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:


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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8 comments so far

In the UK we have the BBC which broadcasts programs on BBC 4 made for the Open University which are hugely educational and very interesting even if you are not on a specific course.

That’s the difference between TV for profit and TV designed to “Inform, educate, entertain”.

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive

I agree.
I call it the flower vender supply curve. Flower shops may think that flower street venders steal business by undercutting them, but they probably increase business for the shops over time.
A guy who would never spend 30$ on flowers might spend 5-10$ for a small bouquet. As he gets in the habit, he might feel the desire to splurge on Valentin’s day, birthdays, anniversaries, etecetera.

And one other point re crendentialing versus interest, is true expertize. There may not be a lot of people who are truly facinated by accounting, but undoubtedly, a good number who are, are unable to get credentialing due to current costs.

Posted by fresnodan | Report as abusive

The Opera analogy is a good one, but most of Higher Ed is going to die. People with lots of savings go to the Opera 5 times a year because they choose to, whereas lots of people with no savings go to college hundreds of days a year because they feel they have to get a diploma to get a job. Once the MOOCs can tee up dozens of graduates to corporations, and once these graduates show themselves to be the equal of the sociology majors from the $60,000/year University of the Pacific, no one will pay $60,000 for UOP. Employers will still want people who got into Harvard, and people will still want to go to Harvard for the same reasons they’ll want to join the tony country club, but no one will be under any illusions. For about 70% of its consumers, Higher Ed is a bad joke in which students are taught to pose and mimic (and drink beer and get laid.)

Posted by solotar | Report as abusive

What a lot of this points to is that we have to get a lot smarter about how we think about segmentation, the “jobs” and yields that each segment is designed for, and finally, the systems approach required to funnel users for informed to engaged to monetized to deeply engaged and deeply monetized.

Posted by hypermark | Report as abusive

I think that this reveals that much of what constitutes “education” these days has very little to do with actual learning.

Posted by mfw13 | Report as abusive

Too bad you can’t just join a frat without going to college. I say that because no one with a real education gets promoted to a position of authority, only heavy drinking frat boys. Sycophantcy is the path of success. You don’t really need to study for that. I mean even look at what get’s reported here at Reuter’s. It’s a bunch of junk designed not offend the masters of industry. You guys bash electric cars (proof of sycophantcy), you talk like americans have freedom (proof of sycophantcy), you pretend like there is a difference between the two political parties (proof of sycophantcy) and on and on. On every topic which I know the specific detailed truth through personal experience you give the story a spin that is approved by the puppeteers of our leaders.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Where do the 1% 50% 90% yield numbers come from?

Posted by stat_arb | Report as abusive

This info is very apt. I really like it. Beneficial and up to the mark.Thanks a lot for such great information.

Posted by edumatedelhi | Report as abusive
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