When Will the Web Transform Education?


Why haven’t we seen the internet transform education yet?

Music, movies, publishing, software and basically every industry reliant on information is being turned upside down. Having collections of tens of thousands of songs isn’t uncommon now. Being able to watch any movie ever made is easy and getting news minutes within it happening is almost an expectation.

Why, then, do most people who want to learn something seriously still go to school? Why has the web seemingly left higher education untouched?

Will the Web Kill School?

At first the idea seems absurd. Of course people will still go to school, how could they not?

But how many people would have properly guessed that record labels would be crippled or that amateur bloggers would be threatening the job security of experienced journalists? Just because something has been a tradition doesn’t mean it’s immortal.

The problem isn’t technical limitations. Many universities already offer online courses. While distance education classes are often shabbier than classroom productions, that’s an issue of scale, not a fundamental limit on the technology.

Some would argue that the personal touch is necessary for universities. But why? What percentage of student time is spent actually mutually interacting with a professor? Even 10% seems generous.

In that case, why couldn’t the other 90% be produced by the absolute best lecturers or textbook writers. This would make the interactive teaching role the equivalent of the music industry’s concerts, unscalable by the web, but ultimately only a minority of actual consumption.

Imagine if every lecture was the quality of the best TED Talks? Or every textbook had the wit and clarity of a Malcolm Gladwell bestseller? If those were truly the options, why would universities be left unscathed in an internet revolution?

Why The .COM Diploma Doesn’t Exist Yet

If any industry needs a web-based revolution, it’s education. Tuition prices have outpaced inflation here in North America, and for many that means a lot of student debt. The situation is better in Europe, but that’s in part due to taxpayers paying for tuition costs.

However if much of the information content of education were distributed online, the costs could be lowered dramatically. Fees would mostly be for testing or occasional tutoring, far less than the institutional cost of managing an entire university.

So why don’t we see .COM Diplomas with entirely online resources and only nominal fees for testing and tutoring?

I believe the reason actually has nothing to do with education itself. That is, the reason expensive higher-education institutions have been mostly unscathed by the internet has little or nothing to do with the limitations on online education, but on the other function they serve: accreditation.

Universities degrees signal good qualities. If you have one, it means you’re probably intelligent, hard working and committed enough to invest a few years of your life. It also is a good barometer of field-specific knowledge. A degree in engineering means you probably understand the basics of engineering.

So far, only universities can bestow these degrees. Sure, there are purely online education certificates, but they don’t really compare to their offline equivalents.

But if accreditation and cultural signalling is the major barrier preventing purely online higher-education, it probably won’t last. As of today, most intelligent, hard-working people are going to university because it’s what hardworking, intelligent people do. If enough of those people decide to teach themselves using high-quality online resources—employers and culture will change which signals they look for.

How The Web Will Change Education (For the Better)

I don’t see anything fundamentally unscalable with most of what we consider education. Lectures? YouTube. Textbooks? Kindle. Group participation? Online forums.

Testing and tutoring seem to be two areas that would be harder to scale upwards. Testing, because some personal oversight would seem necessary to prevent cheating (although universities aren’t terribly good at this currently). Tutoring, because one-on-one teaching is still valuable even if in-class lectures could largely be replaced with streaming video.

With scalability, the cost structure of education changes. If an education resource will be viewed by millions of people, instead of the hundred or so present in a class, that means fixed costs can go up and prices can go down.

Fixed cost investments in education materials can go up when it costs nothing to provide another copy. Microsoft purportedly spent around $6 billion to develop Vista. And even with monopoly pricing, one edition costs only around $200. Imagine if the same ratios were used for classroom lectures.

Some critics might object that YouTube banality or Twitter attention-spans would infect online education, rendering it impotent against traditional formats. This is ridiculous. The reason little serious online education exists is because it currently lacks accreditation. Learning is hard and without recognition, I’ll probably opt for something easy.

But accreditation is about cultural expectations. If more smart, hard-working people opt to teach themselves online, employers and cultural norms will shift.

How Will Universities Be Affected?

I predict that the most prestigious schools will be hurt the least. Harvard, Yale and MIT will still be incredible brand names, even in a new education environment. Because of their selectivity and networking power of alumni, it may be that the most expensive schools offer the most value outside of the education itself.

Instead, I’m guessing that the low to medium prestige schools will be hurt the most. When online education becomes a radically more affordable version, perhaps with better quality instruction, materials and testing, it will be harder to justify tuition prices.

Looking online it seems as if many of the schools are already beginning to recognize this. MIT, Stanford and Harvard all have completely free, online versions of some of their popular classes. Yet I haven’t seen anything like this from less prestigious universities.

If we see a mass exodus from universities, what will that mean for research? Universities currently conduct much of the advancement of science and research. Will they complete the transformation into innovation centers for the pharmaceutical or high-tech industries? Or will governments have to step in to pay more of the cost of research currently being funded by students?

Institutions May Lose, But We Will Win

As with the music industry, I suspect a lot of the impending change on education will be needlessly be focused on the loss of old institutions. Media reports the saddening decline of record labels or newspapers.

But music hasn’t died and neither has journalism. People now listen to more music than ever before. I carry my iPod with me everywhere. News may be suffering, but it seems like the lowered quality of news is due more to the industry in its death throes, trying to clasp for interest, while distributed online sources become increasingly more credible.

If education goes online, universities may suffer, but education will not. Making education cheaper, better and more accessible will probably mean more educated people, particularly from the economic classes and regions that can currently least afford it.

When, Not If

I’m confident that the internet transforming education is a question of when, not if.

My guess is that for some people, this is a radical notion. The idea that institutions existing for hundreds of years will be forcibly transformed in the next decade or two seems implausible.

But for the people who already use the internet, my guess is that this prediction seems almost tame. For many people who watch TED talks, surf Wikipedia and expect knowledge at their fingertips, it’s already happening.

As an aside, I’m going to be in Austin for SXSW from the 11th until the 15th (this weekend). If you’re going to be there and want to meet up, please let me know. If there are enough people, I’ll try to set a meet-up!

Image thanks to Fibonacci Blue

  • Nicky Spur

    Seems to me that technology and the internet is not only transforming education but making it out dated. For smart, motivated people, you can find access to the information and knowledge you want a lot more quickly online that you can in a classroom. Learning a language or studying communication no longer becomes a chore with homework assignments or drawn out lectures, it’s a self-motivated pursuit of excellence. I think the real risk for these institutions is the fact that people will come to realize that they no longer need a university education to reach their desired standard of living. Besides pursuing the cutting edge of particular fields at places like Harvard or Yale, universities might (a long, long time down the road) become a thing of the past if they don’t keep up with the variety and depth of expertise offered online.

  • Carl

    You provide a lot of good reasons for why ACADEMICALLY education may be enhanced by an embracing of technology. However, I feel like that’s only part of the picture.

    It’s also important to keep in mind that many people go to college for, well, the college experience. Whether that means getting drunk with your frat buddies on a Monday night, attending a performance on campus by a famous improv group or spending a wonderful day with your floormates exploring your college city, there are experiences that even the best technological simulations cannot reproduce.

    What happens, for example, to joining clubs? My university offers over 1000 clubs for students to join, participate in and enjoy. It’s much more difficult to feel the texture and community of a club even via a forum.

    Or what about dorm life? Living on your own poses significant hurdles for you to jump through that, if tackled correctly, can make you a more wholesome person. I know that personally, because I’m finally responsible for my own well-being, I take the time to clean the room, do the laundry and keep a calendar marked with important dates and events. All of these may be lost in a transition to online education.

    In sum, college to me is about more than the piece of paper I receive at the end of my four years. I heartedly acknowledge that I might be able to receive the same level of academic learning if I were to use KhanAcademy, MIT’s OpenCourseware or YouTube videos. However, college is about more than just classes. And no piece of technology, no matter how sophisticated, can replicate parts of the experience.

  • Scott Young


    College life matters, as do the people you meet. I would never argue against that.

    My question is, rather, will that be enough to keep people in university? College life is a wonderful side-effect, but I don’t believe it’s the main motivator to go to school and pay tuition.

    I’d agree, I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing.


    True, but the internet has yet to see widespread adoption as an education platform. I think that will change soon.

  • Neil matthews

    Hi Scott

    I read this post with interest

    Something that came to my mind is that if education scales there are fewer institutions and it becomes easier to “control” what is taught

    I’m probably being a conspiracy theorist but wealthy alumni making shady deals to ensur their world view is pushed to students is not beyond the realms of fantasy

    We need to retain variety of education not homogonise it so all spectrums of thought are maintained

  • Jake Jacobsen

    “While distance education classes are often shabbier than classroom productions, that’s an issue of scale, not a fundamental limit on the technology.”

    I disagree that it’s an issue of scale. The traditional school format doesn’t work as well online. They tend to keep the bad things about traditional schooling like lectures and loose the good things like connecting with real people face to face. Scaling it up only makes those problems worse.

    It reminds me of the early days of e-commerce. I remember when people tried to make virtual reality stores where customers could walk around a virtual store and look at things like they did in a real store. That didn’t work very well, but online stores did work because they didn’t hang on to the old conventions.

    The interesting thing is that there is room for both kinds of stores because they fill different needs. Physical stores are nice to try things out and try things on. Online stores are nice because it’s easy to search for things quickly or to compare many similar items. I think the same needs to happen with online education. I fully believe that online education will be vital in the future, but I also believe that offline education will be important in different ways.

    I’m actually in the process of starting a company to develop online education using the strengths of the web, so we’ll see how my vision of the future plays out.

  • Scott Young


    Format is definitely something that would change if education went online. However, I’d expect a transition phase first, if accreditation were to be taken seriously online.

    But, in the end, it really depends on what you mean by “lecture”. Something closer to a TED Talk is what I have in mind–shorter with more visuals. I think the Ivy-league schools recording their lectures is a start, but its not where the format will eventually end up.


  • Panda

    Your idea doesn’t sound too far off. If I remember correctly, the idea of an educational institution was weird when Plato founded the Academy. The notion reminds me of Mark Twain’s famous quote: “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.”

    The idea of online education does seem inevitable. (I suspect this will be the battlefield of a lot of debates). Indeed, this will be a very interesting event to observe and participate in. How exciting, to be part of an age of transition where old institutions must reevaluate themselves and new ones must prove their worth.

    There are rumors of the information based industries such as music and TV being able to regain their earning potential through the internet. We shall see.

  • Joshua W

    Can one obtain a degree for viewing online courseware from MIT, Carnegie Mellon, etc? No, and as you mentioned, one misses out on the networking that would arguably spawn the most worthwhile opportunities that aren’t presented following completion of an online program. Telling people that you watched online courses and TED may be good for intellectual discussion and some degree of validation, but it won’t get you into alumni gatherings or the private circles of the people who have more tangible proof of completing a top-tier curriculum.

    Sure, there is a plethora of (accredited?) online institutions that do provide complete curriculums and a corresponding degree, but without an established brick and mortar institution to imbue such a degree with historical prestige and implied rigor, what value is it to recruiters who can simply stand outside campus and expect a more consistent level of schooling?

    The ideal scenario that I believe most people with the desire to pursue online education want to see would be for the traditional colleges to accommodate either students who seek to pursue most of their studies at home vs. paying hefty room & board, or those of us who already have an undergraduate degree and are working professionals to pursue a different career path without being obligated to physically attend lectures on a weekly basis. The networking aspect can be fulfilled by conferring graduates of such a program the same benefits and access to recruiting facilities as on-campus students as well as alumni status.

    I’m sure this format has been proposed, and I won’t speculate as to why it hasn’t been put forward, but for the foreseeable future, I don’t see this happening any time soon.

  • Life Exceptional

    Do students fund research? I’m not sure about the USA, but in the UK at least tuition fees barely cover the cost of teaching the students. Most research funding is allocated by government or other agencies. I imagine that will stay the same in the future.

    The main factor against all education moving to the internet is that not all education is purely lectures, discussions, essay writing or exams. In the hard sciences at least there is a significant experimental component and that has to be done in a university where the facilities exist. Because of this I suspect some components of education will move online, but I doubt that most education will be done remotely.

  • Life Exceptional

    You might also want to check out the Open University in the UK, which is a distance learning university, and uses a variety of methods (including the internet) to teach. Even so, I believe it still maintains some campuses and requires students to attend in person on occasion.

  • Scott Young


    You’re describing the current environment, but there is no reason to believe that online degrees will be shabby scam-jobs forever. “Historical prestige” and “implied rigor” are the reason universities are currently holding out, but I question how long it will last and where we will start seeing them losing ground.

    Online education certainly can’t replicate every facet of modern university life, but it doesn’t have to. Most students pay thousands of dollars a year for the learning and status conferred by holding a degree. Networking, college life and experience are all great, but I doubt they can hold up the industry permanently.

    As soon as online accreditation improves, I predict the change will start becoming more dramatic.


  • Nicky Spur

    You might find this talk relevant:

  • Excited State

    I’m not so sure. Much of your argument can be applied to community colleges, where students can ostensibly get the same information for much cheaper (and with accreditation). So why don’t all students flock to these schools in their first two years of college? The Universities must be offering something else of value besides just what the lecturer says in class.

  • Karsten

    I really like this one. I completely agree with your point of view, although personally I’m more into Nicky’s argumentation.
    In Germany we also have distance learning universities. Everyone can study anything they offer without restrictions or entrance examinations. You get everything by mail or online and it’s pretty cheap (~700€/year). They have forums to discuss and distribute practice material. BUT the quality is still rubbish. The lectures are boring as hell (in fact it’s still an old dude reading his Powerpoint slides) and it requires a lot of work by yourself to keep up. You don’t have the motivational benefits of a study group. so the real problem is, that universities have to deal with the short attention span of students. They have to invest in interesting lectures and concepts. The old way of just standing there and reading your notes won’t work much longer. The alternatives are far too attractive (see TED, which told me more than every lecture I’ve ever been to)! So it’s not just about distribution and scalability and improving the status quo. It’s more about setting a new status quo and building an education system around this technology (which will affect elementary schools as well as colleges and universities).

    The web will transform education even more fundamentally. I don’t know how, but I’m pretty sure there will be a whole new way of learning. And I’m also sure it will go in “Nicky’s” direction, that you educate yourself in the fields of your interests. You can do this already and if you have some experience you also can get a job. But it takes a lot of confidence to do it in a country, that is dominated by pieces of paper with degrees on it.

    It is important to think about this and I’m very thankful for your post. It inspired me to think more about our situation here in Germany. Thanks…

  • Manish Bansal

    I don’t see online education completely obviating the need for universities and colleges for the following reasons:

    1. Studying on your own requires a lot more self-discipline and dedication as compared to studying at a college. A lot of students don’t have that kind of discipline. Unless, we can inculcate these traits in a large number of students — it wont scale.

    2. Online lectures, etc would not be able to do things like group discussions, and teamwork that is so important part of education.

    What I actually see happening is online lectures, etc would become available making it economically viable for students of lower economic strata to get the high quality lectures. Also, lower ranked colleges can use lectures of ivy league colleges, and the faculty can act as a facilitator for discussions, etc based on that. This would improve the overall quality of education.

  • Shane

    Ejnoyed that talk Nicky,


  • Shane

    Enjoyed that talk Nicky,

    This one focuses on creativity in schools

  • Lacey

    I agree that the web is transforming our ability to learn, and is even motivating people to pursue greater education and thinking because of the access they have. What I don’t agree with is online education possibly replacing school altogether. Like you said, there will still be the prestigious universities but even then you can’t get certain degrees online. You can’t earn a biology degree online. Or forensics, dental hygeine, design, or anything that requires hands on learning. You can’t earn a degree online in something that requires tangible projects and experience. And despite the low cost of online schooling, I think it would take a very long time for students aged 18-25 to give up those “golden years” of college to sit behind a computer and lose more personal interraction. There are very few people that really enjoy going to class, but college is an experience in itself and I think it will be a very long time before anyone will give up the social experience of school that you just can’t get from interracting with people online.

  • Justin

    Education need not cost an arm and a leg. I prefer to learn online as opposed to a classroom setting.

  • Vishesh

    Hi Scott,
    One thing I would like to mention here is that how do you expect online education to take care of access to resources like labs. Lets say we are dealing with something like high performance graphics. It is not possible for all people to have high end equipments at home. One could argue that such access could be provided over a VLAN but this would be worse for other fields of engineering such as mechanical.

  • Scott Young


    I don’t expect it to change everything. But how much of labs are required for learning? Even if it’s 10%, I doubt that’s going to prevent a transformation.


    I don’t believe people go to college for the experience, primarily. Yes–it’s a great experience, but it is also expensive and takes a long time. If accreditation or education were removed from the picture the amount of university students would drop drastically. I think a similar switch could happen if accreditation/education had different alternatives.


    You don’t need to prove that online university will replace everything in order for it to transform education. That’s setting the bar unnecessarily high. It would be like people saying that MP3 downloading won’t replace albums because people like having a physical product.

    Excited State,

    That’s good, but somewhat flawed reasoning. Community colleges simply don’t teach the same stuff that universities do. They tend to offer shorter, more practically-oriented courses. If I want to be a computer programmer, I could go to community college. If I want to study graduate-level math, I don’t.

    However you’re right in the sense that university’s supremacy over community college is largely accreditation. It’s easier to get into a cc and graduate. Online university would need to compete with the selectivity of traditional universities.


  • Mark

    Hi Scott. Great article!

    Educational institutions have a cartel on educational certification. As long as they can operate a closed shop, the ivory-towered bureaucracy will remain.

    However, large corporations are cottoning on to the fact that they can use new tech to create their own tailor-made courses in-house at a fraction of the cost, e.g. Microsoft examinations. Soon these qualifications could very well become the new lingua franca for employers, and traditional universities will experience the mass exodus you mentioned as students and employers vote with their feet for more economically viable alternatives.

    I’m sure academia will still exist for the more art-based disciplines, but commercially sensitive subjects are going to slip through their fingers to more corporate-based providers, and the income stream that goes with it. This has already started to happen (I’m currently being made redundant because of it), and I doubt that current universities and colleges have the ability to keep pace with the change.

  • Tyler

    I disagree that online education will replace schools. I agree that it will become an important complement, but I don’t see it replacing it.

    I think actual school offers many benefits that the internet cannot completely replace. These include physical experience (such as labs), questions and answers (since help from a computer screen, if available, isn’t the same as human help), and the sense of real consequences for not studying (ie. I’ve seen this with traditional vs distance classes: people are more worried about not studying or doing assignments in traditional classes).

  • Robb

    I didn’t know what TED talks were so I checked them out and the TED Talks are awesome. I particularly like the Tony Robbins vid and the one on Gamers Changing the World by Jane McGonigal.

    Is it possible to learn a course with just a textbook and no teaching? I think its possible but some people might require more than that. You can have interactive calls or Q&A sessions with professors/teachers/counselors/etc… so you can get the teaching you might need beyond just a textbook.

    Someone said dedication to studying might be a problem but that might help weed out the people who aren’t cut out for that career field or need to find a different career path. Would it be easier to change your career path if it tuition was less also?

    Its going to happen sooner than later. The experience of college is something nobody forgets but I agree with Scott that its not what motivates students to go to a university. It might severely effect the sports though. Haha!

  • Mark

    I agree with “when, not if.” Personally, in the last couple of years I probably have learned – online – about more diverse, interesting topics, and in more depth and detail for the most part, than I have in my community college. The comparisons to music and writing are spot-on I think. The small and medium-large traditional players in these fields will, and have started to, fall to an onslaught of wired, unconventional, and collaborative players. Only the real giants of tradition will have the brand-name and value to either remain or adapt themselves accordingly.