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The Karma Hypothesis - Dilbert Blog

The Karma Hypothesis

About a year ago I blogged that I was trying to “sell” an idea to a venture capitalist. The experiment involved asking publicly (here) if a venture company would give me 5% equity in a start-up for doing nothing but describing a good idea. For qualified investors, I would describe the idea, and if the first said no, I would work my way down the list. About a dozen investors with varying resources and experience asked to hear the idea.

It shouldn’t be possible to sell an unpatented idea because the world rewards execution, not ideas. Everyone has good ideas. Good ideas have no economic value. But this particular idea seemed special, at least to me. It’s a lever-that-moves-the-world type of thing. Could this particular idea have been an exception?

Two highly qualified investors heard my idea and both liked it enough to want to pursue it. The first gentleman wanted more time to study the opportunity before committing, and he couldn’t say how long that might take. So with his permission, I moved to the second investor. The second investor ran it by his board and everyone liked the idea a lot. But before I could sign the investment documents, the investor backed out because of unrelated business events that were going to absorb his company for some time.

During the time I was shopping that idea around, I was writing my new book that comes out October 22nd (How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big) and working with partners on an entirely different start-up that also launches in beta this month. I was stretched thin. And so the best and most important idea I have ever had has been sitting on a shelf.

I decided to free it today, and maybe make the world a better place.

The Karma Hypothesis is that releasing this idea to the world will put me in a good position with the universe when my book comes out and my start-up launches in beta any day now. I could use some good luck. And if karma isn’t a real thing, I hope the idea will make the world a better place because I’m part of that too.

What follows is the idea I tried to sell. I hope someone implements it.

The idea is to combine online education with evolution and capitalism. Give me a minute to explain.

Imagine you take any standard education class and break the lessons into small, well-defined chunks. If the class is geometry, for example, one chunk might be a lesson on the Pythagorean Theorem and nothing else. These chunks would be standardized and published on a platform that allows anyone to “teach” that chunk. Simply submit your video lesson to the marketplace the same way an author submits work to Amazon.com (only easier). Over time, the best “chunks” of lessons get voted to the top. That way a student could take a geometry course that is taught by dozens of different teachers, one best-chunk at a time.

What’s in it for the teachers of these chunks is a piece of the action, the same way Amazon pays authors and publishers. The teacher who has the most hits on a chunk of lesson becomes a best seller and makes a fortune. The fiftieth best teacher for that same chunk makes next to nothing.

I won’t fully define the revenue model here, but I’m assuming that corporate training would be the biggest money-maker at first. For public education, the system would act as a paid tutor substitute at first, to supplement traditional classes. As online education starts to outperform human teaching (a trend that has already started) then the revenue model might change to public funding in some areas and a complete replacement of physical classes. For now, don’t get hung up on the revenue model; there are several ways to go with that, including an advertising model.

As a student, you might prefer learning from different instructors and in different ways than normal folks. If you don’t like the geometry course as it is taught by the creators of the best-selling chunks, you can weave your way through the course using other filters. For example, you might have one preferred instructor who doesn’t rank high but you prefer his style. You could follow his chunks through the course. Or if you don’t understand a particular lesson chunk, you could quickly sample some other instructors to see the same topic chunk from other angles. Everyone has a different learning style. Some students might want chunks with more repetition, more visual aids, or more auditory reinforcement. Once you find what works for you, you can filter your online classes for that style.

You would also be able to select instructors based on how well students who watched their lesson chunks performed on standardized tests. That gives students the option of following the most effective teachers even if they aren’t best sellers for whatever reason.

Up to now, online learning has been little more than video footage of a teacher doing his thing as if teaching a class in person. Common sense tells you that you would get a better result with a team of developers that included a great writer, a great graphics designer for visuals, and perhaps a professional “reader” of the lesson who has no teaching experience at all but is engaging on camera. This is similar to how books are made now; it often takes a team of researchers, editors, and designers to create one bestselling book. I can tell you that the books I write would be quite shitty if the only way you could experience them was watching me on camera reading my first drafts. That’s what online teaching looks like now. Imagine how good each lesson chunk could someday be if crafted by a team of experts and allowed to compete with all other lesson chunks for the same best seller spot. Think of it as rapid evolution for ideas on how to teach particular topics. The fittest ideas would survive and climb to the top.

I also imagine that the system would not have the normal copyright protection for intellectual property. Teachers would be free to steal ideas from competitors and improve upon them. That’s what would make the system evolve so quickly. The good stuff would be copied immediately.

I imagine this system as an online platform for education that is in some ways similar to Amazon, at least in scope and depth. For the first several years you could expect the online courses to be somewhat worse than in-person classes. Still, there would be an economic value at the early stage because people can’t always attend classes in person. Over time, better and better online learning chunks would evolve as motivated teams of developers try for best sellers. You would also have quirky loners creating homemade videos of lesson chunks and in some cases totally nailing it. They would become stars the way book authors sometimes emerge from obscurity. Teachers would become celebrities.

How good could online training become compared to live teachers? My guess is that it could be about three times more effective in the long run. Remember, you’re comparing the best online classes in the world to the average physical classroom. It doesn’t take much evolving for the best of one thing to be better than the average of another. Experience tells us that online education will someday surpass even the best in-person classrooms. My model of a lesson chunk marketplace gets you there faster, and probably better.

One of the biggest weaknesses of online teaching now is the notion that the person on camera needs to be a professional teacher. That seems limiting. Some students might respond best to a younger person with charisma who has no teaching background but is good on camera. Some students might prefer male teachers and some might prefer female. What I’m saying is that the existing model of plucking a favorite teacher from Stanford and filming him yacking leaves a lot of potential behind. What are the odds that this one teacher’s personality and approach is a fit for most students?

Now imagine that someday traditional college degrees become obsolete. Perhaps in the future someone trusted such as Warren Buffett could define the class chunks that in his opinion form the perfect business education. A student could graduate with a “designer degree” that is, in effect, the Warren Buffett Business Degree. Employers would salivate over someone with that training.

One can imagine layering on all kinds of features to this online teaching system. I might want to chat with other students taking the same courses, or I might want to arrange study dates with locals. Assume all of those features are part of the system.

This idea is a lever that moves the world because education is the single most important driver of the economy. A little bit of improvement in education is a huge deal. The evolving-chunk marketplace for classes could get us a lot of improvement over the next decade. It could be a real game-changer. And given the skyrocketing cost of college, this could be a big deal for narrowing the income inequality gap.

So that’s my idea. Please steal it.

And if you enjoy looking at things in new ways, you might like my new book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. The Wall Street Journal did a good job on an excerpt that is getting a lot of attention this week. And you can pre-order here.

[Note: Khan Academy is the opposite of the idea I just described. It’s great in its own way, but pretty much the opposite of the open system where everyone can teach. The same is true for most of the comments I see about it “already being done.”]