As I get my new company going, I've been reflecting a lot on exactly why online learning has been so bad for so long. I keep coming back to the fact that if I had to start this company today, and sell our online learning system to institutions - schools and universities - it would be a slow and arduous process. Since the venture community (speaking mostly of traditional high-growth silicon valley venture) understands that education institutions are bad customers, capital would be scarce. Since the institutions are hard to sell to, I would have to field a pretty significant sales force. The combination of lack of capital and high sales and market expense just starves the ability to put a lot of money into building great products.
So what has changed? People are online. Since curiosity is a basic human condition, it seems pretty clear that when people get online, they are going to want to learn online. They aren't going to have to trudge down to some building somewhere to find the sage who can teach them. They are just going to start learning online. Learning is a ridiculously large business globally, accounting for about $4 trillion of spending each year. To date, most of that has been going to the institutions, because they were the guardians and providers of knowledge. In an industry this large, with 2 billion students under 18 and arguably the other 6 billion folks in the world also curious, it doesn't take a very big shift in the way we learn to open up massive opportunities.
Like everything else with the Internet, it seems very likely that the shift in learning online happens long before the spending shift happens. I think arguably we are already seeing a huge amount of time shift happening, with people learning through Khan, Udacity, etc. Every time that kind of shift in time has happened from traditional industries to the Internet before, the spending shift happens later.
But here is what is exciting. That market problem that kept innovation from happening in online learning is going to decrease year by year as learning moves to the individual, and the amount of innovation is going to increase year by year, until individual learning is much more compelling for a variety of things than institutional. That rebalancing of institutional and individual learning to more accurately reflect their strengths - institution (social, network, collaboration) and individual (personalized, self-directed, student-centered) - is going to create enormous dividends in the number of people globally who get a solid education and the number of people who can go further in their learning sooner because no one is telling them it's age inappropriate.