Beyond Online Education

I have been, admittedly, a constant sceptic of the inflated valuations of online higher education companies. 

Part of the reason is practical: Most online education companies focus much more on sales than creating sustainable institutional structures, looking to create an educational sub-prime. Their aim is often to 'uberise' - commoditise the inherent trust and respect that make an educational community work. That focus on scale, without a proportional attention on the outcome, makes an irresponsible business. Indeed, the Chinese government has recently stepped in to make this precise point.

But there are also other reasons why I think these edtech valuations are frothy and unsustainable. I think the investors misunderstand the nature of education, particularly higher education, and therefore, their estimates about the prospect of online higher ed are wildly wrong. The pandemic was an aberration, when people were forced to stay home; as we return to normal, online education will not eat the world, as the investors are betting on, but will settle into its particular niché, in the lifelong learning and continuing education sector. And, even within this segment, it will be challenged by the renewed popularity of offsites and new and innovative in-person formats, such as day-release degrees and work-based diplomas, and therefore, will fail to deliver the numbers investors are hoping for. Come 2023, it could as well be a bloodbath rather than a payday!

Here is why I think so. The key proposition for most edtech companies has been to deliver at scale. The logic goes something like this: That there is an almost infinite demand for education, particularly among the emerging middle classes. The current 'campus model' can not scale - and online education can use this arbitrage to a massive global opportunity. The students will accept a slightly inferior experience as a trade-off for convenience and access, thereby creating scale. The Amazon moment in higher education is now at hand! 

But this presupposes that more education is a good thing: That students, universities and employers want more people to be educated! But as we all know - more than most, the savvy investors with fancy degrees know - that education is a 'positional' commodity. It's not enough to be educated, one must be better educated than the others! An online proposition that is sales driven and takes all comers, will not attract most takers. If anything, online education will be the sacrificial lamb that will make even the plainest of campus experience look like a luxury thing, and drive the demand for the same.

I am no luddite though: Most of my career was spent in online education in any case. I do think the investment, particularly in the last couple of years, has created much infrastructure, platforms and tools that will continue to get used in education. After the pandemic, the classroom education will look different and hybrid, and greater (pandemic-induced) tech savvy of tutors will result in much greater usage and effectiveness of online content within the context of the classroom. My scepticism only concerns the viability of the investor expectations about wholesale transformation of education. 

In my mind, therefore, this is not the Amazon moment of education; rather, this is its fibre optic moment. The inflated investor expectations during dotcom boom-and-bust helped create the fibre optic infrastructure. When the companies that laid them went bust, the infrastructure was cheaply available for other companies to build on: Many ways, the economics of global services outsourcing, social media and mobile data were built around this massive failure.

There is the well-known story from Joseph Kennedy's Wall Street career: As he stepped out of office for shoe-shine, the shoe-shine boy, recognising him, gave him the tip: "Everyone is buying Sears! You should too!" Rather predictably, he ran back to his office and told all his brokers to sell Sears immediately. I think therein lies an even bigger opportunity: In reimagining the campus all over again, in terms of engagement, experience and content!


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