Education changes in waves, not as a straight line

How important is E-Learning really? Is it going to make a real impact? Are we in an inflection point, or not? Well, we’ve heard that talk before, without the educational world changing fundamentally. Why would it then happen this time? Here is a slightly different answer to these questions than you might have heard before.

History show: the mere idea of new technologies changing education is hardly new. We have had this discussion before, in the early days of the internet. Ee also had it when the PC became common, and before that; when the VHS-cassette took off. Actually, we even had it even when the TV, and before that, the radio, arrived.

And even before that

Hundred years ago, this discussion was on. Read old Harvard Business Review, find papers on it. Change the word “letter” to “internet” and publish the article again.

My own father took postman-based courses during the 1950s. Han sat at home in the attic (literary) and studied. Education via the physical mailbox. A big thing for him. Actually; the only way for him to get an education, he was needed back home at the farm.

Of course, he could not afford moving and go to what today is a “regular school”. To him: schooling stopped after 6 years. But since he wanted to learn more, this became a possible solution.

They had no television and the radio was already occupied by the other family members.

My father used Hermods, founded 1898. They still exist. IKEA owned it 2008-2014.
The founder of Hermods. The first students using his correspondence-system took courses in bookkeeping.

But so far, the world of education has not changed fundamentally. Universities have for instance remained more or less untouched during all these years.

The “only” thing that has really happened on the overall level is that we have supplemented the current systems with alternatives. The volume of the market, number of courses, students and providers, has constantly grown.

The mere size of this business is not fixed. It develops in the same speed as knowledge as such, and the globe getting in better shape. Hence; we should not be surprised that education, nowadays, is growing heavily in countries that today have “their own industrial revolution”.

Sri Lanka: 22 million people. Me helping them to ramp up E-learning.

I myself happen to be involved in helping out in Sri Lanka at this moment. They are increasing their system. Ramping up from a couple of thousand university students to about 150 000, per year. Good luck with that without E-learning. Would there even exist teachers enough if they tried to do it in the old, physical, way?

When my wife’s grandfather was young, he studied medicine during the 1920s at Uppsala University. There was only about a couple of hundred people in Sweden at that time that got a university degree.

Then, but later, the system expanded in Sweden, heavily. It was during the 1960s – the country was growing economically. That´s why retired professors I happen to know can tell how it was back then. They had to go to cinemas to get lectures. The universities that was under construction was not physically ready when students arrived. Similar thing seem to have happened in China some years back. But then the expansion in Sweden stopped for about 30 years, up until the 1990s.

When I myself went to university during the 1980s about 25 % of all young people took a university degree in Sweden – about the same as during the 1960s. Today, about 50 % of young people do.

The university system in Sweden expanded heavily during the 1990s. But that development did not happen when I myself was an undergrad, so I never saw the expansion myself and could understand it.

The expansion did also stop after the 1990s. That´s why not 100 % of young people go to university in Sweden at this moment. Perhaps there is no point of exactly everyone getting a university degree.

Education is a business that constantly have grown, but not in a straight line, more like in waves.

Distance courses by letter are therefor not dead although some people perhaps think so. Radio and TV education is not gone either. And Open University, founded on the old BBC-tradition, is still around. They have 175 000 students, the biggest university in UK today.

Television, Radio, education, BBC.

I myself was highly involved in this issue as early as the 1990s, in connection with the internet’s entry into the market. Even then, many of us believed in great change. But

At the time, I worked at a company that did large-scale education, globally, often with target groups of thousands of corporate employees. But we did it IRL.

However, of course we saw that digitalization began to become important. What did we do? We bought one of the computer-game companies that in Sweden, at the time, was classified as one of the most prominent, Backpacker. We started building digital solutions.

Launched 1995. Very popular, at that time. But only for PC and Windows 98 – no laptops, no smartphones.

Did it really make a big impact? Nope!

The obstacles at the time were primarily three:

  • Distribution of CDs with training solutions was actually a complicated, relatively expensive, process. A logistical challenge.
  • Had we solved that, the next challenge arose: Did all users really have access to hardware? Globally, not everyone did, then.
  • Had we solved that, the next challenge arose: Did the users know how to use the tools? Far from always.

Digital education didn’t have a big impact, then. And to be honest: a lot of customers asked us to continue deliver IRL. We suggested them to try E-learning. They were not as keen on trying it as one could have imagined. We where a bit to early.

Timing is often important for big change to occur.

Today we have a large global IT maturity, and the cost for it is low. Most of us have at least one digital device. And; we are digitally connected.

We also know how to use hardware and software.

So, what really speaks against technology making a big impact this time? Not so much, really. Or, quite a lot, if you prefer to see it in that way instead.

The founder of Udacity, today a market value at over $1 billion.

But then … should we really be surprised that Professor Sebastian Thrun, mostly just for fun, put out a digital course in Artificial Intelligence online already back in 2012 … and got over 100,000 students?

Should we be surprised that he then left Stanford and started the company we now call Udacity?

And should we be surprised that those who were left behind, just a few months later, started Coursera, and that the East Coast universities, Harvard and MIT, started EdX only a short time later?

Should we then be surprised that this area of MOOCs, since then, has grown quite significantly? Today there are probably up to a hundred different digital attempts to create large global digital MOOC-platforms.

No, if we see it with a little distance, we should not be surprised. This development has been going on for at least one hundred years.

Some of the MOOC-platforms existing today. In west-world-oriented media they talk a lot of the US-based ones, but are they the biggest? For really big MOOC-platforms; try India and China.

What could be obstacle this time? My proposal is:

  • It will still take years for really good digital education solutions to take effect with full force. For now, many students, and rightly so, do not believe that the digital solutions are good enough – they have not stumbled on the good ones. Bad solutions must disappear from the market.
  • Conservatism, both among established educational actors its customers and parents (not the least) and in established industry – at startups this is already different.
  • Many educational actors, not the least university employees, are not interested in changing. Changing people’s perception takes time. And people that feel threatened, even afraid of loosing their job, do really have a tendency of being against it. Wouldn´t we be, if it happened to us?

Though, those things are transitory after all. Time is important.

Just these days, too, both Coursera and Udemy are entering the stock markets, valued at several billions each. Such things attract attention, others interested in doing the same. As a result, this development is now likely to take another step forward. A new wave pushing this development forward.

So, don´t get surprised when I claim that more VC-money than ever in history was invested in education last year. Today, in a period of just 10 years, at least 20 new unicorns in the field of education has been developed. Wasn´t it actually expected?

Give it some more time, and then, in retrospect, we perhaps can talk about a new educational world.

When we in the future will look on this industry in hindsight what we will see is not a straight line.

What we instead will see is that change happened in waves.

The thing is; fundamental changes have actually never appeared in a smooth straight line forward. But it does not change the fact that change sometimes actually happen.

Perhaps share this post with a friend that already knows the practical value of business history.

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