Learning Graph + Reputation Graph = Massive Disruption in Higher Ed?
Here’s an outline of a thesis I’m working on that was also my suggested topic for my application to speak at TEDxSFED:
Higher education is on the brink of massive disruption right now. The “cost” of learning has never been less expensive as the Web is flooded with amazing content, tutorials, discussion boards and more. At the same time the cost of credentials (i.e. degrees) is sky-high (out-state tuition alone at a UC school is now $35,000/year…that’s for a public school!) and rising at a rate of 8% per year. The disconnect between these two feels quite unsustainable. So what could be the disruptive factor in this space? In my opinion, the combination of a learning graph and a reputation graph could massive disrupt higher education as we know it.
First, let’s define a learning graph. I think I first came across the term on Kirsten Winkler’s blog. In my mind, a learning graph is the roadmap of all of the things we’ve ever learned. But more than simply a “check the boxes” listing of all the concepts we’ve studied and mastered, it’s a dynamic and fluid measure that includes the rate at which we learned specific things, when we learned them and how much difficulty we encountered along the way. The usable end product of the learning graph would be a dashboard where anyone could abstract the data to end up with clean and concise view of what a person knew and their relative level of mastery.
Sound like Sci-fi? There are a host of people working on building on the learning graph right now. Early pioneers in the space included companies like DreamBox Learning. Recent entrants into the space include Grockit, Knewton and TenMarks (if you have the time, this 7-minute video from Knewton gives a pretty good sense of what the learning graph could look like). Each of these companies is trying to build a platform that will allow students to receive a personalized learning experience that is tracked over time.
Fast forward a bit and you can imagine a university looking at a student’s Grockit or Knewton dashboard when trying to decide whether to admit them to their school. Fast forward a bit more and you can imagine a company looking at a prospective employee’s dashboard to determine whether or not to hire someone. It’s a bit out there but I think it demonstrates the power of the learning graph. In a conversation today with my good friend Ranjit Mathoda he mentioned that if he was trying to figure out how smart someone was one of the first things he would do is find that person’s account on Quora. Indeed, sites like Quora, Stack Overflow, Namesake and others could end up playing major roles in the learning graph.
So why is a learning graph so important and potentially disruptive? I think a major reason is that it could eventually replace assessment. After all, if you’re tracking everything a person is learning the notion of stopping to test them on a particular piece of knowledge seems less important. In fact, it seems like the only real reason we need to test is to track how much a person has learned. The learning graph threatens to put an end to testing and assessment as we know it.
And why that’s disruptive is that educational institutions derive much of their power (and hence, their ability to charge large sums of money) from their ability to assess. Pop quizzes, mid-terms, final exams…it is these things that make school today what it is. But what would the world look like without discrete testing and assessment? Well, my feeling is that in such a world it might matter less where you went to school. Or even whether you went to school at all…
But wait, before we get too far ahead it’s important to realize some potential failings of the learning graph. It can’t measure everything. It does an especially poor job of assessing the “soft skills”. Is someone a good communicator? Are they creative? Do they work well within a team? The learning graph doesn’t tell us much here. I might be able to see from someone’s Quora account that they know a lot about entrepreneurship. Would I want to start a company with them? Not necessarily.
Education, especially at the post-secondary level provides a strong filtering and sorting mechanism for society. There’s a reason why some companies will only hire Ivy League graduates. And it’s a big part of why the top schools have incredible pricing power. But what if you could develop an alternative signaling mechanism that rivaled or even eclipsed what schools currently do? I think that’s precisely what the reputation graph could become. It’s still way early but I could see the reputation graph ultimately playing a very important role in decision-making about people.
Neither the learning graph nor the reputation graph alone could disrupt higher education. However when you put both together things start to get really interesting. The learning graph gives someone great insight into what you’ve learned throughout your time in school. In fact, it probably does a better job than GPA or any of the other rudimentary measures we use today. The reputation graph helps to dramatically strengthen the sorting and filtering piece of the puzzle. It gives us insight into who is the smartest, the most creative, strong communicators, best team players and so forth. Put those two things together and you start to question whether degrees are even important. At a minimum, we can envision a world in which the power of the degree is dramatically weakened.
Just to be clear, a built-out learning graph + reputation graph scenario is many, many years away. But I think it’s interesting to start to talk about what that might look like. To follow the companies who are potentially building the learning graph and those that are playing a role in the building of the reputation graph. And of course this is an over-simplification of matters. Schools serve many other roles (not the least of which is providing a social network for each of its students) and it would be foolish to argue that they’ll be going away anytime soon.
Instead what I see rising up are alternative ways to prove to the marketplace that you’re competent and credible. Historically, universities have had an almost monopolistic grip on that (especially for younger people). I think we’re moving into a world with much more diverse mechanisms for determining who truly is a rock star. And I think that’s actually a very good thing.