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Technology has democratized learning. Think about life in the middle ages – only nobles and priests could read, in part because books were so expensive to produce. The printing press changed this and enabled the masses to get access to reading material.
Similarly, higher education was once a privilege for the elite. But the spread of land-grant public universities opened college to millions. And now we have Internet, which has created online universities that enable students to take classes in their spare time, without quitting their day job or even leaving their house! And of course we all know that Wikipedia and Google give the world a wealth of organized information never available before.
But while all of this is great for students, the benefit to teachers has been more limited. Elementary and secondary teachers are still grossly underpaid, lack resources, and must teach classes way over capacity. Getting a tenure-track job at a post-secondary institution is such a long-shot that many aspiring professors don’t even bother trying to get a teaching gig and end up doing something else. So it seems that the spread of information and access to education has been a boon for students but as yet has not produced the same benefits for teachers.
I recently came across a site that might level the playing field for teachers, at least temporarily. The site – EDUFire.com – works like this: as a teacher, you can list your area of expertise and an hourly rate and students can schedule time to video conference one-on-one with you. Even better, you can also offer to teach a class and charge students a per-seat fee. To wit, I just scheduled a class for this Saturday called “Introduction to Google AdWords.” I’m charging students $20 each for one hour (which is a lot less than what they’d pay for my consulting services!). So far, I have eight students signed up. That $160 – less a small transactional fee- not too shabby.
The ability to offer tutoring or classes online directly removed two barriers for teachers: locality and middleman. Previously, if you were an Arabic teacher in Saudi Arabia, you were limited by the number of potential students and the level of competition. So while an Arabic teacher might bring $50/hour in New York City, due to the local demand and scarcity of teachers, an Arabic teacher in Saudi Arabia might not be able to get any business at all. EDUFire solves the problem of locality – anyone with a computer can now access your services.
The other problem teachers had was that teaching opportunities were consolidated by middlemen – in this case, schools. If you wanted to teach a class, you needed a classroom, a marketing budget, and a brand to attract students. So that meant signing up to teach at the local community college or high school. Since there are only so many colleges and high schools, you would inevitably end up in fierce competition for the few teaching positions available, which meant that you would get paid less than the actual value of your services (in Marxist terms, you would be alienated from your labor). EDUFire, while still a middleman of sorts, eliminates most of the scarcity created by traditional middlemen. All you need is a computer and you are ready to teach a class – no lengthy applications to the community college needed.
The other nice element of EDUFire for teachers is that it rewards quality. There’s no concept of tenure when teaching online, and if you turn out to be a horrible teacher, students can rate you accordingly. Over time, the teachers that provide the greatest value to students will commandeer the highest ‘salaries.’ Anyone who has attended a high school or college knows that such a meritocracy doesn’t exist in the real-world!
So does this mean that EDUFire – if wildly successful – will free teachers from the shackles of low pay? Well, probably not. EDUFire is a perfect example of Thomas Friedman’s concept of a “flattening world.” The interconnectivity of the Internet makes it possible for anyone, anywhere to teach at anytime. Inevitably, that means that as EDUFire becomes more successful, the price teachers must charge to be competitive will decline rapidly. This is no different than what has happened over time on contracting sites like Elance or Guru.net – eventually there is always a .NET programmer in India who is willing to do work for $5 an hour. American contractors have a hard time competing at that rate. So while I may be getting $20 a head for my AdWords class today, two years from now the going rate will probably be more like $.50.
Of course, the elements of quality and scarcity will still apply. If I happen to be the best AdWords teacher in the world, of if there are only five or ten people that have the knowledge I have, I will still be able to charge a premium. But when it comes to teaching that is widely available, like learning a language or teaching math, the global marketplace will inevitably brings rates way down.
Tangentially, it turns out that I foretold the rise of EDUFire many years ago on this blog – albeit I predicted the concept in an entirely different vertical – online porn! In late 2005 I suggested that Google Video (now YouTube) could be a great leveling force in the world of online porn (a world which I would like to state I know very little about, but go ahead and start the snide comments!). Here’s what I wrote back then – just replace “actor” with “teacher” and you can see the similarities between online education and online porn:
This is a highly inefficient market, for two reasons. First, because the sellers are fragmented across the Internet into thousands of Web sites, it is difficult for the buyer to really see the entire market. A buyer would have to look at dozens of different Web sites – which would take hours or days – to determine which site has the best “product” for him (or her).
Second, the market is inefficient for the “actors”. A local actress in Pittsburgh, PA has only a few choices when it comes to selling her wares (the local porn Web sites). As a result, she gets paid a lot less than she would if she could choose from all of the different porn Web sites across the world, or better yet, not have to work with a middle-man at all.
This is the same type of inefficient market that existed prior to eBay. A buyer of farm memorabilia in New York City would have to pay way too much money to purchase his replica John Deere tractor from the local antique store, simply because the supply in NYC was so limited (his demand outstripped the limited supply). Similarly, a seller of farm memorabilia in Iowa
couldn’t make very much money, because the supply was so abundant (with little demand).
Once eBay came along, the supply and demand shifted from being local and inefficient to national (eventually worldwide) and efficient. On eBay, the true price of the John Deere tractor is achieved because all of the buyers and sellers have been aggregated in the same place. In economic terms, this is known as perfect competition.
Google Video will enable such perfect competition for online porn. Now, an actress in Pittsburgh will no longer have to deal with “JimmysHotGirls.com” down the street – she will be able to upload her own video, right onto Google Video. Google will, in turn, enable anyone in the world to download her video – taking a rev-share for Google and giving the rest directly to the actress.
Similarly, a purveyor of online porn won’t have to b
rowse hundreds of small sites to find what he/she is looking for. He will be able to go straight to Google Video, where he will be able to use Google’s algorithmic technology to hone in on the videos that best suit his tastes.
Google Video, like eBay, will create a perfect and efficient market for online porn. Because this benefits both the buyer and the actual seller (the actress, as opposed to the middleman), this concept could rapidly become the de facto way to watch online porn. And because Google will take a few pennies from each transaction, this could be a huge part of Google’s business in the future.
So while I don’t expect EDUFire to get into the porn business anytime soon, I do think the concept of EDUFire could be applied to many other industries. For me, however, I’ll stick to teaching AdWords!