Most of Silicon Valley basks in the delights of Moore’s Law: that prophetic 1965 declaration explaining why computing power keep getting cheaper and faster at a breakneck pace. Education, however, has largely missed out. For decades, most of what gets regarded as ideal teaching — small class sizes and hands-on instruction — has entailed rising costs and frozen productivity levels.
Back in 2001, while writing for Fast Company magazine, I raised education’s predicament with Gordon Moore, the coiner of Moore’s Law and a co-founder of Intel Corp.. “It is very frustrating,” he told me. “It’s hard to come up with ways to increase productivity in education. … It’s especially hard for K – 12. I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, and freshman chemistry was taken by about 3,000 students. So you achieve great efficiencies in that kind of a class. But you can’t teach first graders that way.”
Now, at last, say tech enthusiasts, Gordon Moore can wipe away that frown. During an ed-tech panel discussion in San Francisco Tuesday evening, led by renowned venture capitalist John Doerr, the consensus was that Moore’s Law is finally making its presence felt in education, too.
The showcase example of bolder/faster/cheaper involves companies that operate massive, open, online courses, or MOOCs. The fastest moving of them is Coursera, a Mountain View, Calif., company founded just two years ago. It now has partnerships with more than 100 universities world-wide and it has processed nearly seven million enrollments for its online classes to date.
Thanks to “very cheap bandwidth and a lot of machine learning, we can finally do Moore’s Law in education,” said Coursera’s president and cofounder, Daphne Koller, who is also a Stanford professor of computer science. “A single teacher can reach hundreds of thousands of students. That completely changes the economics of everything. The marginal cost of an extra student reaches zero.”
Coursera doesn’t provide any full-fledged academic degrees. Instead, it partners with well-known universities around the world, which open the way for their faculty members to create MOOCs. These online classes are free to attend, but students wanting a proctered exam and a certificate of completion may pay $100 or so per class.
Coursera has received venture capital funding from Doerr’s firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. That’s also true of the other two companies showcased on the panel: Remind101, a text-messaging service that connects teachers and parents (run by Brett Kopf), and Chegg, a textbook-rental and student-support company (run by former Yahoo executive Dan Rosensweig.)
In a short interview after the panel discussion, Doerr contended that Remind101 is benefiting from Moore’s Law, too, because its connections…