I did two things recently:  I saw Waiting for Superman, and I looked online for educational content/tools for my daughters. In both cases, I was appalled by how difficult it was to find teaching supplements online (and in general). I’m not an expert on education, but I am a parent, and being part of an industry (i.e., retail) that has been transformed by the Internet and has fundamentally shifted how it engaged with its consumers, I think that educators could learn a few things from retailers:

  • The Web can give good teachers scale. One of the challenges of good schools is that there are a finite number of slots, just like there’s finite shelf space in a store. Sites like Amazon.com solved that problem by making the Web their storefront.  This enabled them to sell OPM (other people’s merchandise) and not incur the most expensive investments of stores — real estate and inventory. Why can’t the Web be our schoolhouse, or at least a new one? That way, there needn’t be a cap on the number of people who can, for instance, view a video of an award-winning teacher teaching. Why don’t we use the power of the Web to make talented teachers available to more students like web retailers have managed to make more products available to more people? Why are questionable for-profit universities the only ones doing this?
  • The Web can change a good teacher’s economics. Netflix drove Blockbuster out of business because it created a new delivery model (mail and now digital delivery) and an innovative pricing model (monthly subscription fees and no penalties). For the teaching videos example above, why not let people pay, say $1 per download, for each lecture and let the best and most enterprising teachers earn some extra revenue for their talents? Why not let the Web shift demand to the subjects needed the most and let the free market reward those who are best at teaching that content?
  • The Web is the ultimate interactive learning tool. The amount of pre-shopping that happens online is astounding — we expect that half of all retail dollars will in a few years result from research that people do online. This includes people reading, watching videos, and asking questions of experts and friends before they complete transactions. If this behavior happens during the course of relatively trivial things that people do like buying  a tennis racket, couldn’t the Web be an effective tool for teaching young people too? Why couldn’t we do the same thing for lower school public education?  

It’s baffling to me that while there is so much energy being spent on the debate around how to improve education, much of it focuses on increasing spend in our current schools or blaming teachers. Why not shift the discussion toward how to use the Web to increase the reach and the power of the best teachers that we do have? This may not be the perfect solution, but for motivated parents and children, wouldn’t this be a welcome development? 

Is online education an industry that you’d like to see Forrester research more?