All Commentary
Thursday, January 31, 2013

Ubiquity U: The Rise of Disruptive Learning


Editor’s Note: This article is just one way FEE is celebrating National School Choice Week, January 27February 2. Even if policy change comes slowly, we want to challenge readers to look for creative ways to circumvent bloated, sclerotic systems in primary, secondary, and higher education.  
Tax-funded systems of education face the end of an era. Soaring tuition costs and student loan burdens are crushing household budgets. Students steeped in social networks and entertainment-rich media skip or tune out in class. In an era of torrential change, moreover, what students do retain—perhaps 20 to 30 percent—is likely to be outdated within a year or two of graduation. 
Traditionally, tax-funded schools have held out the prospect that stable careers await those who endure thousands of days of instructor-led classes. Yet this prospect too is fading. We can see glimmers of this future in the gales of creative destruction worldwide. Forces transforming the labor markets of developed economies include:
  • technologies that enable firms to replace even high-cost service employees, allowing them to radically downsize workforces; 
  • a growing downdraft in salaries and wages for those employed in service and manufacturing industries due to the entry of China and India into the global market;
  • burgeoning free markets for freelancers, with eBay-style reputation ratings and “reverse auction” systems that let users hire top talent at a tenth or less of former costs; and
  • a move to “DIY” solutions that enable households to increasingly self-provide food, energy, and (soon) industrial goods through 3D printers.
Millions of people, in consequence, are seeing once-stable career paths in the corporate world or public-sector organizations come to an end. Current educational monopolies are doing little to help graduates prepare for an entrepreneurial economy with vast “anytime, anywhere” resources for lifelong learning. And they’re not acting quickly enough to adapt.
As old prospects for careers and sinecures fade, young people from poor and middle-class households are choosing to avoid expensive tuitions and student debt for degrees that no longer lead to jobs. Tax-funded universities are especially at risk as student enrollment starts to fall. Moves to maintain or expand taxpayer subsidies to higher education, as the number of tuition-paying students dwindles, would amount to welfare for the rich, as their children have higher levels of university acceptance. 

The Rise of Entrepreneurial Disruptors

Entrepreneurial challengers are now spreading low-cost innovations that can bring new learning opportunities within reach of all, even as fiscal strains grow in public schools and universities.
On-demand learning. The Khan Academy, MIT, Stanford, Yale, and dozens of their peers now offer a total of many thousands of hours of free lessons online for undergraduate and graduate level courses. These are available on an “anytime, anywhere” basis to students and job-seekers around the world.
Online tutors and teaching assistants. Falling bandwidth costs and the emergence of Skype are enabling personalized, one-on-one tutoring (often by highly skilled, low-cost entrepreneurs in developing countries) at all levels of education.
Growth of peer-learning networks. Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ are connecting almost a billion people in online communities of interest and practice. 
New credentialing systems. Open source pioneers such as Mozilla (creator of the Firefox browser) are introducing “open badging” as a way for online learners and peer learning groups to demonstrate mastery in areas of knowledge.   
As competition drives down communication costs across the planet, every place can become—as needed—a world-class classroom.

Fast-Forward: Vignettes of a Revolution

Let’s jump ahead to September 2016. As the new school year begins, entrepreneurial learning providers are overturning educational monopolies. Here are some imagined vignettes from this sort of future:
A coalition of learning entrepreneurs and education reformers this week invited college and high school students across the country to record, using their phones, unsatisfying lectures—and to transform the most boring of them into effective online learning resources. A newly launched “Gold from Garbage” YouTube channel, sponsored and supported by, seeks to attract hundreds of thousands of students each month to select the most dismal classes. Each student in the five classes voted as most dull will receive a small condolence prize. The second round of prizes will go to students around the world who research the topics ostensibly covered in the least engaging lectures and prepare brief videos or animations that impart the knowledge in a stimulating and accurate way. The top-rated eLessons will each earn their creators a prize of $200 and inclusion in the online curriculum of a newly launched online educational venture, inspired by Joseph Lancaster’s nineteenth-century peer learning innovations . . .
A for-profit charter school has announced plans for radically realigning the incentives offered by public schools. The new NETS learning venture will welcome students in at-risk communities as co-owners of their schools and their associated virtual learning ventures. For students and parents alike, the size of their shareholding—and annual dividend distributions—will be linked to measurable gains in overall skills during the previous year by the students and to the success of each student’s chosen peer groups in gaining skills and/or in staying out of trouble. “Such an approach will align the near-term, as well as long-term, interests of students and their families with individual and group learning success,” said NETS venture founder . . .
The Uplift Academy Partnership has announced a new land grant endowment for learning in Sacramento. Over the past year, the partnership provided Personal Learning Networks to re-skill job-seekers in 100 households, delivering on-demand learning, work-study projects, and “open badge” certifications. The learning partnerships helped unemployed participants launch startups, find jobs, and deliver projects in online freelance markets, in return for a 3 percent share of their earnings for the next five years. In today’s announcement, the Academy offered to release its contingent compensation claims on future earnings in return for a land grant by the municipality. The site, consisting of idle, municipally owned properties at the heart of a new economic revitalization zone, will endow an Uplift Partnership Community Land Trust to improve living and working conditions. The Personal Learning Networks will be funded via land development revenues from leasing . . . 
Grameen Bank is extending the microfinance revolution to education. It is now partnering with Singapore’s global initiative to spread free ports and special economic zones—“little Singapores”—on a success-sharing basis to endow grassroots microscholarship funds. The funds will cover the costs of Internet and cell phone access to the resources of global distance learning networks and universities. The rising land values, plus a share of revenues from associated green-card-style visas, will fund eLearning and online certification opportunities at no cost to people in sponsoring countries. Privately funded development of the new “world cities” will be done on a build-operate-transfer concession basis, conveying assets to microvoucher funds for eLearning and eHealthcare . . .


Although actual scenarios for disruptive learning ventures have yet fully to play out, disruptions are coming to tax-subsidized education. Virtual tools—in the form of anytime/anywhere learning, peer learning through social networks, and affordable credentialing systems—will enable billions who have been ill-served by legacy schools and universities to choose alternatives. For the first time, world-class learning opportunities are coming within reach for everyone on the planet. 

  • Mark Frazier is cofounder and President of Openworld Inc. (, a nonprofit group specializing in learning innovations and free zones in impoverished areas.  He is a graduate of Harvard University and a past publisher and managing editor of Reason magazine.