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About a year ago I blogged that I was trying to "sell" an idea to a venture capitalist. The experiment involved asking publicly (here) if a venture company would give me 5% equity in a start-up for doing nothing but describing a good idea. For qualified investors, I would describe the idea, and if the first said no, I would work my way down the list. About a dozen investors with varying resources and experience asked to hear the idea.

It shouldn't be possible to sell an unpatented idea because the world rewards execution, not ideas. Everyone has good ideas. Good ideas have no economic value. But this particular idea seemed special, at least to me. It's a lever-that-moves-the-world type of thing. Could this particular idea have been an exception?

Two highly qualified investors heard my idea and both liked it enough to want to pursue it. The first gentleman wanted more time to study the opportunity before committing, and he couldn't say how long that might take. So with his permission, I moved to the second investor. The second investor ran it by his board and everyone liked the idea a lot. But before I could sign the investment documents, the investor backed out because of unrelated business events that were going to absorb his company for some time.

During the time I was shopping that idea around, I was writing my new book that comes out October 22nd (How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big) and working with partners on an entirely different start-up that also launches in beta this month. I was stretched thin. And so the best and most important idea I have ever had has been sitting on a shelf.

I decided to free it today, and maybe make the world a better place.

The Karma Hypothesis is that releasing this idea to the world will put me in a good position with the universe when my book comes out and my start-up launches in beta any day now. I could use some good luck. And if karma isn't a real thing, I hope the idea will make the world a better place because I'm part of that too.

What follows is the idea I tried to sell. I hope someone implements it.

The idea is to combine online education with evolution and capitalism. Give me a minute to explain.

Imagine you take any standard education class and break the lessons into small, well-defined chunks. If the class is geometry, for example, one chunk might be a lesson on the Pythagorean Theorem and nothing else. These chunks would be standardized and published on a platform that allows anyone to "teach" that chunk. Simply submit your video lesson to the marketplace the same way an author submits work to Amazon.com (only easier). Over time, the best "chunks" of lessons get voted to the top. That way a student could take a geometry course that is taught by dozens of different teachers, one best-chunk at a time.

What's in it for the teachers of these chunks is a piece of the action, the same way Amazon pays authors and publishers. The teacher who has the most hits on a chunk of lesson becomes a best seller and makes a fortune. The fiftieth best teacher for that same chunk makes next to nothing.

I won't fully define the revenue model here, but I'm assuming that corporate training would be the biggest money-maker at first. For public education, the system would act as a paid tutor substitute at first, to supplement traditional classes. As online education starts to outperform human teaching (a trend that has already started) then the revenue model might change to public funding in some areas and a complete replacement of physical classes. For now, don't get hung up on the revenue model; there are several ways to go with that, including an advertising model.

As a student, you might prefer learning from different instructors and in different ways than normal folks. If you don't like the geometry course as it is taught by the creators of the best-selling chunks, you can weave your way through the course using other filters. For example, you might have one preferred instructor who doesn't rank high but you prefer his style. You could follow his chunks through the course. Or if you don't understand a particular lesson chunk, you could quickly sample some other instructors to see the same topic chunk from other angles. Everyone has a different learning style. Some students might want chunks with more repetition, more visual aids, or more auditory reinforcement. Once you find what works for you, you can filter your online classes for that style.

You would also be able to select instructors based on how well students who watched their lesson chunks performed on standardized tests. That gives students the option of following the most effective teachers even if they aren't best sellers for whatever reason.

Up to now, online learning has been little more than video footage of a teacher doing his thing as if teaching a class in person. Common sense tells you that you would get a better result with a team of developers that included a great writer, a great graphics designer for visuals, and perhaps a professional "reader" of the lesson who has no teaching experience at all but is engaging on camera. This is similar to how books are made now; it often takes a team of researchers, editors, and designers to create one bestselling book. I can tell you that the books I write would be quite shitty if the only way you could experience them was watching me on camera reading my first drafts. That's what online teaching looks like now. Imagine how good each lesson chunk could someday be if crafted by a team of experts and allowed to compete with all other lesson chunks for the same best seller spot. Think of it as rapid evolution for ideas on how to teach particular topics. The fittest ideas would survive and climb to the top.

I also imagine that the system would not have the normal copyright protection for intellectual property. Teachers would be free to steal ideas from competitors and improve upon them. That's what would make the system evolve so quickly. The good stuff would be copied immediately.

I imagine this system as an online platform for education that is in some ways similar to Amazon, at least in scope and depth. For the first several years you could expect the online courses to be somewhat worse than in-person classes. Still, there would be an economic value at the early stage because people can't always attend classes in person. Over time, better and better online learning chunks would evolve as motivated teams of developers try for best sellers. You would also have quirky loners creating homemade videos of lesson chunks and in some cases totally nailing it. They would become stars the way book authors sometimes emerge from obscurity. Teachers would become celebrities.

How good could online training become compared to live teachers? My guess is that it could be about three times more effective in the long run. Remember, you're comparing the best online classes in the world to the average physical classroom. It doesn't take much evolving for the best of one thing to be better than the average of another. Experience tells us that online education will someday surpass even the best in-person classrooms. My model of a lesson chunk marketplace gets you there faster, and probably better.

One of the biggest weaknesses of online teaching now is the notion that the person on camera needs to be a professional teacher. That seems limiting. Some students might respond best to a younger person with charisma who has no teaching background but is good on camera. Some students might prefer male teachers and some might prefer female. What I'm saying is that the existing model of plucking a favorite teacher from Stanford and filming him yacking leaves a lot of potential behind. What are the odds that this one teacher's personality and approach is a fit for most students?

Now imagine that someday traditional college degrees become obsolete. Perhaps in the future someone trusted such as Warren Buffett could define the class chunks that in his opinion form the perfect business education. A student could graduate with a "designer degree" that is, in effect, the Warren Buffett Business Degree. Employers would salivate over someone with that training.

One can imagine layering on all kinds of features to this online teaching system. I might want to chat with other students taking the same courses, or I might want to arrange study dates with locals. Assume all of those features are part of the system.

This idea is a lever that moves the world because education is the single most important driver of the economy. A little bit of improvement in education is a huge deal. The evolving-chunk marketplace for classes could get us a lot of improvement over the next decade. It could be a real game-changer. And given the skyrocketing cost of college, this could be a big deal for narrowing the income inequality gap.

So that's my idea. Please steal it.

And if you enjoy looking at things in new ways, you might like my new book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. The Wall Street Journal did a good job on an excerpt that is getting a lot of attention this week. And you can pre-order here.


[Note: Khan Academy is the opposite of the idea I just described. It's great in its own way, but pretty much the opposite of the open system where everyone can teach. The same is true for most of the comments I see about it "already being done."]
 
 
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Nov 4, 2013
I think this is youtube...except that the teacher gets paid less than the google - but still enough that people who like teaching do provide content. Good content.
 
 
Oct 24, 2013
Scott, thanks for opening up the idea. Check out this blog on today's NY Times which talks about an (old) teaching style called Mastery Learning which has new feasibility because video lessons free up a teacher from giving just one lecture at a time.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/23/in-flipped-classrooms-a-method-for-mastery/
 
 
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 23, 2013
In its basis, I think it is an exciting idea, and certainly one that is heart-warming. Education really makes for a better world.

As with any idea, though, it needs to be challenged to make it hardened. Here's a few concerns I have:

- Voting is quite a terrible way to try to get the "best" class on top. There is a danger of the most attractive, funny, or "easy" teacher always winning. Take a look at your Facebook feed to see funny cats winning over world-important news.

- If teachers are surrounded by a pro team to make for a well-recorded session, wouldn't that mean that the best-funded teachers always win, whilst the quality of the teacher should really be the winning factor? Wouldn't it start a rich getting richer cycle? And why would anyone become a teacher anymore when the winner takes it all?

- Where's the interactivity? Classes consist of more than listening. There's interactivity between students and between students and teachers.

- Where's the legislation part? Education is constrained by a lot of legislation. Adding this on top of traditional schooling for sure is no problem, but replacing traditional schooling alltogether has a lot of legal aspects I imagine.
 
 
Oct 22, 2013
A related idea I would like to see stolen is this:

Micro schools with two or three teachers (More than one is necessary for safety reasons) and a handful of students - who study in a much more relaxed and supportive environment than is possible in a traditional school. This model would be especially helpful for grades 6 to 9. Middle school is the absolute worst place to throw kids during puberty. We lose many kids we don't need to lose.

A microschool teacher might earn $40K/year - not great -but the hours are good. Three teachers would cost $120K. Add 40% for fully-burdened costs - so $168,000. Divide by 30 students - and you have a staffing cost of $5,600/student per year.

That is in-line with what many states spend today - on teacher salaries. Total expenses would be higher, of course. Mid-range per-student spending is around $11,000.

A micro-school could probably manage the rest of its expenses at $162K.

On-line education programs free teachers from needing to be subject matter experts. They need to be child-development experts, helping kids navigate the transition from childhood to adulthood. They can focus on helping them think through the consequences of their decisions, improve their social interactions, etc. From an educational perspective, they would curate the educational process for each student - finding materials that each student finds engaging. There would be requirements to spend at least an hour per day reading (or learning to read if necessary), doing math, writing -etc - but at the students' level. The focus would be on tapping into intrinsic motivation - rather than following the traditional path of threatened punishments and dangled rewards.

I guarantee that, on average, students who read interesting books on a wide range of subjects for an hour per day will perform better on standardized tests than students who spend three hours per day filling out mind-numbing work-sheets - designed to teach the same concepts covered by the books.

If they are following a self-paced math program the natural human desire to progress will propel them forward better than any teacher-devised program. It goes on. For many students, micro-schools could mean the difference between success and failure.

Three teachers could easily manage 30 kids - while providing a high-quality program for them, tailored to the interests of the students. It would be a far more enjoyable learning and teaching environment. Better for all around. It is not an efficient means of delivering education for the majority of students -but it could save many from years of unproductive, under-acheiverdom.
 
 
Oct 21, 2013
I don't read comments, so people might already be saying this. I like the general idea, but how are lessons rated? By the way the students feel afterward? In that case, teaching correct material takes a backseat to teaching with pizzaz. Non-professional teachers might be engaging, but if they are letting common errors into their content, or if they don't take steps to fully explain certain things, they could very well have a misleadingly high rating. If you pay money for an engaging lecture on Physics or business and you are taught incorrect stuff, you were just screwed. And you wouldn't know you were being screwed until...when? You took the test? You made a bad decision for the company?

To avoid all of this, you would have to have a content master watch every video on a particular subject, verifying that the material presented is true. I like Sal and Khan Academy because he is a content master at nearly everything he does, but how does some schmoe get that reputation wit
 
 
Oct 21, 2013
I don't read comments, so people might already be saying this. I like the general idea, but how are lessons rated? By the way the students feel afterward? In that case, teaching correct material takes a backseat to teaching with pizzaz. Non-professional teachers might be engaging, but if they are letting common errors into their content, or if they don't take steps to fully explain certain things, they could very well have a misleadingly high rating. If you pay money for an engaging lecture on Physics or business and you are taught incorrect stuff, you were just screwed. And you wouldn't know you were being screwed until...when? You took the test? You made a bad decision for the company?

To avoid all of this, you would have to have a content master watch every video on a particular subject, verifying that the material presented is true. I like Sal and Khan Academy because he is a content master at nearly everything he does, but how does some schmoe get that reputation wit
 
 
Oct 18, 2013
This is your best startup idea I think. There have got to be hordes of geniuses out there who can individually succinctly explain some particularly difficult notion like say: calculating the moment of combined forces or quant finance or quantum physics or what-have-you in 25 words or less with an apt animated gif, etc. Watching the best ones would be like taking a 'knowledge pill'. You would watch the best one for each subject and just 'get it' without a lot of lectures and paperwork.
 
 
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 18, 2013
To those who think Buffet wouldn't be able to watch videos... that's just narrow thinking. He doesn't need to watch anything, all he needs to do is make the curriculum. The site would take care of "teaching" in each person's preferred style, *that's* what the idea is about.

Perhaps a quiz could be devised to figure out what kind of teaching style each person prefers, kind of like an "auditory, visual, kinesthetic" test. Over time the system could figure out which videos fall into each style and suggest those to new users. In the beginning, have mturk or some clever algorithm rate how much of each aspect the videos use.

I'm so tempted to MVP the hell out of this!
 
 
Oct 18, 2013
@atlantadude, I would agree with you completely if we had the same definition of "merit-based pay."
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 17, 2013
Way back when I was in uni, I learned through a textbook for a linear algebra course, because I couldn't make heads or tails of how the professor taught the course. I learned the material, but when it came time to take the exam, the professor only gave marks if the work I did showed his methodology. I can imagine similar issues for other subjects like history, or science, where a student might think they've covered the material when in fact there are differences that either have the student covering too much material or too little.

At best, I'd see your system as amending to an existing education, like tutoring is. Only the target audience of the Khan Acadamy (ie. the home-schooling crowd) would really benefit.
 
 
Oct 17, 2013
@AtlantaDude, I'm not seeing this awful pay in the Chicago suburbs, even the ones of below average affluence. If a teacher has 20 years of tenure, she is making well over $80k, with very good benefits, a 401K with matching funds, health care, and a good pension for retirement income. Not a bad deal. Principals way out there in the far suburbs are making $125K. Probably more in the affluent communities closer to the city. Not to mention way more weeks off (Spring Break, Christmas Break, Summer, federal holidays, state holidays) compared to a cop or a private sector employee who also greatly benefits the community.

I love teachers. My Mom was one for 25 years. They have some of the most plum jobs compared to others with similar experience and education, who are also very important to society. But teachers should be compensated based on quality, not tenure. They fight tooth and nail when merit is suggested as a compensation tool. They do not want to be ranked against each other like folks in many other professions. That is why the top teachers don't make much more than the average teacher. Disincentive to work harder and be better.
 
 
Oct 17, 2013
@Befuddled.

Price (salary) is set not just by demand, but also by supply. Demand (and respect for) teachers is quite high, but there as yet has not been much problem finding a supply of people willing to do it for the current prices.

Of course, demand for the highest quality teachers is even higher, and the supply of those is much lower. That would result in higher pay for those high-quality teachers (and eventually a larger supply of them as well) but the teachers' own unions tend to block every effort at meaningful merit-based pay.

So, unfortunately, it is the teachers themselves, by aligning with these unions and their pay rules, who are responsible for their own lousy pay.
 
 
Oct 17, 2013
Great idea. Crowdsourcing is awesome when you have enough providers and enough consumers to make the model hum. Your idea is not like Khan Academy, as some say, more like DeviantArt with a commercial angle.

I'm hearing lots about non-college alternatives to education. With my luck it will gain credibility and the costs will go zooming to near-zero right after my kids are through college.
 
 
Oct 17, 2013
When I'm done making money and want to get all philanthropic my idea is FREE accredited online learning for everyone. If a poor inner city kid wants to be an engineer all he needs to do is the work. All you need is the passion to learn, no financial worries & barriers.
 
 
Oct 17, 2013
Here's my world-changing idea. Recognize that teachers are as important to our society as doctors, lawyers, actors and professional athletes, and give them commensurate respect and compensation.
 
 
Oct 17, 2013
Here's my world-changing idea. Recognize that teachers are as important to our society as doctors, lawyers, actors and professional athletes, and give them commensurate respect and compensation.
 
 
Oct 17, 2013
Not an expert, but this sounds a bit like Craftsy.com, except more educational. As I understand Craftsy, it's online teaching classes for, well, crafts. The online lodel works here, I assume, as these are often classes that are somewhat niche so it can be hard to gather an economically viable class in one place.

For that sort of thing, the issue is the free competition from hobbyists and indeed some professionals via YouTube - I've not investigated the online teaching on YouTube, but it would probably be a risk to the model overall
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 17, 2013
I think it's a great idea. It seems to me the essential missing component to all of the non-traditional education delivery system is the development of an independent, respected credentialing mechanism.
If your educational proficiency rested on passing certification independent of the means of acquiring the education then it would open the doors to a whole new world of educational content. (Not unlike bar exams) Kahn Academy seems well positioned to get an independent credentialing authority off the ground.
 
 
Oct 16, 2013
Hey Scott,

This is part of Khan Academy's future vision -- I know right now it looks like it's mostly just Sal churning out videos, but we're already partnering with other teachers and experts besides Sal to produce diverse high-quality content, and one of the most promising ideas is eventually getting the site to a place where we can open it for not just other teachers' lectures and videos, but also to release APIs for developers everywhere to contribute entire learning experiences (education apps, games, exercises, etc). Sit tight! :)
 
 
Oct 16, 2013
This system would work quite well for math and theoretical sciences, but there are some subjects which are still best taught in brick and mortar institutions. Most labs are useless without the hands-on experience, and some science labs use senses other than sight and sound, such as the smell of a substance. I can see a collaboration between physical institutions and online courses to the extent that most lecture happens online, while application happens in class.
 
 
 
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