are going along with the idea, by making large swaths of content available for the potentially destructive price of Free. Although it’s hard to argue that educational content feels like it should be free, in many ways it could prove to be the cardinal sin that begins the trend towards a smaller, more nimble and fragmented education system. Professor Michael Cusumano at MIT makes the point: “Free is actually very elitist. In education, ‘free’ in the long run may actually reduce variety and opportunities for learning as well as lessen our stocks of knowledge.” Cusumano worries that the result of Free could eventually create a “few large, well-off survivors” and a wasteland of causalities. 


Publishing & the Internet Redux

For those that have followed journalism and publishing, it’s easy to see the parallels. An industry is transformed with technology that eliminates the primary barriers to entry: the costs of creating and distributing content. Millions of competitors, many willing to work for free or unlivable wages, enter the fray. The incumbents tries every option, but ends up contracting to a fraction of its size, leaving just a few survivors to split a much, much smaller pie.

Of course, the creative destruction of journalism and publishing was not without its gains. In the place of hundreds of shuttered newspapers, magazines and other publications were the rise of new types of content providers. Curators, Celebrity Bloggers, Aggregators and new tools such as Twitter and Tumblr were created, and it’s difficult to make the argument that as a society, we aren’t better off with today’s content options than we were two decades ago, even if journalism is no longer as lucrative an industry as it once was.


The Rise of the Rest

Another consequence of the changes in publishing brought by the internet was a rebalancing of where we get our content. Pre-Internet, large publishers like the NY Times, Wall Street Journal and others enjoyed substantial advantages – printing press, delivery & subscriber base, advertiser & press relationships — that allowed them to cement their audience and reach, creating an oligopoly of sorts. Sure, a new newspaper or magazine could get started and make meaningful headway, but it would take a long time or a lot of money (or both) to close the gap with an established player.

As these advantages have evaporated, we have seen new and innovative content creators grow to rival or even exceed the reach of the incumbents. New publishers like the HuffingtonPost, CNET, BuzzFeed, the DailyBeast, iVillage and TMZ, as well as individual mega-bloggers like Perez Hilton, Matt Drudge and Michael Arrington now rival the largest magazines or newspapers in audience and influence.


The lessons gained by the demise of hundreds of publisher were that when anybody can read anything at anytime, there is far less room for mediocre or unoriginal content. And much like there is little need for 40 national newspapers writing near-identical stories, there is also little need for 200 professors all delivering the same Biology 101 lectures. 


Although it’s early, we can already see MOOCs have begun to act as gatekeepers to determine which professors have the combination of entertaining and engaging lectures and solid credentials and experience to be theauthority. As David Stavens, a co-founder of Udacity has said, “We reject about 98 percent of faculty who want to teach with us. Just because a person is the world’s most famous economist doesn’t mean they are the best person to teach the subject.” Dr. Stavens sees a day when MOOCs will disrupt how faculty are attracted, trained and paid, with the most popular “compensated like a TV actor or a movie actor.” He adds that “students will want to learn from whoever is the best teacher.”


This process will only get more competitive as MOOCs begin to supplant lectures at more brick and mortar universities across the country, and no less than Thomas Friedman has called on professors to raise their game, saying “the world of MOOCs is creating a competition that will force every professor to improve his or her pedagogy or face an online competitor.”


The (Growing) Long Tail

So in this new world of education, where just a handful — perhaps hundreds — of professors are teaching the vast amount of content to those in higher education in a lecture-style format, what does that mean for the rest?

If we take publishing as the example, we can expect three things to happen.


First, there will emerge a new set of tools that will give rise to new forms of educational content. Although the typical course structure has endured for hundreds of years, the format is still depending on a largely top-down educational model that is not fit for a more fragmented ecosystem. Adobe Indesign is fine for magazine creators, but it wasn’t until WordPress, Tumblr and Twitter that publishing was truly democratized.


Second, these new tools will enable the rise of the “Alternative Professors” that will come from industry and entertainment, and will aim to offer something different — a new way to learn, new skills or a new way to think. We can imagine C-level executives, famous athletes or movie stars, or innovative engineers teaching one-off courses that are attended by millions, as a way to bolster their individual brands, but also to spread educational content that has more depth and meaning than a typical blog post. 


And finally, there will be a significant fattening of the “long tail”. We will see the rise of millions of amateur teachers, emboldened by these new tools, but also seeking to help fill the gap between the small set of celebrity professors and the rest of the worlds’ learners. These millions of teachers will create new and original educational content on a regular basis, shifting their focus to wherever demand is, and supplementing the content generated by the now small group of celebrity professors. A few of the best of these teachers will also rise up based on their uniqueness to join the elite.


A Good Thing?

Like all changes, this creative destruction will bring good and bad. On the good side, this approach will lead to a more agile and dynamic education system that will be able to adjust better to market forces, train our youth for in-demand jobs and careers, and retrain those that are being made obsolete by the relentless push of technology and globalization. New tools will popup to help individuals organize and make sense of educational goals, as well as new credentials to capture this fragmented learning. It’s also likely that this new world will have less infrastructure and offer more global parity — reducing the need for sprawling (and expensive) campuses. 


While all this sounds good, we are likely to see some losses as well. It’s likely that this new academia will have a tougher time achieving goals that require deep infrastructure or wide coordination of many professionals on a large scale. Research, broadly, is likely to suffer, as it will be harder to support professors in fields that are not supported by industry — like the humanities. The quality of labs and research infrastructure will decrease with less funding available, leading to slower progress on more difficult societal problems. The best universities will continue to prosper, but will also be forced to narrow their scope to only what they do best, as innovation in the long tail will pull the best talent in emerging fields away from them. And thousands of students will likely forego a traditional brick-and-mortar college for an online education, likely saving money, but also losing out on the invaluable holistic experience that past generations have taken for granted.


We’re in the First Inning

Many of these trends are already occurring, and have been for some time. MOOCs are simply an evolution of what began with the Internet and continued with Wikipedia and Open Courseware. It is doubtful that MOOCs represent the last major innovation in how we, as a society, educate ourselves. It is more likely that this is the equivalent of Geocities, and we’re still quite far away from the WordPress and Twitters of the future. However, if history is any guide, the future of education will be cheaper, more fragmented and far more dynamic than what we’ve had for the last century. And on balance, that sounds like a very good thing.