What Are We Scaling When We Scale Education?

June 9, 2015

Back in 2003 when MIT first announced their participation in the Open Courseware movement, it caused a big stir. I still remember those grainy videos from an advanced chemistry class, the fishbowl quality of the experience as the professor paced to and fro at the front of the amphitheater classroom. This was before iPhone, before Facebook, before Podcasting really. And it was thrilling.

Soon millions of visitors were accessing the OCW website, and the numbers from the developing world, especially India, were off the charts. Look, a colleague said to me at the time, we’re scaling education! That couldn’t have been farther from the truth, although we all have to admit there was a moment there when all of this was much less clear.

The reality was, the only thing we were scaling then was access to videos of college lectures. We weren’t scaling education.

It’s often said that the media business has been disrupted by technology. I think that’s a fair statement. But we need to be more precise about how and why that disruption occurred. The analog version and the digital version of media as we know it is largely the same. We digitize photos, printed words, moving images. Soon they are even born digitally. But the consumption experience is identical, even if it occurs in different delivery vessels. We still read a news article, still watch a movie, still listen to a song—paper, vinyl, celluloid has been replaced by smartphone, maybe, but the experience is equivalent and functionally complete.

Given this, you could say that the disruption of the media business is really just an epiphenomenon of the digitization of it. Once digital, the distribution superstructure erected over the decades to move analog media around fades in importance, and brand new media empires are created overnight. Dollars from advertising and content selling move from the old distribution colossuses to the new ones. Has this resulted in the superscale of media? Sure—but that was already assured the minute a digital image met the Internet. The outcome is the delivery of the digital artifact.

Education is a different animal. We can scale the distribution of video lectures all we want, but this isn’t equivalent to scaling education. Education isn’t a media consumption exercise. Rather, education is about the delivery and then ultimately the unaided performance of skills and knowledge bases. It’s about personal growth. And people achieve this growth by engaging in experiences that lead, ever so iteratively, to the possession of these new knowledges and skills. Frequently, people achieve this with great teachers as their guide.

We need to do everything we can to vastly expand the number of great instructors, in every field. But as anyone who has taken a Minerva rhetoric class will grasp, this very exercise—training instructors at scale—is itself one inextricably entangled in the overarching problem of scaling education experiences in the first place. Instructor training is a form of the education scale problem.

What we are ultimately scaling, then, is facilitation. This is much trickier and complex and combinatorial than scaling media. Unlike straight up media the education outcome is not equivalent to a digital artifact—it’s something else entirely. Moreover, it is something that can often be quite difficult to measure. And to be sure, thinking about measurement – like instructor training as an activity set – is one more part of the education scale elephant.

Now, we can and do use media in many forms to help with the education endeavor (in our own portfolio, think Udemy, Coursera, LearnZillion), but education scale doesn’t end with the constituent exercise of media consumption. It ends with the question of, did we facilitate the transmission of a skill, knowledge base or a new way of looking at ourselves and the world.

When we evaluate education opportunities here at Learn Capital, we care—deeply—about scale. But the measurement of this is at the outcome level. And the businesses that will make this happen are the ones that leverage all types of mechanisms—media sure, but also some mix of physical place, peer communications, projects, events—to get the job done. Keeping an open mind about the how is critical to solving for the what. This is a tricky set of equations, even with the fusillade of modern technology and platforms to lean on. And the best education entrepreneurs are the ones that are the most innovative about this precise combinatoric.