Tom Vander Ark is an edu-futurist par excellence. He's chair of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, author of the new Getting Smart: How Personal Digital Learning is Changing the World, and an investor in startup technology and entrepreneurship school General Assembly (see this month's Life in Beta) through his education-focused venture fund Learn Capital. Here, he shares some of his views on the importance of "just-in-time learning" and the "plummeting" value of traditional education.
FAST COMPANY: What's happening now in the world of education from an investor's perspective?
TOM VANDER ARK: The quality of the deal flow is so much better and bigger than when we started three years ago with Learn Capital. The world has exploded since '09. It's a really interesting mixture of powerful applications, development platforms, cheap devices like tablets, and broadband cloud computing.
What led you to get so interested in General Assembly as an investment?
Partly it’s a case of just-in-time vs. just-in-case learning. Young people, particularly those involved in a startup, become acutely and instantaneously aware of what they need to know. So their interest is a thousand times higher than it would be in grad school, when you’re usually just trying to finish a degree and get out. It seldom seems to have such relevance to your future life. The interesting thing about GA is the ability to bring both experts and peers to bear on that moment, to organize around that highly focused need to learn.
And this is a general trend in education that you write about in Getting Smart, right?
I think in general in the industry, the ability to deliver around that need will get much more sophisticated—to find out not only what people need to learn, but to get smarter about how they learn best. So we have a smart learner profile, a motivational profile not only what they need to learn but the best way for them to learn.
You talk so much about digital learning, but General Assembly is still working mostly on a face-to-face model. How do the two modes best fit together?
Since I’m sort of a leading advocate of online learning, you might wonder why I would get jazzed about small classrooms that don’t look very high-tech. But another thing these kids have stumbled into is just the importance of community. I think about their classes as a mixture of experts and a really smart motivated group of peers. We can view this as a pilot project of getting their arms around what people want to learn, how they need to learn, and then I think we can assume that as the community grows, that more and more of it will move online. I get this feeling that it will be a blended experience for many participants for a long time.
You write a lot about the advantages of blended approaches, and in fact, a big 2009 meta-study by the Department of Ed showed that blended or hybrid models beat both online and traditional classroom models. Do you think traditional universities and MBA programs should be scared of innovations like General Assembly?
Our calcified system of education is rapidly being enveloped in this new web of informal learning opportunities. Something people take for granted—web search—is probably the most important learning tool ever invented. Big companies have taken advantage of this to change the way they do training and development, but formal education is running a decade behind. The explosion of informal learning opportunities are getting better and better, more and more organized, and there's a growing tension between what happens inside vs. outside formal education.
And what about the cost of formal education? Public university tuition was up 8.3% just last year.
With these continuing cost increases in higher ed, it's like they’re completely oblivious to the fact that the world has fundamentally changed.
The return on higher education, particularly in the second and third tier, has plummeted in the last 36 months. There's a little bit of masking happening with effectively 20% unemployment, but this is going to change faster than most people realize. A lot of people out there are going to go, "Why the heck would I spend $100K when I can get what I want to learn, and how I want to learn it, online?"