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About a year ago I blogged that I was trying to "sell" an idea to a venture capitalist. The experiment involved asking publicly (here) if a venture company would give me 5% equity in a start-up for doing nothing but describing a good idea. For qualified investors, I would describe the idea, and if the first said no, I would work my way down the list. About a dozen investors with varying resources and experience asked to hear the idea.

It shouldn't be possible to sell an unpatented idea because the world rewards execution, not ideas. Everyone has good ideas. Good ideas have no economic value. But this particular idea seemed special, at least to me. It's a lever-that-moves-the-world type of thing. Could this particular idea have been an exception?

Two highly qualified investors heard my idea and both liked it enough to want to pursue it. The first gentleman wanted more time to study the opportunity before committing, and he couldn't say how long that might take. So with his permission, I moved to the second investor. The second investor ran it by his board and everyone liked the idea a lot. But before I could sign the investment documents, the investor backed out because of unrelated business events that were going to absorb his company for some time.

During the time I was shopping that idea around, I was writing my new book that comes out October 22nd (How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big) and working with partners on an entirely different start-up that also launches in beta this month. I was stretched thin. And so the best and most important idea I have ever had has been sitting on a shelf.

I decided to free it today, and maybe make the world a better place.

The Karma Hypothesis is that releasing this idea to the world will put me in a good position with the universe when my book comes out and my start-up launches in beta any day now. I could use some good luck. And if karma isn't a real thing, I hope the idea will make the world a better place because I'm part of that too.

What follows is the idea I tried to sell. I hope someone implements it.

The idea is to combine online education with evolution and capitalism. Give me a minute to explain.

Imagine you take any standard education class and break the lessons into small, well-defined chunks. If the class is geometry, for example, one chunk might be a lesson on the Pythagorean Theorem and nothing else. These chunks would be standardized and published on a platform that allows anyone to "teach" that chunk. Simply submit your video lesson to the marketplace the same way an author submits work to Amazon.com (only easier). Over time, the best "chunks" of lessons get voted to the top. That way a student could take a geometry course that is taught by dozens of different teachers, one best-chunk at a time.

What's in it for the teachers of these chunks is a piece of the action, the same way Amazon pays authors and publishers. The teacher who has the most hits on a chunk of lesson becomes a best seller and makes a fortune. The fiftieth best teacher for that same chunk makes next to nothing.

I won't fully define the revenue model here, but I'm assuming that corporate training would be the biggest money-maker at first. For public education, the system would act as a paid tutor substitute at first, to supplement traditional classes. As online education starts to outperform human teaching (a trend that has already started) then the revenue model might change to public funding in some areas and a complete replacement of physical classes. For now, don't get hung up on the revenue model; there are several ways to go with that, including an advertising model.

As a student, you might prefer learning from different instructors and in different ways than normal folks. If you don't like the geometry course as it is taught by the creators of the best-selling chunks, you can weave your way through the course using other filters. For example, you might have one preferred instructor who doesn't rank high but you prefer his style. You could follow his chunks through the course. Or if you don't understand a particular lesson chunk, you could quickly sample some other instructors to see the same topic chunk from other angles. Everyone has a different learning style. Some students might want chunks with more repetition, more visual aids, or more auditory reinforcement. Once you find what works for you, you can filter your online classes for that style.

You would also be able to select instructors based on how well students who watched their lesson chunks performed on standardized tests. That gives students the option of following the most effective teachers even if they aren't best sellers for whatever reason.

Up to now, online learning has been little more than video footage of a teacher doing his thing as if teaching a class in person. Common sense tells you that you would get a better result with a team of developers that included a great writer, a great graphics designer for visuals, and perhaps a professional "reader" of the lesson who has no teaching experience at all but is engaging on camera. This is similar to how books are made now; it often takes a team of researchers, editors, and designers to create one bestselling book. I can tell you that the books I write would be quite shitty if the only way you could experience them was watching me on camera reading my first drafts. That's what online teaching looks like now. Imagine how good each lesson chunk could someday be if crafted by a team of experts and allowed to compete with all other lesson chunks for the same best seller spot. Think of it as rapid evolution for ideas on how to teach particular topics. The fittest ideas would survive and climb to the top.

I also imagine that the system would not have the normal copyright protection for intellectual property. Teachers would be free to steal ideas from competitors and improve upon them. That's what would make the system evolve so quickly. The good stuff would be copied immediately.

I imagine this system as an online platform for education that is in some ways similar to Amazon, at least in scope and depth. For the first several years you could expect the online courses to be somewhat worse than in-person classes. Still, there would be an economic value at the early stage because people can't always attend classes in person. Over time, better and better online learning chunks would evolve as motivated teams of developers try for best sellers. You would also have quirky loners creating homemade videos of lesson chunks and in some cases totally nailing it. They would become stars the way book authors sometimes emerge from obscurity. Teachers would become celebrities.

How good could online training become compared to live teachers? My guess is that it could be about three times more effective in the long run. Remember, you're comparing the best online classes in the world to the average physical classroom. It doesn't take much evolving for the best of one thing to be better than the average of another. Experience tells us that online education will someday surpass even the best in-person classrooms. My model of a lesson chunk marketplace gets you there faster, and probably better.

One of the biggest weaknesses of online teaching now is the notion that the person on camera needs to be a professional teacher. That seems limiting. Some students might respond best to a younger person with charisma who has no teaching background but is good on camera. Some students might prefer male teachers and some might prefer female. What I'm saying is that the existing model of plucking a favorite teacher from Stanford and filming him yacking leaves a lot of potential behind. What are the odds that this one teacher's personality and approach is a fit for most students?

Now imagine that someday traditional college degrees become obsolete. Perhaps in the future someone trusted such as Warren Buffett could define the class chunks that in his opinion form the perfect business education. A student could graduate with a "designer degree" that is, in effect, the Warren Buffett Business Degree. Employers would salivate over someone with that training.

One can imagine layering on all kinds of features to this online teaching system. I might want to chat with other students taking the same courses, or I might want to arrange study dates with locals. Assume all of those features are part of the system.

This idea is a lever that moves the world because education is the single most important driver of the economy. A little bit of improvement in education is a huge deal. The evolving-chunk marketplace for classes could get us a lot of improvement over the next decade. It could be a real game-changer. And given the skyrocketing cost of college, this could be a big deal for narrowing the income inequality gap.

So that's my idea. Please steal it.

And if you enjoy looking at things in new ways, you might like my new book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. The Wall Street Journal did a good job on an excerpt that is getting a lot of attention this week. And you can pre-order here.


[Note: Khan Academy is the opposite of the idea I just described. It's great in its own way, but pretty much the opposite of the open system where everyone can teach. The same is true for most of the comments I see about it "already being done."]
 
 
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Oct 16, 2013
Sounds like YouTube.
 
 
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 16, 2013
This is a great idea. Thanks for sharing it.

I can think of a few other benefits of brick and mortar learning that you could extend your application to at least partially address:
- A way to ask the teacher questions and/or have an instructor-led class discussion. This seems different from asking the other students, as one assumes that they may come up with an answer that is either wrong or not quite right, and a live instructor would have the opportunity to help the students arrive at a more correct or more complete answer through discussion. It seems that having special interest groups, or pointers to such, could address this need, although problems exist with these (how would we incent an expert to participate beyond ego satisfaction? How could we encourage students with questions to explore the archive of questions and answers before asking a question that has been answered 27 times already?)
- The connections made at the brick and mortar school that last a lifetime. I notice that people who graduate from some schools (for example, Harvard) tend to network more and maintain connections long past their schooling. They also seem to trust and have greater respect for people who've gone to their school. Not sure how to achieve this with the online series of chunks curriculum.
- Some students benefit greatly from doing homework together - the back and forth discussion between them leads to a much greater understanding than just finding the answer somewhere online. Perhaps the site could enable people taking an educational chunk (or maybe just doing a homework chunk) could let themselves be known to others taking the same chunk in the same geographical area. There'd have to be some sort of security to keep out the perverts, but...

Another thought would be to enable activities more involved than watching videos - the best online learning tools I've seen have the students having different flavors of mini-quizzes embedded in the flow of the course that make the student think about what they've just been presented (multiple guess, true/false, etc.). Adding the abiility to create homework chunks would be good too, although then you have to find someone to grade them, and I don't see how you can get yourself the equivalent of today's grad students (maybe the online homework chunks cost little to download but lots to grade? and the grader has to be someone who's passed a test that covers more advanced chunks of the same course material?).

But again - great idea - I look forward to being able to learn lots of interesting stuff for not very much cost. And the idea can be extended to cover almost any topic, such as the best way to brew a perfect Latte with an Espresso machine from !$% company (some coffee brewing equipment vendors sites have these videos), how to change the spark plugs on your antique car, or how to get an idea you'd like to see come to fruition get out there.
 
 
Oct 16, 2013
"I'd rather hire someone who has the will to overcome that than someone who passed an online test on the 10th try while wearing PJs and drinking beer."

Which would you hire the guy who needs a clear head to pass your minimum requirements test , or the guy who can do it half cut?
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 16, 2013
Understanding of any new thing is better achieved when it's explained by different multiple experts.

Most educational systems fall short regarding the affect of different learning styles. Traditional test- regurgitation-of-facts never worked well for me.

Not sure about how to make this a profitable business model, but the premise is sound.
 
 
Oct 16, 2013
one word "KICKSTARTER"


Kickstarting it would leverage the natural selection process to build the system, without forcing Scott or a VC to take all the capital risk, resulting companycould be an NPO.

Kickstarter rewards could be free credits, advertising, signed dilbert merc, whatever.

Revenue could be driven from lots of models and still allow basic teaching lessons (3 r's etc) to be delivered free.

Lets not forget all the people where one crappy chunk of learning is better than the current NO chunk of learning, they are better from the word go.


 
 
Oct 16, 2013
"don't get hung up on the revenue model; "

-- spoken like a true dot-com entrepreneur.
 
 
Oct 16, 2013
Reading about "good ideas" always makes me think: "Ok, so how would I do it?"

You wrote: "Over time, the best 'chunks' of lessons get voted to the top." as if that's the easy part. But is it? What keeps people from uploading pictures of boobs to get votes? Even if I have the right terms and a QS team in place, people may still vote by entertainment factor rather than effectiveness of learning. So you'll probably need some top-down control, which will likely significantly limit people's enthusiasm to contribute lessons. All sites with voting mechanisms suffer from this and, interestingly, mostly the entertainment sites work reasonably well. But education is too important to let it go down that route.

I don't consider myself smarter than these guys, not sure if I could ever find a solution. So, sorry, I won't be the guy for this project. ;-)
 
 
-2 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 16, 2013
I think you used the word "evolution" wrong. I think you really meant just to use the words "natural selection." If it were evolution, then after making your videos on geometry, you would have produced a horse. :)
 
 
Oct 16, 2013
I love the idea but I think something very similar is being implemented in Korea - where there is a teacher who creates online materials and makes $4 million per year. The WSJ did a story on him.

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324635904578639780253571520

or you can Google Kim Ki-Hoon

To some degree there are for-profit versions of this in the U.S. (Georgia Tech announced a degree program recently where the content is free but the degree costs $$$) but there is also "freeware" out there - Stanford's undergraduate CS lectures are all available online, as are famous lecture series like Richard Feynmann. So I suspect combining technology and education is an idea that is rapidly approaching critical mass. But I doubt the educational establishment is ready to pull up their anchors yet and move on it - which is going to be the main drag on building a profit model.
 
 
Oct 16, 2013

I think it's a wonderful idea, though not very original.

And as somebody earlier commented, no reason you cannot bankroll it yourself, at least in the initial stages.

Some people with experience have commented that this is not how people learn but for those who insist on sitting in a classroom, that option is always available.

Online tests/exams are a problem but that can remain of the brick and mortar variety for now. It is possible that if this mode of teaching catches on, you can set up your own university which will focus only on tests/exams rather than on the actual teaching.

PS: Somebody commented that Warren Buffet may not make a good teacher. The thinking is right, but Warren Buffet is the wrong example. One simply needs to read the Buffet's 'Letters to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway' to learn finance/investing better than any course in the world can teach it. Most of them are available for free on www.berkshirehathaway.com
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 16, 2013
...essentially.
 
 
Oct 16, 2013
Essentially, Scotts idea is essentially creating a platform for the booming field of online education.
It would promote far more diversity than e.g Khan Academy; just like the app stores for mobile devices.

I think it would be frickin amazing.
 
 
Oct 16, 2013
One little problem with trusting this entirely to the market. We're already suffering from a tendency to pick our information sources (news, literature, medical counsel, etc. as well as education) not on the basis of accuracy or effectiveness, but for such counter-productive reasons as:

-- How well they confirm our existing biases (the home team sportscaster who assures us it was a bad call by the ref, and shares our outrage) or line up with political, religious or social prejudices
-- How aggressively someone with an ulterior motive peddles it (huge marketing for patent remedies repeatedly proven worthless, for example)
-- Simple economy (the free course from a stock-trading site will beat out the $50 one from a guy who explains how day trading is a sucker's game) or laziness (diploma mills)
-- Bells and whistles (the "super hot" instructors somebody else mentioned; presentation more focused on entertainment than enlightenment. We had a vogue for stand-up comedy traffic school, which defeats the purpose right off the bat.)

Also, noting a fair amount of hate for "the education establishment." While it's certainly flawed, too many of the complaints seem rooted in one of the alternative decision modes above. "There's something wrong if my kid comes home and questions what my favorite pundit just said."
 
 
Oct 16, 2013
Khan Academy. Enough said.
 
 
Oct 15, 2013
Disclosure: I have taught what passes for college-level mathematics for 35 years.

There is a great push for online teaching/learning/training and a great demand for analytical skills. For whatever reason, people (except for auto-didacts) don't learn that way. That hasn't changed since the days of Euclid.

What we are getting, from online and typical K-12 schools, is a perception that students have learned something, when in fact they have not.
 
 
Oct 15, 2013
Seldom do we get karma confirmation, so Scott I'm giving it to you now: I just pre-ordered your book specifically because you posted this.

Thanks for keeping your blog open and interesting week after week.
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 15, 2013
I'll third Khan Academy. Stealing Scott's idea since 2006.

[Khan Academy is pretty much the opposite of what I described. -- Scott]
 
 
Oct 15, 2013
Khan academy lacks your "many teachers, many different ways of teaching" component, which is the main idea. But it is otherwise so far ahead of the curve on everything, it would be pretty hard for a new company to catch up. Seriously, Khan Academy is amazing and gets better all the time. And it's totally free.
 
 
+9 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 15, 2013
This site does a great job with dividing work into chunks, especially the math lessons:

https://www.khanacademy.org/
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 15, 2013
Scott, I think the idea is fantastic and has the potential to evolve into every positive thing you spoke of. I also think unless you figure out a way to wet their beaks he teachers unions and the government run school systems may have a problem with it.
 
 
 
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