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Education at SXSW 2012

SXSW Interactive 2012 is quickly wrapping up and it was an exciting show to say the least. The amount of information being shared and created was just tremendous.

There were some clear themes in the show that revolved around education, healthcare, curating social, mobile and government reform.

Given the rather upbeat tone in the economy these days, not much was said about flow of cash since it is assumed that the money is there and flowing.

Education specifically exhibited some extremely strong undertones of things changing very soon. The overall themes within education revolved around the following topics:

  1. Education is too expensive.
  2. Current schools and curriculums are not flexible enough to incorporate new technologies.
  3. Retention of information seems to be a new metric rather than focusing on the brand of the school. However the metric itself is measured in pro0longed engagement rather than a letter grade.
  4. Scale is a huge issue. How can you teach more people and keep costs manageable?
  5. With scale, the paradigm of one to many shifts to many to many teaching. The group itself starts to teach itself and automatically clusters at scale.
  6. Non-traditional learning tools may revamp the education system.

When observing the different tracks at SXSW, it is clear that the traditional schools are eager to change but do not know where to go. Sites like,, and are leading the way. They are creating new communities of people that want to learn and teach without the need to earn a degree or certification.

A very interesting talk by the Plaid Avenger Prof. John Boyer of Virginia Tech emphasized that you can create engagement and knowledge retention even with classes of 3000 people. He creates environments for the students and allows them to develop them around current political topics. From his lecture you can easily see that his methods are un-orthodox but highly effective for some students. It allows the millenials to engage in technology that they know well and integrate learning into their daily routine rather than setting aside time to read an out of date book.

I personally see Prof. Boyer’s as a hybrid model which is a way for traditional schools to incorporate new ideas but it may have long term scale issues. Will his model have any effect on the for-profit sector? Probably not, he is still dealing with the traditional learner who is able to get into a school like Virginia Tech to begin with.

From the various discussions it is also clear that technologies like the iPad are being heavily integrated into the K-12 space. Book content for these devices is available but doesn’t take full advantage of the capabilities of the device. Many people in the audience also felt that just taping lectures and putting them online was not sufficient. Without the interactivity the concept of online delivery is faulted.

Is there a clear guide to online delivery? Not yet. I think the reason that people don’t understand what they want to deliver online is rooted in the fact that they are not sure if their core metrics around institution quality are still valid.

Is a person’s measure of knowledge based on his or her grades or his or her ability to digest a topic and effectively argue for or against it? Lastly, how does all this relate back to the brand? I don’t get a feeling that the Harvards of the world want everyone to be a Harvard alumni.

Even though the masses think that college is too expensive, there will always be a population that is willing and able to pay for a premium brand. The larger debate is that does everyone need or want a higher education? Without a clear consensus on this you will not see any major government reform in the near future for this sector.

One thing that was not really covered at SXSW was how employers will deal with all these new education platforms. If you were hiring a fresh college grad that only took classes with 3k people in them, would you be concerned about the quality of their education? If a person took relevant clases on a site like how would you asses their knowledge within organization?

In the next 12 months, I strongly recommend trying out sites like and The educating sector is ripe for a massive restructuring.

SkillShare – Why Brands clutter the value prop

SkillShare was named one of 6 startups to watch in 2012 by Mashable. Mashable is notorious for making lists but one site on there interested me quite a bit.

SkillShare is like a mashup of KhanAcademy and It intends to help teach people a variety of skills in local live settings by “experts.”  The interesting thing is that the experts are not vetted in any way, but I could see this model becoming huge. People are hungry to learn, especially things they are passionate about.

But what happens if you needed to learn something for your job like advanced excel functions. Lets say there is a course on SkillShare in your city. You take the course, learn the material and master it. Now how do you prove this to your employer or potential employer?

Skillshare will spread like wildfire since it has a large social component which I think will mimic Spotify. EG – it is always posting to your Facebook profile saying what courses are following, subscribed to and will allow you to invite friends.

The manifesto on the skillshare site takes direct aim at the higher education market saying it is broken because it costs too much and just gives them a piece of paper.  They never seem to answer how skillshare can help you get a job in a more efficient manner than a college degree.

I am digressing from my main point, people love these simple models of learning. The value of learning a tangible and/or passionately oriented skill is apparently more valuable than getting a formal degree to many. Maybe I should revise that statement. I don’t think anyone would discount the value of a Harvard degree, but people may not see as much value in a for profit education degree. Why is that?

I think it is partially due to the fact that people falsely associate an image to a brand which they have no experience with. Their brand impressions are usually derived from popular media and friend circles. How many of us have actually compared a course at Harvard versus a course at a school like University of Phoenix? We have no basis for our judgement. However, when we get something that is unbranded and immediately delivered like a SkillShare course we find satisfaction much quicker.

In the case of SkillShare the lack of a brand teaching you something apparently helps the people choose courses just based on convenience and level of interest. I can see in the near future people opening “channels” on SkillShare and trying to develop a brand. This might be the wrong way to go. Keeping things generic allows people to judge quality just based on the content, not the teacher, not the tests, not the alumni network. And most importantly the judgement comes from personal experience.

It will be interesting to see how SkillShare evolves, but let this be a reminder that providing high quality services and products is more important than any social strategy or branding statement.