The Knewton Blog

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Inspiration and Infrastructure

Posted in Ed Tech on December 29, 2014 by

Every year around this time, we go home for the holidays and reflect on our lives. We come back in January with newfound energy: new resolutions, new gym memberships, and, for some of us, new career goals. For those of you thinking of getting into education, I want to encourage you. For those thinking of leaving it, I’d like to try to change your mind.

We are five or so years into a wave of excitement over “edtech.” Some say it’s a bubble. I don’t think it is — not because most of the edtech startups being funded today won’t go out of business (most will) — but because the aggregate results across the sector, and the world, will be great enough to justify the investment. The most important of those results will be in making the world a better place. Over the next two decades, online learning will increase education access around the world to levels never dreamed of before. Given the size of the education industry, there will be ample financial rewards as well (though those rewards will be unevenly distributed, and many edtech startups will shutter in time).

Education’s Sixth Epoch

I am convinced that, far from occupying a short term bubble in edtech, we are occupying a great moment in history. We are on the verge of the next great epoch in education. There have been a handful of great epochs to date, each one defined by a dominant “education technology” of the time. Each of these epochs transformed the world. Each dominant education technology lifted up every society where it was widely distributed — and its absence proved to be a structural disadvantage where it was not.


Education is slow to innovate. But when it does, the entire world changes with it.

Take the factory model: It reduced the per student cost of education sufficiently that rich nations could — for the first time in history — provide free and compulsory K-12 education to all their children. It is not an overstatement to say that this made possible, directly or indirectly, every modern innovation we rely on today (electric power, motor transportation, aviation, modern health care, space exploration…).

Online education will prove the sixth epoch in education history. It’s got a long way to go before it is widely deployed and distributed, and it must be constantly improved upon along the way. But as this happens, education quality will rise in rich nations with first-world education systems. Access will increase greatly in the developing world.

The cost of education, per capita, has always been extremely high. Rich nations can justify this cost because students graduate into high average salaries. But even in the rich nations, education is too expensive and too unevenly distributed. Online education will gradually lower the average price of a college degree. Edtech in general will improve the quality of education for all students who already receive a first world education. In the developing world, many families can’t afford to lose the wages their children would otherwise earn if they go to school. Lack of funds for qualified teachers result in poor learning outcomes for those who do attend. Some developing world countries have average teacher absenteeism rates of up to 50%.1

It’s not as if it’s a big secret what you should do if you’re a developing world nation: build a first world education system. Then, a generation or two later, you will be a first world country. It’s been done before, most recently by Singapore and South Korea — now top five and top 30 GDP per capita respectively in the world. But few countries have followed suit. Why? Very few political leaders will voluntarily choose to spend like crazy today (on schools and qualified teachers in every village in their country) for a payoff that won’t accrue for 25-50 years, and then only to their political successors. In game theory terms, this scenario is unwinnable. The only way to win is to change the game: to make education so good yet so cheap that poor children and poor nations can get quality and abundance nearly for free. Online education will do that.

Changing the Game

Being part of the education industry isn’t always easy. We’re part of a historically bureaucratic, slow-moving industry. Product development and sales cycles are long. Risk tolerance is low. Implementation is difficult. For online education to have the global reach described above, a lot of big, complex problems must be solved. There’s still a lot of uncertainty about how best to approach them. We need as much talent as possible focused on these problems — and we can’t afford to waste any of the talent we’ve already got.

I know some of you are thinking, “That’s easy for you to say. But my boss is a nitwit, and my company isn’t trying to do anything important. And I want to make a difference right now, not 25 years from now.” Okay, fair enough. But let’s say that you played a sport, and it was suddenly on the verge of becoming the most popular, widely watched, important sport in the world. Would you choose that exact moment to quit and take up another sport just because you were on a losing team? No, you’d try to improve your team, or find a new team.

Online learning is a revolution based in part on inspiration, and in larger part, on infrastructure. We need cheaper devices and more broadband. We need teachers, students, and parents to become familiar with new methods and technologies. We need the cloud to become home to a gargantuan library of education content — practice questions, explanatory text and video, MOOCs, for-credit courses, materials, etc. And we need big data to make sense of all that content, and recommend the best pieces to each student based on her unique learning profile.

All of this will take time. Online education isn’t a flash in the pan moment. It’s a movement, like indoor plumbing or residential electricity. Many initial efforts will fail. But those failures will inform future successes.

Whether you’re a teacher trying to integrate edtech into your classroom or a software developer trying to build it, a CEO or a principal, an investor or an inventor — you are part of a one-time moment in human history. Online learning’s specific consequences are still to be determined (I’ve made more than a few predictions). But just as in every other epoch above, the wide-ranging impact will be game-changing: improved education for those who currently have it and much greater access for those who do not.

So if your boss actually is terrible, or your company’s mission pedestrian, get a new boss, or a new mission. But don’t leave education now. Things are just starting to get good. The industry needs your energy and experience and intellectual capital. Take what you learned and try a different role, or a different company, or a different business plan. The experience you’re getting today will only become more valuable over time — both for your own career and for the students we all ultimately serve.


  1. In India, this is the estimated figure when teachers who are present but not teaching at their assigned time are included along with teachers who do not show up.