I am beginning to get the sense that online education is about to turn the corner. I base this observation on a simple heuristic, which I won’t try to justify, but I suspect that it works here: when an established product is challenged by a newcomer, the “knee” of the adoption curve occurs when someone comes up with a version of the challenging product that clearly surpasses the established product in quality. Note that the relevant comparison isn’t with the whole challenging product space, it’s only the best of the challenging offerings that matter. That the online education endeavor as a whole still seems (to put it tactfully) “not ready for prime time” is irrelevant, because as soon as one challenger figures out the right formula, others will adopt it and improve it. Before the iPad, there were many not-quite-right attempts at tablets and touch screens; once the iPad existed, none of them mattered.

There are signs that this transition is at long last happening with online courses. As Exhibit A I will cite (later, below) an online class that I’m currently taking on Coursera. No moment too soon, given that the main traditional purveyor of education — the university system — is already far along in its evolution into a kind of expensive Club Med for adolescents (and rich sinecure for administrators).

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