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Tesla, 'Insane Mode', and Online Education

What the battery-powered transportation transition tells us about the digital learning revolution.

January 1, 2019
 
 

Insane Mode: How Elon Musk's Tesla Sparked an Electric Revolution to End the Age of Oil by Hamish McKenzie

Published in November of 2018.

I think about electric cars in the same way that I think about low-cost online education.

Someday, electric cars will replace internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Electric cars will be better than gas-powered cars in every way.  They will be cheaper to build and more reliable (many fewer parts), less expensive to run (electrons costing less than gasoline), and better for the environment.  Not to mention more fun to drive.

Just as electric vehicles will someday change the automotive game, educational technologies will at some point shift almost everything in higher education. Educational technologies will untie the Gordian Knot that binds quality, cost, and access.  Low-cost online education will one day enable high quality and affordable postsecondary programs.

That day, however, is not today.  Electric cars and edtech remain more promise than reality.   This is a painful admission for a card-carrying battery transportation fanboy, and for someone who has spent his entire career in online learning.

The choice to buy an electric car means trading off things like price and range for other less tangible benefits. Technologies, when applied to education, have mostly over-promised and under-delivered.  Battery propulsion and edtech are great complements to cars and education, but so far they are poor substitutes.

Or maybe this is all wrong.

Reading Insane Mode has me questioning what I think I know about the near future of electric vehicles. And if I’m wrong about battery-powered cars, could I be equally wrong about low-cost online education?

McKenzie, a tech journalist and short-time employee of Tesla, makes three big arguments in Insane Mode.

His first argument, which I find persuasive, is that electric cars are superior to ICE vehicles. (And Tesla’s are particularly superior).  Not only are battery-powered cars greener, they more reliable and more fun to drive than their gas-powered counterparts.  Ultimately, electric cars will be cheaper to build and maintain than gas cars, owing to the combination of less complexity and fewer parts and subsystems.

That electric cars are superior will come as no surprise to every Tesla, Bolt, and Leaf owner. Or any of us who have ever fantasized about owning one of these electric vehicles.

Keeping with the online learning theme, it is also true that in some circumstances digitally mediated online courses are superior to face-to-face classes.  Give me a well designed low-residency master’s program over its face-to-face counterpart every time. High-quality online education, however, is expensive to produce.  I have no trouble seeing how online education is more flexible and convenient than face-to-face learning.  My difficulty comes in understanding how online education can be less expensive.

The second big argument made in Insane Mode is that while the e-vehicle revolution may have started in California, that the future of electric cars will be determined in China. Insane Mode is at its best when describing the electric vehicle market in China. The discussion of the focus (and capital) that Chinese companies (in close cooperation with the government) are bringing to producing battery-powered vehicles is eye-opening.

The electric vehicle market in China today resembles the US automobile ecosystem in the early part of the 20th century. The market has yet to consolidate among a few large players. Tens, if not hundreds, of companies, are pouring money and talent into designing and manufacturing electric vehicles. China, with its horrible pollution, is in desperate need of a clean transportation alternative.

I find the argument that China will leapfrog the West to mass adoption of electric vehicles plausible, but not entirely convincing. Gas powered cars can be made cheaply.  China remains a relatively poor country.  The desire of hundreds of millions of newly middle-class Chinese for automotive mobility will continue to drive demand for affordable vehicles. Until battery technology advances, cheap mobility still means gas.

Is there a China electric vehicle equivalent for online learning? Some force on the periphery of our edtech vision that will ultimately prove transformative? Alternative online credentials may be a good bet. So would AI driven e-learning customization delivered at scale.

The final argument that McKenzie makes in Insane Mode is that the changeover to battery-powered vehicles will come much faster than almost everyone suspects. The reason is batteries.  At battery cell prices of $100 per kilowatt-hour, electric vehicles will achieve cost parity with gas-powered cars.  The exact cost for Tesla’s batteries are unknown, but estimates for the Model 3 are around $190/kWh.  At the current estimated rate of improvement, batteries will hit the $100 per kilowatt-hour by 2023.

Could that be right? Could electric cars be cheaper to produce than gas cars in less than five years?

An analogous argument in edtech would be that low-cost online programs, such as Georgia Tech’s $10,000 master’s programs, will largely supplant expensive residential graduate programs by 2023.

Both batteries and scaled online learning are getting better.  But are they getting better that quickly?

The physics of batteries and the social physics of learning seem to argue against electric cars and scaled online learning replacing incumbents any time soon.  Gas engines and physical campuses seem to have more staying power than automotive and educational disrupters want to admit.

Still, we may be arguing about when rather than if.

Just as incumbent automotive companies would be crazy to ignore the eventual transition to batteries, universities would be equally shortsighted to ignore online learning.  This is particularly true for masters degrees, where the combination of online education and non-traditional credentials will put many traditional face-to-face degree programs at extreme risk.

Anyone fascinated with electric vehicles in general, and the Tesla story in particular, will enjoy Insane Mode.

For those curious about how dominant practices get supplanted by new technologies, Insane Mode may provide useful lessons that can be applied outside of transportation.

Insane Mode has me questioning some of my transportation assumptions.  If I’m wrong about when the changeover to electric cars will occur, maybe I’m equally wrong about the future of low-cost online education.

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