russellmoenchThe education industry is on the cusp of being massively disrupted by innovation in Web technology. Like other industries prior, it would like to pretend that it can weather the storm and continues business as usual, with only minor tweaking. We all know how that story ends.

It won’t happen immediately, and the path won’t be a direct one. Marketing giants such foreign-language instructor Rosetta Stone will be able to build healthy businesses off of dying trends — i.e., using the Web as a retail store for pre-packaged content — but these models won’t last long. Educational companies that focus on the needs of the publisher rather than the user are no less vulnerable than other media players, and they face a real risk of being made obsolete by more scalable Web-enabled models.

People are already waking up to the fact that they can learn online at a fraction of the cost of traditional means; the next realization is that they might be able to learn better. The U.S. Department of Education, with the help of research organization SRI, just completed a 12-year study on online education that concluded: “On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” This is not yet commonly accepted wisdom, but things are changing quickly.

What makes me so sure web-based instruction will eclipse more traditional methods? Three things: the web offers rich opportunities for collaborative learning, it allows for almost infinite customization, and it’s cheaper than pulling people into a physical classroom.

Cost
The cost incentive for moving online is a no-brainer. When students pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for collegiate tuition in the States, or fifty dollars an hour for a private English instructor in Tokyo, they are paying a heavy “knowledge lumpiness” tax, a tax that disappears when expertise is distributed evenly across a virtual space and when a physical presence in the same place at the same time is no longer a prerequisite to learning.

Forcing people to aggregate is a massive cost inefficiency that people will quickly grow tired of bearing when they realize other options are available.

Collaboration
A massive advantage Web-based learning applications offer is tools for collaboration. The greatest influence in college student’s lives is not parents or teachers — it is their peers. Collaboration tools give students the chance to teach and learn from each other, and they’re going to jump on these tools in the same way they’ve jumped on Facebook and MySpace to construct and interact with their social universe.

Peer-to-peer collaboration enabled by the Web not only dissolves geographic limitations; it also dissolves roles. Everyone has something to offer to someone else within a specific context, and given the proper communication tools, a community can bootstrap itself into higher states of knowledge. Educational experts will likely decry the rise of user-generated learning content, but this barb won’t stick long, as quality control and social standing mechanisms are only going to get more and more sophisticated. Members of online learning communities will seamlessly leap between beginner, enthusiast, and expert, depending on the learning context, and they will be able to find and create content that is more relevant to their lives than anything schools or publishers can provide now.

edufire1One example of an educational company on the cutting edge of this kind of collaboration is eduFire. Founders Jon Bischke and Kareem Mayan want to empower both the educator and the learner by removing geographic boundaries. They feel anyone with knowledge to share has the right to become an “educational entrepreneur,” and anyone who desires to learn should have access to the tutor just right for him or her. To pull this off, they’ve created a marketplace (partial view pictured right) to connect teachers to students, simple payment mechanisms, and a suite of teaching tools (whiteboard, text chat, presentation slides, audio, screen sharing, streaming video) that turn the browser into a virtual classroom for either a private session or a large group.

Customization
Perhaps even more valuable than collaboration is the Web’s ability to bring complete customization to the learning experience. The classroom is by definition an experience of the mean: cut out the outliers at the top and the bottom and deliver the common denominator to those in the middle. It’s hard to do otherwise. Even with a reasonable class size, there’s no way an instructor can be agile enough to teach in different ways simultaneously to students with different backgrounds and interests who learn at different speeds.

But online you can study exactly what you need when you need to. Programs can keep track of what material you’re struggling with and present that material for review more often; moreover, with digital content, you can easily remix and customize learning materials to fit your own requirements and interests exactly. Cut this, skip that, replace this, create that — this kind of personalization is light-years away from the one-size-fits-all approach of the classroom and textbook.

By allowing students to tackle a lot of the nuts-and-bolts learning of facts, principles, rules, and vocabulary outside the classroom, Web-based can enrich the classroom experience by freeing up class time for higher-level and more abstract skills.

For example, an instructor who assigns a set of vocabulary to his or her students will be able to check students’ progress online before class begins. Instructors will easily see how much time each student has spent reviewing words with online tools and will even be able to see how well students know certain words, and which words the class is struggling with. If an instructor is confident that the group has mastered the vocabulary fairly well, classroom time can be spent entirely on, say, role-playing games to prepare for certain situations.

Without knowing the basics—in this example, words—it is hard for students to make progress. But classroom time is at such a premium that it’s a shame to waste it on an activity—vocabulary acquisition—that’s ill-suited for group instruction. Students can tackle this kind of learning far more efficiently with personalized software that adapts to their needs. In this way, they can come to the classroom already armed with the knowledge they need to move forward.

smartfmThis is an area we’re focused on at my own company, Smart.fm. Our training applications (see right) gather metadata on your performance and create a personalized learning schedule.

As with recommendation engines, adaptive learning technology has the potential to transform the way you learn by presenting information just at the right moment when you need to learn it. When you put such technology in mobile platforms such as the iPhone, you have the potential for a radical change in the way people learn.

Online textbook startups such as Flat World Knowledge — which lets you customize textbooks online and is about to make a splash on campuses across America — also promise to increase the customizability and affordability of education.

So what kinds of web-based learning will catch on fastest?
I expect that online learning applications will first provide sharp tools for mastering declarative rather than procedural knowledge — in other words, the learning of facts rather than “know-how”. Technology that teaches know-how requires higher levels of sophistication that will follow later.

I also expect innovation to occur first outside the classroom and school. The best applications will be those that target young, Internet-savvy users with a desire to learn something (it doesn’t really matter if that something is related to school or not). Educational circles are far too conservative to foster the growth of innovative learning technologies; in fact, some will most likely stand arrayed against innovation, lest that innovation start to encroach upon their domains.

Given the above two assumptions, it’s no surprise to see that a number of early next-generation learning sites have a heavy focus on language learning. First of all, language learning is a domain where declarative knowledge, i.e., vocabulary, is incredibly important, so it’s well-suited for software; in addition, the desire to learn a foreign language is a common one that extends well beyond high school or college graduation, so there’s a huge market of young adults outside of the classroom who are looking for an edge to help them master a language.

Beyond satisfying one’s curiosity, the incentive to learn most subjects, from history to anatomy, is quite low. The majority of young adults dive into a subject to stimulate their imaginations, not to master a domain. The exception, though, is language learning. Learning another language has tangible benefits that can hit every part of your life, from your ability to function in a society to advance in your career. This puts language learning in a completely separate, and more important, category from all other forms of continuing education, and I expect it to be where a lot of start-ups will first focus their attention.

chinesepodChinesepod is a great example of an early mover in this space. Looking at the huge population of China, and that country’s equally huge desire to learn English, founder Ken Carrol quickly realized that classrooms could never scale to meet demand, but that teachers could scale via podcasting (pictured right). The casual culture of podcasting means that podcasts can be made quickly and cheaply, and one great podcast of just ten minutes can equate to thousands of hours of learning as subscribers all over the world automatically receive these recording without lifting a finger.

Chinesepod embraces the standard suite of Web tools–podcasts, RSS feeds, blogs, forums, wikis, photos, etc–and has created a dynamic and interactive community based on content created by a small team of charismatic teachers. Their first foray has been into Chinese language learning, but Praxis Language, Chinesepod’s parent, is expanding into other mobile learning areas. They’ve also inspired others, such as Japanesepod101.com, to copy their model and do the same.

Podcasting offers a nice combination of personality and convenience, which is perfect for learning on the move. The bite-sized nature of podcasts also matches a “need-to-know” or “just-in-time” style of learning. Instead of going through generic textbooks and hoping this book learning might one day come in handy, you can grab a podcast that matches the situation you’re just about to enter, such as buying tickets at a travel agency, ordering food at a restaurant, or going on a first date. This level or personalization transforms the way you learn a language.

Numerous other online language learning communities are building out as well — sites such as Livemocha, nciku, and Lang-8.

Together, these companies and other innovators are going to colonize an entirely new market for learning online and on-the-go. The impacts of this revolution are going to hit everyone from teachers and professors to universities and publishers. And how these institutions meet the challenge will define their future role in society.

Russell Moench spent way too much time at university learning languages, including Latin, Ancient Greek, Classical Chinese, Chinese, and Japanese. After graduation, he moved to Japan and taught instructors and designed course curricula at the Princeton Review Japan. He currently works as the Marketing and Community Director for Smart.fm. As one of the primary architects of the Smart.fm site, he’s passionate about creating new and better ways to learn.