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Disintermediation: The disruption to come for Education 2.0

On the largest of scales, we rarely have the luxury of designing technological systems. Instead, technologies happen to us – our experience of them being ragged, volatile, turbulent and rife with unexpected interactions. Tim’s posts about the emerging internet operating system (here and here) describe a great example of this – the winner of that particular fight being very much TBD and the factors determining victory or defeat being themselves the subject of lively debate. When we talk about Education 2.0, though, we are prone to think that we can design it – that we can consciously and deliberately lay the groundwork for its effective implementation. Our deliberation, though, may be less powerful than the larger forces driving its rapid evolution. One such force will certainly be disintermediation.

Disintermediation is a process in which a middle player poised between service or product providers and their consumers is weakened or removed from the value chain. Disintermediation is driven by the fact that middle players consume resources and in removing them from the chain, these resources are recovered to enable either lower cost for the consumer, better value from the provider, or both. Disintermediation can be total, in which case a middle player is removed entirely. It can also be partial, in which case an intermediary is carved up and the different ways in which they formerly added value are segmented, replaced, or done away with as circumstances permit. Understanding the process of disintermediation is critical to understanding the ways in which Education 2.0 will evolve.

An example of what disintermediation looks like is what happened to travel agencies. Before the Web, travel agents served as direct points of contact to facilitate travel arrangements between customers and service providers (airlines, hotels, rental car agencies, etc.) . In 1980, for example, a travel agent might meet with a family who wanted to travel to Europe. The agent contacted TWA, arranged for lodging and tour bus service within the European vacation, served as a vendor for “traveler’s checks” and provided a “one stop shop” for the traveling family. The value proposition for the travel agent was that he or she was the retail outlet for knowledge about travel – in this case European travel. Dealing with the producers of this knowledge (the Airlines, French Hotels and the Italian tour bus service, for example) was cumbersome and required significant subject-matter expertise.

Disintermediation of travel agencies occurred in two distinct phases: an initial phase in which technology enabled travel agents to do their job better and a “terminal” phase in which these same agencies were disintermediated. Phase one of the process began with the shift to computerized reservation systems within the service providers – American Airlines and their Sabre system, for example. This was initially greeted by travel agents as a positive development. Sabre made their jobs easier – they could help more clients faster and with more comprehensive service. As the Web matured, though, services like Expedia, Travelocity, Hotwire and Priceline.com, allowed the end user – the consumer – to make travel arrangements directly and with far greater transparency regarding price and available services than the travel agents had been able to provide. First the savviest of the travelers, the “road warriors” who flew hundreds of thousands of miles a year, but soon “mom and pops,” came to use the electronic services instead of their local travel agent. In a single decade, the number of US travel agents declined by 45%.

travelagenttrends.jpg

The lessons of this example apply rather directly to Education 2.0. Teachers, schools, and districts occupy ground not too different than the travel agents of 1998. Specifically, the value proposition of the current educational system is that it understands the landscape of human knowledge and that it can plan and enable the exploration of this landscape in a way that is cost and time effective. Learning is educational travel.

But we now see the rapid development of Web 2.0, with devices like this:

apple-ipad_1.jpg

and an application environment that will do for the landscape of human knowledge what Expedia did for physical travel – organize it, connecting the consumers of information directly with the information itself – classic disintermediation. We don’t know who the Travelocity of human knowledge will be, the Priceline.com of learning. Google is obviously the player to beat. Niche players will abound, though, – specialists in particular kinds of “intellectual travel”, for particular age groups or particular subjects.

How deep could this disintermediation go? Deeper than we would expect. If we take the primary function of school to be the dissemination of knowledge, the disintermediation could be near total. As a thought experiment we can imagine the following: The student’s experience may be ad hoc and fluid – with constantly shifting and boundary-less “classes.” It may be much more spontaneous and self-organizing – and all the more engaging for its voluntary essence. We may see the emergence of services that check a student’s progress against algorithms of likely educational success – simple AI versions of the 20th century guidance counselor. There may be tests that check for subject progress or mastery that any student is free to take whenever they are ready – no need to wait for “test day.” Self-paced, self-directed, self-driven. There may be constant and direct input from industry and Gov 2.0 about what students need to know: If it looks like there’s a glut of chemical engineers coming up, for example, students might be advised to shift to a track more consistent with electrical engineering. They might get this information right about the time they’re learning to ride a bike. There will always be physical schools – students need to go somewhere during the day to enable the engine of modern economic progress: two parents working. But these schools will evolve into things that look more like civic centers – hubs for community involvement and rich relationship-building, augmented by more spontaneous micro-communities that span the globe, forming and bursting like soap bubbles. None of these things are certain. What is certain is that disintermediation rarely has a delicate touch. It will change the way we teach and change the way we learn in the decade and decades ahead.

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  • David Miller

    Nice data, thanks. The next wave is “Move to online causes decline of online application development jobs”.

    Diaspora has started a wave that will make the linux distro wave look like the tiny ripple that it is, I mean was.

    There will be massive shakedown. Google will survive by dropping back to it’s original model of distributing highly focused, unobtrusive product information snippets. Everyone else will race to catch up – I mean down.

    Hundreds of thousands of onliners will be looking for real jobs that actually contributes to the real economy.

    • http://radar.oreilly.com/robt Rob Tucker

      Thanks David,
      Disintermediation is pervasive — perhaps the most characteristic consequence of the Web and particularly Web 2.0. The Web rationalizes supply chains and labor is just another supply chain. On an individual level, or at the level of business sectors, the dynamic is similar. The antidote is ownership — understanding the dynamic and taking deliberate action to “stay out of the middle.”

  • Don Patterson

    Knowledge dissemination is easily disintermediated. It is harder to do that for critical thinking skills and for professional practical skills.

    It’s hard to teach someone how to do a filling on a tooth online. It is hard to read something online which will teach you how to evaluate a new technology’s privacy implications.

    My concern is that no student values critical thinking enough to pay for it. A future employer does though. A future patient does also.

    The thing that holds the modern university together is the degree. That piece of paper tells a future employer/customer that the things that they are looking for, but which may not be valuable to a student were taught and/or achieved.

    If the degree falls so goes the mid-tier university.

    • http://radar.oreilly.com/robt Rob Tucker

      Good comment, Don. I think that’s where “ownership education” comes in and relates to my previous “Ownership” and “Sparta” posts — we need to aggressively promote the values of self-development to children as young as possible and help them to “own” their own educational development. I passionately believe that the value of critical thinking can be taught — if the student is ten or the student is seventy. I work with leaders and executives in large organizations and they need the same kind of help, encouragement, and guidance as anyone seeking to learn new things. Learning is learning, and its always hard. Significant educational disintermediation, though, is one key context for effective ownership — you can learn and develop that much more quickly if you go straight to the source of information.

  • Carl Levinson

    I believe that when the global data singularity happens, all universities, high schools, etc will disappear.

    I believe even Harvard, Cabrridge, Sorbonnes, and QingHua will all be gone – at best, a ten cent skin, like a background skin at Word Press.

    One global “school” will serve all levels – much as you describe, only total in its singularity.

    • http://radar.oreilly.com/robt Rob Tucker

      Dear Carl,
      The thing that will probably prevent the singularity you describe (at least in K-12) is the “custodial” function of schools. Bluntly, the modern economy couldn’t survive a week without schools. Think of the significant economic disruption in the US last year during the first stages of the H1N1 Flu outbreak when even a small portion of parents kept their kids home from school. Magnify that by a couple orders of magnitude and you’re approaching the consequence of a world without schools. For K-12, the “physical school” will be resistant to disintermediation — its what happens within the school that will change dramatically. Maybe you’re right — that some model of centralized content development and dissemination will make for one global “mega school,” but I think the Web tends to fragment more than it unifies. Interesting question and time will tell.

  • Chris

    Someone has to play devil’s advocate here, I guess it might as well be me. There are major, fundamental differences between the process of education and the sectors that have been disintermediated by the internet, most of which have been driven by commerce. Quite simply, a person buying a plane ticket, planning a vacation, or looking for a book are acting as consumers, with a product or destination in mind. The same is not true for how education happens.

    • http://radar.oreilly.com/robt Rob Tucker

      Dear Chris,
      I think its fair to say that students are, “acting as consumers, with a product or destination in mind.” There is a cynical version of this — that students are in it for the diploma, the degree, the exit ticket, etc. — or the kinder interpretation: that students have as their goal the acquisition of subject matter expertise in one or more areas. They want to know how to do things. If there is a device, service, or application that can help them accomplish these goals as effectively as traditional classroom instruction, I think they will act like consumers. They will evaluate cost and effectiveness and make a consumer choice. This sets up the pressure for the disintermediation I speak about in the post.

  • Pierre Liebenberg

    Thank you, Rob, for a thought-provoking post. I’m a teacher and, though I’ve long been aware of the demise of travel agencies, I haven’t yet thought of schools going the same way. I’m not sure, though, how long the ripples will take to make themselves felt. Standardized tests, and the education mechanisms that support them, are entrenched because universities and, most importantly, many employers demand some sort of affirmation, some means with which to gauge whether the prospective employee is capable of what he / she claims to be (admittedly, many employes now apply their own entry tests). Of course, this kind of change implies a massive shift both in thinking and day-to-day operations amongst all the role players in the education chain, something that I doubt will be rapidly implemented (and will, in fact, be resisted by the those who stand to benefit most from the status quo) unless an external player enters the market (Apple Education perhaps?) and shakes things up enough to force the traditional role players to adjust or die.

    Thank you, once again, for an interesting post.

  • Scott Gray

    This is certainly happening with learning resources but not in education. The reason is simple: Schools don’t sell learning, they sell validation.

  • Carl Levinson

    I believe that when the global data singularity happens, universities, high schools, schools will gradually if not precipitously disappear.

    I believe even Harvard, Cambridge, Sorbonne, Tokyo DaiGaku, and QingHua DaXue will go the way of the local bookstore – at best, a gateway to a single, infinite university – surviving as a titular brand only, the same as choosing your background color scheme in Word Press.

    One global “school” will serve all levels – much as you describe.

    As with journalists – professors will survive – independent from their former universities.
    People will still need guides – just not the edifice.
    Original content will matter – just as publishing original content in field specific journals matters now.

    News, music, and video will not go away – the structure will slough off.

    The universities will probably disappear as steadily as newspapers, television, radio.
    We will all read less newspapers, listen less to radio, and watch less television – replaced by individually-built news and video RSS feeds, derived from Twitter, Buzz, and social constructs – and replaced by global radio (Pandora).

    In other words, attending school may end soon – it’s old media.
    Inner-city kids may innovate this early.

    It’s not too late for the university to be managed better in preparation for this – however, smokestack industry rarely does this well. Look at newspapers, radio, and TV.

    Universities, schools are the next major media to get singularity disruption.
    One cannot be in the business of blocking the very market one portrays to deliver – in this case knowledge.

    Carl Levinson, Ed.M, Harvard

  • Dirk Bergstrom

    I think you’ve missed a very important part of what school provides: socialization. We send our children to school to teach them how to be proper members of society — don’t hit, play together, say the pledge of allegiance. Furthermore, schools don’t merely “install knowledge”, they teach specific facts and beliefs, and avoid or downplay others — think of the strident debates over evolution vs. creationism, the move towards home schooling by religious extremists, etc. Higher education is much the same, you go to college to learn, but also to make connections, and learn how to interact with your future peers in your chosen field.

    It may be possible to disintermediate socialization, but I don’t think that the iPad is going to accomplish that. Not unless people stop interacting face to face in the real world.

  • Arthur Smith

    The hardest part of disintemediation to accept will be putting the “teacher” in the background. For a lot of reasons we have come to expect that the best “learning” depends on the physical proximity of the teacher. Even Web courses simply reinsert the talking head into the process, or they just take the “teacher’s” lessons and print them online so that the whole experience slows down to the speed of the “class” and its leader. For an example look at the websites that promise music education. Virtually every site is simply watching someone play an instrument.

  • David Straus

    There will clearly need to be a change in education (Education 2.). Education is probably one of the remaining industries that exists as it did 25+ years ago without having taken sufficient advantage of technology.

    We will clearly see a blend of in-class and other (self-directed, etc.) educational environments. But I suspect the major disintermediation won’t happen as removal of institution or teacher (at least for a long time). There are other valid reasons for these to exist.

    How content is formed (e.g. the historic flow of information through the publishing industry) will likely change. Unlike the disintermediation we have seen in news there should be a higher standard regarding the quality of this information. And authorities that are paid to assure quality of information is critical (question: can this be crowd-sourced?). So there is still a very strong role for current players is they adapt.

    But I hope one of the great values of Education 2.0 will be changing the role of the teacher. Today teachers are forced to teach in one model per class, and at some average level to support the range of student readiness. Students who are a bit behind struggle to keep up, and those advanced students are frustrated and bored. Advances in technology and content should allow students to learn in different ways (reading, visually, educational gaming), at their own pace and most importantly shift the role of the teacher from content distributor to true educator and guide – working with each student to advance based on their skills and capabilities.

    • http://radar.oreilly.com/robt Rob Tucker

      Dear David, Arthur, and Dirk
      Your comments are thoughtful and insightful. My sincere thanks.

      To respond to your comments, I don’t think that teachers will disappear but (in agreement with David) I think their roles will change and there may be fewer of them. The experiential advantages spoken of by Arthur are real (its better to learn to play the violin form a person than a video) and the socialization role played by teachers mentioned by Dirk is obviously important. Remember, though, disintermediation can be partial. Really good scalable electronic content designed to help kids learn to play the violin or get along with their peers will at first be a benefit to teachers — it will allow them to broaden their reach and improve the quality of their service. Just like Sabre did for travel agents. As the travel agents learned, though, this has a Faustian aspect. What’s the ideal faculty/student ratio if the first phase of disintermediating technology allows a teacher to deliver the same quality of service to a class of 80 students when he or she was formerly able to reach only 20? If you’re a teacher, your thought is that you can b e four times as effective. If you’re a cash-strapped society, you might be tempted to think you can have the same level of impact you’re currently achieving at a quarter of the cost (or a 3rd, counting infrastructure and overhead). David, you are right that the answer is to change the role of the teacher and I really like some of the suggestions you mention. I would also say that the answer is to change the role of the student, teaching them how to take ownership and be intelligent consumers of information as early as feasible.

  • Steve Boyd

    The old joke was that education is the process by which the instructor’s notes become the student’s notes with no intervening process. What you say would be true if education simply amounted to shuffling information. But what distinguishes a mastery of the material goes beyond cut and paste, even mental cut and paste. There is something I would call “sophistication” which very distinctly sets apart two students or other individuals who have the same information. Sophistication is a bit like knowledge; it’s meta-level above information. It shows us both how use and even how to obtain knowledge. It’s what separates apes in the control room (our present, potentially terminal predicament) and human beings. I could go on, but you get the drift.

    • http://radar.oreilly.com/robt Rob Tucker

      Thanks Steve,
      One theme emerging from the comments on this post is line of argument that says “yes, but there’s something irreducible that human teachers do that education technology simply _can’t_ do.” This can be sophistication, nuance, experiential education, whatever. There’s little point arguing the specifics. The thing posed as “irreplaceable” is usually hard to pin down and the one thing we know about emerging technology is that it is — you know — still emerging. We don’t know what it can do yet. Really. But here’s something to consider: In the two centuries since the industrial revolution began, skilled artisans have made the claim that you are making about every single kind of human labor which has since been replaced by the work of machines. Skilled cobblers said that there would never be a demand for the inferior product of manufactured shoes. Skilled auto workers said no robot could ever make a car as well as a human being could. Skilled chess players said there was something irreducible about chess at the Grandmaster level. _Every single time_ someone has made the argument that technology can’t replace them, technology has ignored the pronouncement and replaced them anyway. You may be right that teaching is different. My bet would be on technology. It will whittle away, succeeding here and there and getting better. Its progress will always be steady, punctuated by periods in which it is exponential. If you want to know the one thing that we seem durably better at than machines it is learning (and I’m not saying that that is some sort of permanent advantage). Teachers can learn to be better teachers. Teachers can reinvent what it means to be a teacher. They can do this maybe just a little bit faster than we can build new technology to disintermediate them. That’s the optimistic scenario. The pessimistic scenario is that they can’t – that they hunker down and like two-hundred years of artisans before them, say that there’s something they do that’s special – something that’s outside the ever-present laws of supply, demand and value. I’m not saying they’re wrong, but given the high-stacked dustbin of dead examples of that pronouncement, doesn’t it seem prudent to at least hedge out bets?

  • scott gray

    so… I’m attacking the problem from another perspective. For the vision that we all seem to want to see happen, someone has to step up and create a school where the things you are talking about come to reality. Someone has to create the example we think should serve as the model that improves education. AND this model has to be more cost effective and just as valuable in the job market as the current schools are with their antiquated systems and delivery methods.

    The issue comes down to accreditation. In the U.S., accreditation gives schools credibility and access to Title IV funding, but the accreditation rules prevent a lot of the changes everyone who has predicted above from happening. Without a major change of accreditation rules, it’s impossible to create a school with the kind of innovations mentioned here that can compete with the traditional 1.0 methods.

    There are a lot of damping forces in play here that are preventing the changes from happening the way we all agree that they should. For change to happen these damping forces need to be removed.
    Otherwise, I actually see the situation getting worse. Schools are currently using computers and the internet to save effort and reduce faculty participation, not to improve the learning experience for the student.

    It would be great if the US government would offer degrees for completion of courses from a multitude of schools and sources as well as provide financing for taking these courses from different schools. Then we’d see students choosing the best solutions from the market and then we’d see innovation in education.

    • http://radar.oreilly.com/robt Rob Tucker

      Dear Scott,

      I have to think about this more carefully, but I think accreditation may not be as much of a barrier as you fear. The likely path will be small scale experiments that work, building toward pressure for regulatory reform (of which accreditation reform is a subset). Once we start getting the real data on the experiments, they will be cheap enough and provide clear enough advantage that a cash-strapped educational system will move to copy them quickly. There will be errors in the copying process, mutations and distortions, but these will serve as further experiments. I would look to this viral model of change that eventually reaches a tipping point for regulatory reform. Like I said, though, I have to think about it more.

  • Lee

    I think that one of the most important elements in all this is that the current system of education is failing students. Outside of the elites (primary, secondary and post-secondary), the others are not doing a good job. And I’m not sure that simply blaming students (or teachers) is really relevant. What the Web 2.0 changes are showing/will show is that the system itself is not working.

    I think this might accelerate the change. Travel agents still did their jobs well, it’s just that the Internet and certain websites did it better. School haven’t been doing a very good job. If we can hope to do it better through Web 2.0 technologies, then we will be able to revolutionize the way we learn.

    • http://radar.oreilly.com/robt Rob Tucker

      Lee,
      I think you’re right that the quality of service provided at each school (or even each classroom) will accelerate or decelerate the process. For schools that are not providing students with what they need, the pressures for disintermediation will be even greater. For the best schools, they will probably be able to strongly resist disintermediation. I’m struck by the parallel with “concierge” travel services — American Express’ premium services, for example, where you can still have a travel agent help you with your arrangements and where the Web has increased their value add. These services, though, are expensive and are offered only to Amex’ top-tier customers. The parallels are interesting.

  • scott Gray

    Rob, there have been countless experiments that work but that have dried up in the system. The problem is that these experiments are almost always funded by grants and carried out by ambitious faculty members. However when the money dries up, and/or the faculty member moves on, the departments have no systems in place, nor do they have an incentive to continue to support whatever innovation was taking place. These departments get the same amount of credit, money and funding they would without the innovation.

    In the late 1980′s and early 1990s the NSF gave grants to 17 different Calculus Reform projects. Many of these were quite successful and showed great improvement and promise for better teaching and learning. However, today, only one of these projects still exists and it is only because of the staunch determination of the Faculty Member who created it (Calculus and Mathematica at the University of Illinois). He has recently retired and now even that program is at great risk of ending at the hands of the faculty committee.

    Since students choose schools and programs and not courses, small experiments, no matter how successful do not reap benefits for the school or the program relative to standard practices. These innovations, even if they are cheaper to deliver, also take new and different kinds of talents to support them that current departments don’t even recruit for.

    Go look at job postings for Universities. None of them mention teaching credentials. They all are looking for research credentials. It’s the research that determines the strength of the schools brand not the teaching. Look at school rankings by the US News and World Report and you will see the problem. No where is teaching methodology, innovation, or quality ever mentioned as a criteria.

    I’d like to add one more thought… Technology can improve teaching and learning (indeed I’m banking on it), but NOT with without HUMAN interaction and support and encouragement. Learning takes a lot of work, and people need people to help them, and encourage them to continue that hard work.

  • Mark Sab

    “If we take the primary function of school to be the dissemination of knowledge…” then we are being very silly indeed.

    Neither the iPad nor Web 2.0 do anything meaningful to automate the evaluation a student’s mastery of a new way of thinking. Teachers do, or should do, that.

    For decades, we’ve been dumping pointless technology into classrooms. Evidently this failed process will continue under a new 2.0 brand. Wonderful.

    • http://radar.oreilly.com/robt Rob Tucker

      Thanks Mark,
      As I believe I mentioned in a previous comment, the three core functions of our current educational system are knowledge transfer, socialization, and custodial care. My post focuses on knowledge transfer because it is the most prone to disintermediation — the subject of the post.

      What we have “dumped” into schools in the last few decades include the Web (less than two decades old) and PCs (a bit older). Are you seriously suggesting that these two innovations have been pointless? It is true that technology has not achieved its full potential for impact in the classroom. It also seems clear that it will, or at least it will get closer to that mark. As for, “evaluating a student’s mastery of a new way of thinking,” I’d need to be clearer about what you mean. We know that technology can help students to take increased ownership of their educational development, which is as new a way of thinking as any.

  • Daniel Jhin Yoo

    Hi Rob,

    I wrote a post that tried to extract the three most important beliefs of Education 2.0 here:

    http://bravenewschool.tumblr.com/post/602237050/ed20

    Would love any feedback on whether I identified them correctly and characterized them fairly.

    I have to agree with the comment by Mark Sab on this one. I find that business and technology folks often underestimate the challenge of educating children. However, before making any criticism, I want to first spend more time understanding the Education 2.0 point of view.

  • Paul Souders

    “If we take the primary function of school to be the dissemination of knowledge…

    I think “dissemination of knowledge” is easily the second or lower function of schools. I believe educational systems are mostly about replicating and perpetuating a social order (or, as Dirk Bergstrom noted above, socialization). For starters, consider that most American children now spend at least three years (pre-K, Kindergarten, 1st grade) basically learning how to sit still, pay attention, tie their shoes, and not hit each other.

    I think the current model for education is flawed, and will be severely disrupted by the web etc. But I believe this will happen because the US school system is predicated on an outdated social/workplace model: schools resemble nothing so much as a factories. Heck they even look like factories, long and low-slung without many windows. Teachers’ unions promote a seniority system better suited to working steel than knowledge. And kids learn to maximize results (test scores) while minimizing nontraditional thought (let’s all “cooperate”). All of which, of course, is laid over an even older social order: why do we still take 3 months off for the growing season, when only 1% of our students still work on farms?

    As long as we have a collective need for people to behave in some socially-uniform manner toward one another, we’ll have schools. Technology will displace teachers but it won’t displace schools.

    Maybe this is what you’re getting at with your comment about civic centers, but I suspect it’s deeper than that, and I worry about the consequences for the social body if we don’t try to shape that process. I think this is the gist of Scott Gray’s comment.

    Perhaps we’re reaching a point in our society where most people need so little social grace or critical thought that they can acquire the necessary “knowledge” through a screen. But this suggests a social order like Idiocracy, not a techno-utopia.

    • http://radar.oreilly.com/robt Rob Tucker

      Dear Paul,

      You write, “Technology will displace teachers but it won’t displace schools.” This seems to be a fair assessment of the risks of disintermediation.

      You also write, “Perhaps we’re reaching a point in our society where most people need so little social grace or critical thought that they can acquire the necessary “knowledge” through a screen.” I’m not sure what’s wrong with learning on a screen. Some of the best “lessons” I’ve learned in the last few years have come from TED broadcasts. Some of the most in-depth knowledge I’ve learned came from the best of the best blogs. These delivery devices are so much better than the resources I had available as a child as to prevent any meaningful comparison. Should a human teacher be available to augment or put these channels in context? Probably. Maybe. Sometimes. Depends on the kid and depends on the content. In many if not most instances, I think teaching kids to be autonomous pioneers in the realm of human knowledge is a worthy and achievable goal.

  • Rob Myers

    Your metaphor is flawed. Universities aren’t travel agencies, they’re aeroplanes. No matter how hard you flap your iPad, you won’t be able to fly to your hotel on it.

    • http://radar.oreilly.com/robt Rob Tucker

      Dear Rob,
      I was a lecturer and college professor for a decade. Universities are neat and valuable places, but I think that describing them as transport systems — where students “get on” as freshman and “exit” at graduation — is a metaphor which assumes passive passengers and an active flight crew. I don’t think its an accurate description of the universities I worked at and I certainly don’t think it will describe the university experience of a decade from now. All of the trends are moving in the opposite direction.

  • David T

    When we talk about barriers to change, I’d point out that the educational system–pretty much globally–isn’t something that hasn’t changed for the past 20 years. Try something that has not substantially changed in the last 400 years.

    That is not to say that change isn’t due. But the way that newspapers were disintermediated, or music distribution was disintermediated isn’t the same thing as talking about education.

    We’ve baked notions of the educational structure into culture. When wags talk about an educational revolution, that’s probably what it’s going to take.

    • http://radar.oreilly.com/robt Rob Tucker

      Dear David T,
      In the 400 years before Gutenberg, the consumption habits of bible readers hadn’t changed much. Putting bibles in everybody’s hands changed things very quickly indeed. Whole new faiths were created and Christendom fractured into a thousand beautiful shards (with some pretty nasty wars between the shards). Providing direct unmediated access to the world’s combined knowledge will do for schools what Gutenberg did for bible-reading: Fragment it into a million pieces. Next time you stay in a hotel in the US, look in the bed-stand drawer — The Gideons were the internet pioneers of their day :).

  • Chris Yakimov

    One thing that has historically underlied the production of knowledge, and choices about its consumption, is the process by which that “knowledge” has been designated as such and the consequent authority attached it as a result.

    So: degrees, peer-review, etc.

    In a process of disintermediation of education, maybe what gets revealed is a general lack of even a very basic awareness of those processes (science, reason, whatever), or perhaps evidence for the argument that they were not transparent enough to begin with.

    The other day, a friend said to me: “nowadays it’s hard to go a doctor when I can just look something up on Wikipedia.”

    Everybody understands that what they might find online might be false. Unfortunately, not everybody understands that they, themselves, may not have the skills necessary to determine that falseness.

    I think this risk increases with the disintermediation described: information is not knowledge, but it appears to be so to the extent that the processes of knowledge production become a) less transparent, and/or b) less rigorous.

    • http://radar.oreilly.com/robt Rob Tucker

      Dear Chris,

      Couldn’t agree more with the first part of your comment — that people will come to see the nuts and bolts of “knowledge creation.” I’m optimistic about this — I think we should shift our task from that of knowledge dissemination to helping students become better self-driven knowledge consumers (and producers). We don’t know what they are going to learn but we teach them how to evaluate whether its rigorous or not. This is fun and vital work for a teacher — I think the core of the future of that role.

  • Don Patterson

    Regardless of what value a university education has, it is possible that it is simple going to be too expensive for many people soon. Universities are operating on the same debt economics as many other industries. The cost of a university education keeps rising and people finance it through personal debt and/or government subsidies. Maybe the right analogy isn’t the newspaper industry, but rather the housing industry.

    When the debt capacity of an individual is exhausted, then if s/he is motivated to get an education s/he will have to start cobbling together knowledge on their own. Some from one-off courses, some from online resources, some from peers. This will be driven by a hard need to get a paying job at the end, not by the pleasures of the mind. I think this is probably the place where education will really be transformed. But that will be an ugly ad-hoc painful transition for the universities that can’t draw paying students.

  • matthew w

    As a greater percentage of the workforce becomes independent freelancers working from home offices, working parents have a lower need for physical schools.

    This has interesting implications for the future of homeschooling and charter schools — when your school does not depend on your neighborhood, you gain the option to choose a school based on its values and its pedagogy. Families could team up to hire facilitators who guide their children through a network of remote teachers and curricula.

    Disintermediation would wreak havoc on the public school system for those without the luxury and independence. Disintermediation always disrupts and neglects lives of the poor and disenfranchised the most.

  • Bill Seitz

    I highly recommend the combination of Russell Ackoff’s “Turning Learning Right Side Up” and Clayton Christensen’s “Disrupting Class”.

    Ackoff’s book focuses on “idealized redesign” of a new learning system, and is co-written with one of the Sudbury folks.

    Christensen takes a more incremental/pragmatic approach towards predicting how technology can make real inroads given the current system. He points out how hard it is to make significant change with the tight coupling of the different system components (textbooks, grad schools, standardized tests, etc.). (Someone else, maybe Paul Graham, has noted how the middle-school approach to writing is driven by the needs of grad-school literature programs.) Christensen expects that tech will make big strides serving niches that are currently underserved – allowing schools to offer AP classes they don’t have the expert teachers for, special programs for rural schools, remedial tutoring, after-school supplements, etc.

  • Bill Seitz

    For colleges, the combination of increasing unemployment and unbalanced state budgets may provide an opportunity for electronic professional-retraining programs. Though certification may still be a problem…

  • v

    Well it will be good if this gets on ipad rob.

  • Peter Reed

    I’m surprised that only one comment in the long list mentions homeschooling, a disintermediation already in place. Ohio public schools are using the K-12 “virtual academy” to distribute teaching on-line with only periodic meet-ups. The objections to homeschooling are the same objections given here about accreditation, socialization, and two-income families. And yet, homeschooling has been shown to yield quality education, with community support groups for socialization, for those willing to take the one-income sacrifice to make it. Improved access to networked interactive instruction can only improve this situation.

  • http://www.worldofdeals.co.uk Johnson

    I have never in my life used a travel agent. I don’t know how it works so I can’t judge too much. But I always found that it’s cheaper, easier and I’m more in control if I search for a holiday by myself. I’m not surprised that less and less people are using it.