Friday, October 23, 2009

Future is free

Reading Chris Anderson’s book FREE – The Future of a Radical Price, makes one think that these powerful principles could be applied in education and training.

Phase 1 – Free knowledge

In fact, it already has. In 1991 the encyclopedia industry was worth an astonishing $1.2 billion, Britannica being the market leader with sales of $650 million. In 1993, Encarta was launched for $99 and in the same year Britannica laid off its door-to-door sales force. Within 3 years Britannica had dropped to $300 million and the overall encyclopedia market had shrunk to $600 million, of which Encarta had $100 million. So a cheaper price not only revolutionised this market, it decimated the market. Along came Wikipedia and the market shrunk again, with Encarta canned completely in 2009. The end result is a market where the cost to the learner is ZERO. However, the availability of free encyclopedic knowledge base, that is bigger, better, broader, in more languages than ever before won the day.

The really interesting economic point is that the real money that would have been spent on expensive sets of rarely read Encyclopedias, can be spent elsewhere. It’s redistributed. We as customers get to keep our money a well as getting a better product.

Phase 2 – Free teacher created content

Now that lectures are being recorded, and distributed, often for free through YouTube EDU, iTunes U, Open Learn, MIT Courseware and others, anyone can have access to this level of instruction. See previous post. The advantages are obvious. In fact these recorded lectures, are in the end better than their live originals in all sorts of ways supported by the psychology of learning.

Google and its many services has also given us access to a wealth of resources, especially in searchable print. Project Gutenberg and others have given us hundreds of thousands of free books. You pretty much get an answer to any question you pose.

Phase 4 – Free formative teaching

This is the tricky one, but formative feedback is improving greatly in online content, especially in simulations and games. There’s plenty of evidence to show that many learning tasks can be completed without teacher intervention. It’s simply a matter of designing top class content.

Live teaching is not a necessary condition for learning. In fact it can be a condition for stopping learners from learning. If e can take some magical motivational dust from games and other media and apply it to learning, we’ll make great gains.

Phase 4 – Free accreditation

At some time in the future, the technology will be able to provide free assessment. Let’s face it, current types of assessment in education and training are often fairly crude. It’s no great stretch of the imagination for it to be largely automated.

The first problem is unique identification. Iris scanning, fingerprints, digital photographs and other cheap techniques will make this very cheap.

As for delivery, the online delivery of assessments, which avoid leaks, can be varied from person to person and really does provide high quality assessment, is already possible.

This frees people up to take the assessment when they’re ready, and not just when it’s convenient for the organisation. It’s about attainment not attendance.

I’m free

I, for one, am already a ‘free learner’. I don’t go on courses, don’t use teachers, yet learn daily online (and offline). I know from the many other people I encounter online that we all read, click on links, use reference material, do academic research, email, blog, Facebook, Tweet to improve our knowledge and skills. The future is free.


Michelle Gallen said...

Great post. Think I'll have to forward it to a few folks I was chatting with in Belfast today.

I accidentally left my iPhone at home while I went on a day business trip to England.

This plunged me into an experience I can only describe as primitive.

I had to negotiate a 16 hour journey (3 cars, 2 coaches, 2 planes and 6 trains) without ANY mapping or Internet services. I wasted time, got frustrated, and was mostly anxious (just with stupid stuff like 'is this train going in the right direction for me?).

But the worst thing was the boredom. I spent £5 on a 'high-brow' magazine that I hoped would stave off the boredom while waiting around for my connections.

Mistake. In less than an hour I'd read it. Everything. Including all the articles I wasn't interested in. I couldn't 'click deeper' to learn more about the stuff I was interested in, or get more info on the stuff I knew nothing about.

All I could think about was the information I could access for free online if I'd had my phone, or the amazing stuff I'd buy for a fiver in the apps store.

Yesterday just underlined to me how dead print is for me. And the fact that I should simply get my mobile surgically attached to my left hand so I never feel so bereft of information and learning again!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your article. The future of Encyclopaedia Britannica looks gloomy. Wikipedia, with a 97% share of the online encyclopedia market, has forced Microsoft to shut down Encarta. How long will it be before Wikipedia claims the prize scalp of Encyclopaedia Britannica?

It will be interesting to see if Encyclopaedia Britannica survives, but recent indications do not look good. It is the combination of a) the success of Wikipedia and b) improved search engines that has put financial pressure on Encyclopedia Britannica over recent years. Many libraries, schools & individuals are questioning the need to pay for sets of expensive books, or to subscribe to Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, when the content is free on the internet, and much more comprehensive.

Over the next year or so we will see the continued demise of Britannica as it becomes ever less relevant in a free market environment.

Seb Schmoller said...


Something that stuck in my mind from the talk by Sugata Mitra that I heard earlier this month was his call for "a curriculum based on questions not content", with, oversimplifying, learners 'left to get on with finding the answers on the Internet'. One point Mitra made in the talk is the importance of learners not working alone, certainly when children.

And Mitra has some interesting if quite "quirky" ideas about how to provide formative/motivational feedback - including the use of "grannies". His bullet point view of the future of effective learning was:
* subsidised Internet access and electricity in every school;
* self organised fault tolerant technology;
* support for self organised learning environments as part of teacher training;
* "clouds" of mediators as part of the teaching workforce;
* self-organised learning sessions as a part of school timetables;
* a curriculum based on questions not content;
* self organised assessment systems.

I think this all links back to a point you picked up previously (in a posting about the importance of questions) from Dylan Wiliam's keynote talk in 2007 at the ALT conference: "Learners create learning. Teachers create the conditions under which learning can take place." The transcript of the talk is here as a 75 kB PDF.


D Needlestone said...

Great post. There are so many divergences from this discussion, here are a few points that came to mind.
Learning - I teach A-level Computing to 6th formers. I have struggled to teach some complex topics but have found amazing videos from US Universities explaining the topics better than I ever could. Only problem is getting the students to watch them!

Open Source Software - Could this eventually evolve similarly?

Wikipedia - Is ever improving and an amazing reference but still has lots of information that is unreferenced. I know articles that reference articles that reference wikipedia.