MIT professor Woodie Flowers argues that higher education’s current approach to online learning is misguided:
We decided to assume that the world could hardly wait to see our huge pile of PDFs, PowerPoint presentations, classroom locations, teaching assistant lists, and other assorted bits of information about our courses.
Instead, universities should produce new learning materials specifically for the online world:
In their highly developed form, learning materials would be as elegantly produced as movies and video games and would be as engaging as a great novel. They would be ‘smart’ to both accommodate the learners’ varied styles and yield data to facilitate their continuous improvement.
Each year, 600,000 first-year college students take calculus; 250,000 fail. At $2000/failed-course, that is half-a-billion dollars. That happens to be the approximate cost of the movie Avatar, a movie that took a thousand people four years to make. Many of those involved in the movie were the best in their field. The present worth of losses of $500 million/year, especially at current discount rates, is an enormous number…. even a $100 million investment could cut the calculus failure rate in half.
Online courses are to offline courses as movies are to plays. The marginal cost of delivering online courses is minimal. The potential audience is everyone with a smartphones and an internet connection – about 1.5 billion people today and growing quickly. There is no reason we shouldn’t be investing as much to produce online courses as we do to produce Hollywood movies.
When I talk to most companies, I do think their leaders are pretty short-term focused. Imagine you’re running Exxon, what do you do? Say you want to do something good with the most valuable company on earth. A lot of people think probably, it’s not doing good things – worried about the environment and so on. But if the company has a lot of capabilities–worldwide operations and manufacturing, government relations, probably could do a lot different things, if you took a 20-year view.
If you took a four-year view, that’s a pretty hard question to answer. What are you doing in the next four years, which I think is about the average tenure of a Fortune 500 CEO. So if you’re being measured quarterly– obviously, it’s good to have some pressure so you actually do things, make money and improve things. But I think the four-year horizon for leaders is pretty difficult.
It’s pretty difficult to solve big problems in four years. I think it’s probably pretty easy to do it in 20 years. I think our whole system is setup in a way that makes it difficult for leaders of really big companies. Eventually, what you’re doing doesn’t makes sense over time, for whatever reasons – environmental or social or whatever it is. I think companies have a big problem making a big transition, so leaders get replaced.
A huge advantage of companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon is that they have CEOs with the gravitas (and, sometimes, control provisions) to operate on a very long-time horizon.
If we were sent back with a time machine, even 20 years, and reported to people what we have right now and describe what we were going to get in this device in our pocket—we’d have this free encyclopedia, and we’d have street maps to most of the cities of the world, and we’d have box scores in real time and stock quotes and weather reports, PDFs for every manual in the world—we’d make this very, very, very long list of things that we would say we would have and we get on this device in our pocket, and then we would tell them that most of this content was free. You would simply be declared insane. They would say there is no economic model to make this. What is the economics of this? It doesn’t make any sense, and it seems far-fetched and nearly impossible.
But the next twenty years are going to make this last twenty years just pale. We’re just at the beginning of the beginning of all these kind of changes. There’s a sense that all the big things have happened, but relatively speaking, nothing big has happened yet.
–The Technium: An Interview with Kevin Kelly
NYTimes has an excellent profile of Planet Labs, a startup that makes low-cost satellites:
These satellites are powered by batteries normally found in a laptop, with semiconductors similar to those in a smartphone. “Nothing here was prequalified to be in space,” Mr. Marshall said. “We bought most of our parts online.”
Planet Labs will not disclose its manufacturing costs, but potential customers who have seen the products think the satellites are approximately 95 percent cheaper than most satellites, a figure Mr. Marshall would neither confirm nor dispute. “We leverage the billions of dollars spent on the consumer mobile phone business” for most of the company’s parts, he said.
Chris Anderson calls this “the peace dividend of the smartphone war.” Across a wide range of sectors, startups are now tackling problems that previously required billions of dollars from governments or multinational corporations.
Steve Jobs in 1995:
There’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product. And as you evolve that great idea, it changes and grows. It never comes out like it starts because you learn a lot more as you get into the subtleties of it. And you also find there are tremendous tradeoffs that you have to make. There are just certain things you can’t make electrons do. There are certain things you can’t make plastic do. Or glass do. Or factories do. Or robots do.
Designing a product is keeping five thousand things in your brain and fitting them all together in new and different ways to get what you want. And every day you discover something new that is a new problem or a new opportunity to fit these things together a little differently.
This is why almost all successful startups have founders who understand business, design, and technology. Product development is the process of navigating a maze – not three separate mazes, but a single maze that intersects all these functions. The people navigating the maze need the full authority of the company behind them.