Looking to Ebay--for Online Learning?

How to make learning happen online is a big topic these days. 

It should be. Basically, our educational system in the U.S. is failing at every level. It is either not successful, or it is too expensive--or both. In short, it's a lot like the U.S. health care system, which costs more than other systems and is less effective. 

In fact, our major human-oriented support systems in the U.S. are failing: education and health care.

If you look at the top American companies, we can sell people energy or phone service or loan them money or sell them prescription drugs. But we cannot educate Americans or keep them healthy at nearly the same rate as other 'developed' countries. America's top universities are world-class. But our high school students are not.

With both health care and education, the rewards must be in the wrong place. Money is not rewarding success. Yes, there are other rewards, but money is one, and it's not working. Think of paying health providers per procedure rather than for successful outcomes.

And there is no political will to fix either education or health care. If we could find a model for fixing one, we might be able to replicate it. So the stakes are high. An online learning platform might not be better than the best face-to-face educational systems in the world--South Korea and Finland, for instance. But it could be opened to poorer countries and students, and it could be a great leveler in this regard.

If you want to find web sites that successfully enable social interactions, it is not hard to find examples. 

Ebay does not come to mind as a learning platform. But as a platform for highly-structured social interactions--and buying and selling things is a social interaction--Ebay is superb. 

How's it work?
  • People come together based on common interests and clear roles. I want to sell a what-cha-me, and n persons want to buy this kind of what-cha-me.
  • People can find their common interests easily enough. The search engine plays a critical role here.
  • The interactions have a specific time frame. An item is on sale for so long. I can go back as often as I like--or as little. This helps the users to make specific, strategic choices.
  • The number of interactions permitted and supported are limited. I can sell, bid, ask questions, give answers, modify the information about the item, search through past sales for similar items. I have all the information I need to buy or sell effectively.
In essence, Ebay is an information system in which people learn about objects that interest them. One of the things they learn is: Can I afford a what-cha-me in mint condition? Or can I only afford one in non-working condition?

Any habitual Ebay user can learn these things. You browse auctions. You look at past sales. You bid. You might have to bid multiple times to get the thing you want. And when you unwrap it, you discover how worthwhile the whole enterprise was for you.

Ebay is a curriculum--as all markets are. A market is a curriculum in which a sequence of economic interactions teach the participants the values of items and the various economic behaviors needed to operate successfully.

An insightful entrepreneur will simply describe Ebay in an object-oriented vocabulary and then clone an instance of it for learning. One such description would sound like this:
  • The center of such a system would be learning tasks with clear criteria. Some might be completed by interacting with an automated agent and other tasks with peers.
  • Let people come together based on common interests and clear roles. Maybe we both want to learn about economics, but I want to offer a learning task, and you want to perform a learning task. Leverage social affinities to make learning social and appealing.
  • Let people find their common interests easily. If learning materials were inherently interesting, learners could follow their own interests the way web surfers usually do. Other sites could even link to a learning platform--and vice-versa.
  • Learning tasks would probably need some timing--like auctions. Time frames seem to lend a certain mental clarity and facilitate social interaction. There is no waiting for Joshua to take his turn: when the deadline has passed, no more turns can be taken, so if Joshua doesn't take his turn, someone else will.
  • Make the number and kind of interactions simple and clear. Let some tutor, some learn, some contribute materials, some evaluate performances, etc. Let the system reflect as much information about tasks and users as possible--so learners can act strategically to get what they want and need.
The system itself could aggregate information to optimize itself for the learners.
  • A self-adjusting system could right-size groups working on social learning tasks based on behavior within the system.
  • Early in the system's development, users might have a lot of latitude about what tasks they completed when. But when the system stored enough information, the system administrators could know with a good degree of certainty that Task C should not be attempted before several successful performances on Tasks A and B.
  • Whether objective norms or social validation from peers or experts were the best predictor of future task success could also be inferred from system logs.
Ebay did not destroy the yard sale and the junk shop and the police auction. Face-to-face interactions still have their place. But it is a tightly-focused place.

And when someone builds a powerful online learning platform, there will still be schools: but smaller and more specialized schools.

If we care about education, we should be most concerned about the results rather than the methods--as long as they are both humane and effective. What is inhumane is having an educational system that is so profoundly ineffective for so many--basically all but those at the top.

--Edward R. O'Neill


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