View it as waves, not as a straight line, and then you can see it

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 education 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.

If you read some history related to education you will realize something: the mere idea of new technologies changing the world of education is hardly new. We had that discussion already when the internet arrived in the mid-1990s. We also had it when the PC became common. And we also had it just before that; when the VHS-cassette took off.

We even had it even when the TV, and before that, the radio, came.

Even hundred years ago, when the postman started bringing letters to our mailboxes, there was a great discussion in society about changing the world of education.

Read old Harvard Business Reviews and find discussions about this topic very similar to the one we have today. Just change the word “letter” to “internet” and you more or less can publish the same article again.

My own father took postman-based courses during the 1940s. Han sat at home in the attic (literary) and studied himself using what regularly arrived in the mailbox. It was a big thing for him, actually the only way for him to get an education since he was living far outside the big city´s and was needed back home at the farm – partly he also worked in the forest. Of course he could not afford moving and go to what today would be called a “regular school”. To him: regular schooling stopped after 6 years. But since he wanted to learn more, this became the only solution. They had no television at that point in time, and if I remember him correctly; the radio was already occupied by the other family members.

The company my father used was Hermods, founded 1898. Do not get surprised that this company still is around, and that actually IKEA owned it for a while, between 2008 and 2014 – IKEA care about their own employees.

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, so far, on the overall level, is that we have supplemented the current education systems with alternative systems, and that the volume of the market, the number of courses, students and actors providing education, that exist, has constantly grown.

The mere size of this business is not fixed. It tend to develop in the same speed as knowledge as such tend to develop, and the globe constantly getting in a better shape. It is a business closely connected to economic development as such. Hence; don´t get surprised that education, at this particular moment, is growing heavily in countries that today are having “their own industrial revolution”.

I myself happen to be involved in helping out in Sri Lanka at this very moment – a country on the globe perhaps not that many people think about daily. But, they are trying to increase their own educational system, heavily. Ramping up from a couple of thousand university students to about 150 000, per year. Good luck with that without thinking in terms of E-learning. Are there even teachers enough in that country at this moment, if you wanted to do it in the old physical way? The numbers this country is heading for is just mind blowing, when for instance comparing to my own country Sweden.

When my wife’s grandfather became a young university student, he studied medicine during the 1920s at Uppsala University, there was only about a couple of hundred people in my country (or was it about a thousand?) that got a university degree. Then, but much later on, the system expanded, heavily, it was during the 1960s – and that is why retired professors I happen to know can tell how it was then…they had to go to a cinema to get lectures, because the universities that was built up at that time was not physically ready when the students arrived (same thing seem to have happened in China some years back).

When I myself went to university during the 1980s about 25 % of all young people took a university degree in my country. And today, about 50 % of young people do. The university system in my country expanded heavily during the 1990s, but that development did not happen when I myself was an undergrad student. And the expansion did also stop after the 1990s. That´s why not 100 % of young people go to university at this moment in time. There is no expansion of the university system in my country at this moment in time.

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 completely dead, for example, although one might think so. And radio and TV education is not gone at all either. We’re still watching the Discovery Channel. And Open University, founded on the old BBC-tradition, is still around.

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 training, globally, often with target groups of thousands of employees. But we did it IRL. However, we saw, of course, that digitalization began to enter the market. So what did we do? Well, we bought one of the computer-game companies that in the country of Sweden at the time was classified as one of the most prominent, so that we could start building digital education solutions, which we also did.

Did it really make a big impact? Nope.

The obstacles at the time were primarily three:

  • Distributing CDs with digital training solutions at the time was actually a complicated, relatively expensive, process, and a logistical challenge.
  • But had we solved it, the next challenge arose: Did all users really have access to a computer? Globally, not everyone had it, then.
  • Then another challenge appeared: even if they both got the CDs, and had a computer, did they know how to use it? Far from always.

So, digital education didn’t have a big impact, then. And to be honest: quite a lot of customers asked us to continue deliver IRL instead of via digital tools at that point in time, even when we suggested them to try E-learning instead.

Today, at least these very obstacles are gone. Today we have a large global IT maturity, most of us have at least one form of digital device – laptop, and/or tablet and/or smartphone. And; we know how to use digital solutions.

And quite a lot of people already use E-learning as a tool in order to learn something.

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

But then, should we really be surprised that Professor Sebastian Thron, 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 also 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 has, since then, continued to grow quite significantly, and that there are now 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 probably not be particularly surprised by what is happening now. This development has been going on for at least a hundred years.

Some of the MOOC-platforms existing today. Coursera and Udemy is at this moment about to do an IPO. But are they alone? Are they even the biggest? Nope. If you really want to find big MOOC-platforms; try India and China instead.

What could the obstacle be this time?

My proposal is as follows:

  • That it will still take quite a few years for really good digital education solutions to take effect with full force – the bad solutions must also disappear from the market at the same time. For now, many students, and rightly so, do not believe that the digital solutions used are good enough simply because they have not stumbled on the good ones. Bad solutions give them a bad impression so to speak.
  • That there is, still, a relatively strong conservatism, both among established educational actors, its customers and parents (not the least), and in established industry (at startups this is already different), that ultimately assesses a person’s CV. Many people, not the least university employed, are simply interested in keeping the old solutions. And changing people’s perception often do take some time. Adding to that: people that feel threatened, even afraid of loosing their job, do really have a tendency of being against it. Wouldn´t you be if it happened to you?

Though, those things are transitory after all.

Just these days, too, both Coursera and Udemy are entering the stock markets, valued at several billions each. And these kind of things tend to attract attention as well as others who want to do the same. And as a result, this development is now likely to take another small step forward. A new wave pushing the development forward so to speak.

So, don´t get surprised when I claim that more VC-money than ever in history was invested in education the last year. And that we, today, in a period of like 10 years, and actually from scratch, have developed at least 20 new unicorns in the field of education. Wasn´t it actually expected?

Just give it some, more, time, and then, in retrospect, we perhaps can talk about a changing world of education.

But when we later on 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 happen in waves.

And that it had been expected for a pretty long time.

Fundamental changes have never appeared in a smooth straight line forward.

But it does not change the fact that change sometimes actually happen.

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