Software Will Not Eat Education

Where Andreessen is wrong.

July 9, 2015
“…software is eating the world.”
When it comes to higher education, Marc Andreessen is wrong. Software will never eat higher education.  
Higher education is not like record stores. Not like Blockbuster Video. Not like Kodak. Not like travel agents. 
All of those industries and companies were susceptible to being disrupted because their products and their services could move to software without much of a loss of quality for the customer. Music listening, video watching, picture taking, and trip planning work just fine on a computer or a phone.  
Education is different. Effective education requires a relationship between a highly skilled educator and a learner.  
Teaching at scale (MOOCs), and teaching by simulation (adaptive learning platforms), raises the floor on what constitutes a valuable education.  The days of anyone paying for a transactional model of education are over. Knowledge transfer may be an essential building block for the acquisition of higher order skills, but it is the building block that will be (thankfully) commoditized.
Understanding that the value of an education is directly proportional to the relational content of an education should motivate colleges and universities to take the following steps:
1. Resource The Educators:  
The quality, and hence the value, of the education that you offer is a direct function of the quality of your educators. Scarcity always drives value. Effective teaching is incredibly difficult, and is therefore scarce. An experienced, skilled, and motivated educator is the killer app of higher education. A great professor building a relationship with a student is the educational service that can’t be commoditized. 
Hire enough faculty to have classes small enough so that the professors can get to know the students as individuals. Give these teaching faculty as much autonomy, security, and support as you can. Constantly reaffirm the centrality of your faculty as your most valuable resource. 
Do all this not because this is popular amongst the professors, but because this is your best business strategy for achieving long-term economic viability.  
2. Make Sure That Every Class Is Better Than Software: 
If you have classes on your campus that are no better than MOOCs, no better than an adaptive learning platforms, then you are in trouble. 
Higher ed has been able to get away with indifferently designed and executed large enrollment classes for too long. As long as the students kept moving through the system, and the credits were given, then nobody too much complained. Students avoided some courses, slept through other courses, sought out the few great introductory professors, and generally waited to junior or senior year when (if they were lucky) the really good courses would kick in. Large enrollment classes subsidized small enrollment classes. Class sizes and inputs were driven by economic necessity, not pedagogical demands.
All that is over now. The market is correcting.  Competency-based credentialing will replace seat-time based credentialing. Traditional large enrollment classes that were designed for the benefit of the institution and not the learner will be replaced by credit-bearing open online courses. (See ASU’s Global Freshman Academy). Students, and their families, will pay only for educational experiences that offer real value add. If learning is the new postsecondary differentiator, and quality learning requires investments in educators, where will severely resource constrained institutions get the money? 
It is easy to say that the best economic strategy is to invest in educators. In an environment of declining funding and rising costs, this is a difficult strategy to implement.
The first step, I think, is to be publicly and loudly affirm that software will not eat education.
Is your school investing in its educators?

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Joshua Kim

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