For years, Silicon Valley has failed to breach the walls of higher education with disruptive technology. But the tide of battle is changing. A report from the front lines.
So he walks over to the whiteboard that makes up the entire wall of the conference room and deftly sketches out the inner workings of a rocket engine, showing what happens when thousands of gallons of rocket fuel are sprayed into a chamber of fire, thus igniting and creating fantastic amount of force, the eddies and whorls of which need to be predicted and calculated in minute, down-to-the-millisecond detail, so that the force can be directed down through the closed chamber in which the initial combustion occurs and out the bottom of the rocket in the form of enough thrust to take something the size and weight of, say, a telecommunications satellite, up and away from the gravitational bonds of our planet. Any flaws in design or misunderstanding of the precise nature of the whorls and eddies result in what Scott calls a RUD—a “rapid unscheduled disassembly,” meaning the rocket blows up.
This is, in and of itself, a design challenge daunting enough to keep an engineering geek in bliss. And there’s more. The whole point of SpaceX is to make space flight both reliable and cheap. You can get to cheap with cheaper materials—but cheaper might mean weaker and less reliable and thus more likely to cause a RUD. So the real holy grail is a more efficient use of fuel to create thrust. The amount of thrust needed to liberate X amount of weight from the Earth’s gravity well is a brute math problem. It’s inescapable. And, crucially, as Scott explains it, when the rocket is sitting on the launching pad, most of the weight is fuel.
Most of the weight is fuel.
That stays with me, even after we finally leave Founders Fund, dodging the sprinklers again, and I catch a taxi a few blocks from the gates of the Presidio and head back to SoMa and my hotel. Because when most of the weight is fuel, Scott explains, a reduction in the amount of fuel you need to create thrust increases the payload weight you can move from Earth into orbit along a logarithmic scale. It’s not a linear, one-to-one thing. The less fuel you need, the less fuel you need. It’s exponential.
This, I realize, is pretty much what’s happening to the basic math undergirding the Silicon Valley economy and, with it, the likelihood of higher education encountering some kind of dramatic disruption at the hands of a Musk-like figure. As access to the Internet grows and the cost of everything technological moves toward zero, the amount of money needed to start a company that can grow to scale and just possibly change the world—that can go from 0 to 1—drops along the same kind of exponential scale. When does that cost become functionally indistinguishable from nothing? In the admittedly much less complicated business of photo sharing, it got there nine hours before I arrived at Founders Fund. That’s Instagram, the billion-dollar company that consisted of nothing more than a handful of ramen eaters (on the day it was purchased, Instagram had fewer than twenty employees) armed with ergonomic black chairs, wi-fi, and MacBook Airs.
During a meeting on Sand Hill Road, the fabled home of Silicon Valley venture capitalism, one investor told me that the basic model of firms like his making huge startup bets was ripe for disruption. A new breed of venture firms has taken to investing small amounts in start-ups, in the range of $25,000 to $50,000. These firms recognize that the cost of starting a new company is far less than it used to be, which means that investors can spread their money around to more entrepreneurs and ideas. And the entrepreneurs themselves can “fail faster,” a crucial idea in an ecosystem driven by experimentation and groping around for the new new thing.
Instead of shooting for the moon by building a beautiful, expensive product and hoping like hell that the whole world comes to your door, the idea now is to build the “minimal viable product,” get it to the market quickly, watch what happens, and iterate like crazy. Because the Cloud is so cheap, it doesn’t take much in the way of money to do this. Because the scale of the entire world is so large, the potential to get big is vast. If that doesn’t work, everyone can move on to the next thing with relatively little time and money wasted.
In the future, anyone with an idea will be able to build a rocket, aim it at the gigantic trillion-dollar market of education, and light the fuse.
Who will hit the target? I have no idea. It might be someone like Eren Bali, who is in his late twenties and grew up in a rural village in Turkey, near the Iraqi border. A math prodigy, Bali had nowhere to go but the Internet to feed his hunger for information. With free materials he managed to cobble together online, he learned enough to enter and win several international math competitions. That led him to start a Web site and, perhaps inevitably, fall under the gravitational pull o Silicon Valley. His company, Udemy, is on the second floor of a building in SoMa, in an open space occupied by multiple start-ups at once.
Udemy is a classic platform design. Anyone can log on to the site and, using tools provided by the company, design an online course. If designers choose to sell their courses to students, Udemy keeps 30 percent of the revenues. Or, people can give the course away for free. Like Facebook or Instagram, the goal is to create a fun, elegant user experience, let other people create all of the content, and stand in the middle of information and financial exchange. The site is currently hosting hundreds of courses, including some designed by professors at Dartmouth, Vassar, Colgate, and Duke. But most of the designers don’t have PhDs. They’re just experts, and, as Bali notes, there are hundreds of thousands of experts all over the world. Most of them have never had a chance to offer higher education or reach a global audience of people who might need them—until now.
Perhaps Udemy’s democratic nature will give it a leg up in the coming war to build the dominant higher education platform. Maybe the three titans of Harvard, Berkeley, and MIT will propel edX to victory, or maybe the user experience expertise and facility with the economics of Silicon Valley will help Udacity carry the day. Coursera’s marriage of world-class brands with valley know-how seems like a formidable combination. Pearson, the British textbook giant, is working to build a platform of its own. There is a great deal of money and power at stake now. We may not know who and we may not know when, but someone is going to write the software that eats higher education.
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