Friday, May 15, 2009

From Dozens of Millions to Millions of Dozens

I chanced upon this musty, old article (by internet standards) from the BBC about Joe Kraus, co-founder of Excite, a once promising internet search engine that peaked before Google even got going and later founded JotSpot, an application wiki company acquired in 2006 by Google and relaunched as Google Sites.

The key takeaway for me from the news story was this reflection by Joe Kraus on Google (and how it stole the market from the likes of Excite) and Amazon (and how it beat traditional brick-and-mortar book retailers Borders and Barnes and Noble). I quote from the article:
Only 40% of Amazon's revenue comes from the 125,000 books stocked in an average Barnes and Noble shopping mall store.

The other 60% of cashflow comes from the now famous "long tail" - hundreds of thousands more books that Amazon has found a way of distributing economically to customers who seek not the best sellers but a very precise title probably very obscure to most people and most shops.
And the second example:
Both Excite and Google are free to use; both business plans needed the support of advertisers.

But Excite took the conventional view that the ads would come from the top 100 companies in the USA, the people who buy huge amount of TV time and blanket the newspapers and the magazines.

Google did not go for the big spenders. Google's squads of PhDs wrote algorithms that would make it viable for the company to take hundreds of thousands of ads from hundreds of thousands of small (or big) companies, and pop the ads up in highly relevant spaces close to the search lists.
Then he concludes:
"The 20th Century mass production world was about dozens of markets of millions of people. The 21st Century is all about millions of markets of dozens of people."
I think we can apply this same insight to Technology Augmented Learning in the Age of the Internet (and beyond). Prior to the 20th century, formal knowledge- (vs. skill-) based education was typically imparted by wise and experienced scholars and teachers to a tiny group of pupils through intense and personal interaction. Education was inherently an elitist, cerebral pursuit demanding great sacrifices on the part of both teacher and student and only a few very highly gifted and talented individuals made it through the process. The industrial era provided a new metaphor for education (and just about any kind of human pursuit) and the principles of mass manufacturing were extended to education. Massive schools and universities were constructed. Knowledge was standardized and codified and disseminated by methodically-trained teachers employing seemingly efficient methods of instruction in large classrooms filled with dozens, scores, and even hundreds of students. For a while, things seemed to work. The experience was not very satisfying as hordes of students and thousands of teachers and professors will testify, but the process was seen as being good enough, under the circumstances.

In reality, excepting for the most elite institutions, most students graduated with not much more than barely functional skills which they then proceeded to acquire on the job, where the worked at the expense of their employers, or on their own, outside the walls of academia. What worked for automobiles, pencil sharpeners and bottle openers doesn't work quite as well for processes that are inherently cognitive, intellectual and knowledge-intensive. People have different knowledge acquisition styles, interests, cognitive abilities and need for knowledge. Perhaps what we need are the equivalent of a million academic institutions each serving mere dozens of students. Now that looks a lot like the traditional guru-shishya framework.

We cannot resurrect the ancient guru-shishya instruction process to meet the ongoing learning needs of a billion learners. But we may very well be able to exploit available to technologies to provide a learning structure that can approximate it in its effectiveness. The goal is not imitation of the process but investigating what made it work, and combine that with modern educational research and new technologies to achieve the same end result.

Whether good enough is all that is achievable with education is a subject meant for another discussion -- I will simply state here that I don't buy that argument. What I will assert is that Google and Amazon provide hope that with modern technology, we can develop a system that is NOT one size fits all (and hence fits none). We could fashion the technology and methods available to build systems to meet the needs of the Long Tail -- education to suit every learning style and every specific type of knowledge. Education is the most important structure for the creation and maintenance of vibrant democracies. We can make this democracy work only if we create an education system that actually does its job and isn't merely good enough.

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