Friday, November 11, 2011

From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg – scale matters

Bend it, shape it, anyway you want it but at some point you have to scale it. At the world summit on education WISE 2011 I heard a lot of talk on scalability. A problem was the failure to address the real meaning of the word and the various species of scalability. Until we truly understand scalability, education and training will remain the world’s biggest cottage industry. Teachers are not scalable. Classrooms are not scalable. When good practice is tied to both of these, it is prevented from becoming scalable. Tied to the tyranny of location and time, learning’s stuck in non-scalable boxes. But guess what, technology is scalable. So where do you put your effort and money?

Non-scalable learning
We have physical things, like teachers and buildings that are simply not scalable. Every new teacher, lecturer, trainer and building costs the same or similar amount as the previous one. Yet this remains the dominant mantra among many politicians and educational commentators – we simply need more teachers, trainers, lecturers, schools, colleges, universities.

Scalable (physically replicable)
Some physical things, like books (everyone forgets these are a form of technology) are printable therefore scalable. Moveable type and printing was the ‘technological’ Gutenberg revolution that massively accelerated learning through scalable learning content. Books are scalable in terms of being cheaply replicable.

Scalable (amplification)
Radio and television, as broadcast media are scalable in terms of reach. In poor countries radio remains a powerful tool for learning, as it was in the Australian Outback for many years. Similarly with TV. This is ‘one to many’ scalability.

Scalable (replicable ideas)
Ideas are scalable if they can be disseminated and copied by word of mouth and print. Yet innovative theory and practice remains patchy if the recommendations themselves are not scalable. The problem is often the institutional resistance and ‘not invented here’ tendencies. Education is a slow learner and ideas are not at all viral.

Scalable (digitally replicable ideas)
Ideas and content can be massively replicated at little or no cost in the Zukerberg age. It’s bits not atoms. Digital replication has led to a digital reformation and an age of digital abundance. This is the only real, scalable solution, especially for ideas, but also for content; digital replication at zero cost across the entire globe. Even for communication and collaboration, the other important dimension in learning, the only real scalability comes through technology.

Scalable (digitally replicable and free)
The most scalable ideas are not only digital but free. Wikipedia and Moodle are two good examples. Wikipedia gained its scalability through crowdsourcing, Moodle through open source development and community. This is the most bountiful form of scalability.

Mosquitos v Tortoises
Most research projects in learning are non-scalable and have short lives. The live and they die. Some, however, have the longevity of tortoises and can live for decades, even hundreds of years. Scalable innovations include Janet/Superjanet, Open University, University of Phoenix, Wikipedia, Moodle.

What do these successful innovations in learning share? Scalability through technology. From Gutenbeg to Zuckerberg, replication, first at low cost, than at no cost is the key to low cost education and training.


Dick Moore said...

Donald I could not agree more, ideas and technologies that scale have the potential to deliver "personalized learning" by which I am not referring to providing digital assets in your favorite color and telling you the weather outside your window!

Architecture and non-functional requirements like scaleability, serviceabilty, maintainability ... are pre-requisites for always on.

Once that is achieved the unit cost of shipping bits drops to pence with sufficiently large enough numbers.

As a thought experiment if you had the budget of Battle Field2 or MW3 what kind of literacy course could you produce and what would it cost to deliver it to 10 million non-readers. BTW I am not suggesting that you would use XBOX to do this more e-readers ;)

Mark Berthelemy said...

Hi Donald,

I agree totally that we should be taking more advantage of the scalability of content delivery.

But learning isn't all about delivering content.

It also includes human<>human interaction such as questioning, challenging, encouraging, interpreting. These things are difficult to replace with technology - at least in the flexible, responsive and multi-purpose way that a good teacher can operate. Even the OU has tutors, and wouldn't be able to operate without them.

I'd like to understand your thoughts on that, because I'm trying to work out my thinking around virtual schools in the UK.