How to get people excited about education

By Felix Salmon
February 26, 2013
recommendation from Bond Girl on Twitter, I spent a 95-minute chunk of Saturday night on YouTube, watching the first of five Leonard Susskind lectures on cosmology and very much looking forward to the rest.

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Following a recommendation from Bond Girl on Twitter, I spent a 95-minute chunk of Saturday night on YouTube, watching the first of five Leonard Susskind lectures on cosmology and very much looking forward to the rest. By coincidence, it’s targeted pretty much at exactly my level: you need a decent grounding in Newtonian mechanics and basic calculus, but nothing too sophisticated.

It turns out there are a lot of people like Bond Girl and me out there: a slightly different version of the same lecture already has well over 200,000 views on YouTube. Give people the opportunity to learn interesting material by watching lectures by the best professors in the world, and it turns out they’ll do just that. This is fantastic for the Stanford brand: it gets it out into the world in the best possible way, and will surely, at the margin, drive up demand in terms of the number of people wanting to attend the university. And it’s also fantastic for the hundreds of thousands of people who are learning new and fascinating things by watching these lectures.

The free YouTube content can be considered to be an extra column on the far left side of this chart, which Barry Nolan put together after watching a Fred Wilson video:

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YouTube is even more democratic than MOOCs: there’s basically no structure at all, you can drop in and drop out as you please, and the yield is effectively zero, since no one ever “graduates” with any kind of credential from watching videos online. It’s 100% education, 0% credentialing.

This is an important point: even if 99% of the people who enroll in MOOCs never graduate, that doesn’t mean they never learned anything along the way. What you get when you move from left to right, in this chart, is an increase in structure: some kind of organized, disciplined way of getting a group of people to basically experience the same thing at the same time. It’s not so much that the content gets better (although it might); it’s more that the formal architecture surrounding the content becomes increasingly elaborate and expensive.

This phenomenon is not confined to education, of course. Think about the Metropolitan Opera. There’s the real deal, on the far right, where you pay hundreds of dollars for a ticket, sit in a darkened hall with a few thousand other opera-goers, and experience a full-on live performance. Then, one step over to the left, you have the Live in HD performances — you spend a couple of dozen dollars, sit in a darkened cinema with many others, and experience the performance on screen, over an excellent sound system. It’s not exactly the same experience, of course, but in some ways it’s better, especially when compared to the view from the cheaper seats at the Met. Take another step to the left, and you have the storied Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts — they’re still live, but you lose the visuals, and the physical architecture of the opera house or cinema.

If you’re willing to break the operas up into tiny chunks, you can head over to the Met’s YouTube channel, which has over 1.5 million views already, and allows people to dip in and out at their pleasure — just like they can fire up a DVD they’ve bought or rented, watching it at home. (Netflix, sadly, doesn’t have a lot of opera available for streaming yet, although it does have Zeffirelli’s much-disliked Otello.)

Fred Wilson’s advice to Wharton, then, is basically to be more like the Met: take what you do, and put it out there with varying degrees of structure and architecture, at various price points from $0 to $133,600. The more discoverable you are, the richer your brand will become — and, just like TED discovered when it started putting its talks online for free, the more you give such things away, the more demand there is for the very expensive live product.

In education, the worry isn’t really about the future of schools like Stanford and Wharton, but rather about the future of smaller universities: could their full-price offerings be pushed out of the market by the cheaper versions from elite colleges? It’s possible, but it hasn’t happened yet, and it might not happen at all. After all, my intuition is that people are more likely to want to go see a performance at their local opera house after seeing a Live in HD performance from the Met. And the more Leonard Susskind lectures you watch online, the more you might want to take a proper course at your local college.

It seems to me that the rise of what you might call these “diffusion lines” is the rise of a brand-new marketing platform for the asset class as a whole, be it education or opera or anything else. Up until now, it’s been hard to get many people interested in opera, because the barriers are so high, and because most of us need a bit of structure in order to be able to sit through it and appreciate it. (I love going to see live opera, for instance, but never listen to it on the stereo at home, because I’ll end up getting distracted almost immediately.) Similarly, the arguments for going to college tend to center on the value of the credential, rather than the inherent value of the education itself. Once we bring first-rate educational experiences to everybody, then the proportion of those people who want to go to college can only go up. And that, in turn, will be great for everybody, and for the economy as a whole.

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