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%.


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:


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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