In March of 2007 I posted my original paper on the Future of Education where I talked about a system based on an iTunes-like approach where experts around the world could use a “rapid courseware-builder” to produce bite-sized courses, send them to a global distribution center, and students from around world could plug-in and learn whatever class matched their interests.

When I first presented this approach, the education community was quick to dismiss the idea out of hand, citing the rigors of course design and the vast limitations of online learning.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of working with an inspired leadership team from Maricopa Community College in Phoenix, Arizona (currently boasting over 260,000 students) and the reception couldn’t have been more different. Each of the ideas presented was carefully scrutinized and placed within the context of “how can we adapt this to work within our system.”

So what’s changed? Even though the message was similar, radical shifts in connection speeds and new technology, coupled with ever-tightening fiscal budgets in an increasingly fluid society, have made ideas that once sounded far-fetched just four years ago seem much more doable today.

But here is something I haven’t talked about before. In the midst of our sea-change of attitudes and tectonic shifts in technology comes a fascinating new idea, an idea that has kept me up for the past week with unusual ways of stirring the imagination. And it all has to do with education as an app for mobile devices.

First, some background

Rest assured, I wasn’t the first one to advance this kind of thinking.

  • April 2001 – OpenCourseWare – 10 years ago in April 2001, MIT President Charles Vest made the bold move to make its courses freely available on the Internet. This was the beginning of the OpenCourseWare movement, a movement that has enabled anyone around the world to listen and read what is being taught at MIT. Both Yale and Stanford were quick to follow and even Harvard has entered the fray in the past two years.
  • March 2006 – Open Culture was launched by Dr. Dan Colman and is one of the largest databases of free cultural and educational media in existence. Open Culture is edited by Colman who now runs Stanford’s continuing education program and works on Open Culture in his spare time.
  • September 2006 – The Khan Academy was launched by the visionary Salman Khan with the mission of “providing a high quality education to anyone, anywhere.” Their website now hosts an online collection of some 2,300 micro lectures using video tutorials on YouTube that teach a wide range of topics including mathematics, history, finance, physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, and economics.
  • May 2007 – iTunes U was first launched as a pilot project between Apple and six colleges that includes Brown University, Duke University, Stanford University, University of Michigan (School of Dentistry), University of Missouri (School of Journalism), and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. This is when Apple first made iTunes U available on its iTunes Store, allowing the user community search to publicly available courses. Currently over 250 higher ed institutions participate in what has become the largest collection of courses in the world.
  • October 2007 – UC Berkeley launched its own YouTube channel. According to Benjamin Hubbard the Manager of Webcast at UC Berkeley, the school has had well over 120 million downloads since first sharing videos online, which they first began in 2001.
  • March 2009 – Academic Earth – As a project launched in 2009 by Richard Ludlow, Academic Earth is working its way towards becoming the Hulu of academic videos and courses.
  • September 2009 – P2PU was launched by John Britton, a developer evangelist at Twilio. After forming the company in 2008, they launched 6 peer-based free courses in September 2009. The courses had 15-20 people enrolled for 6 weeks. With each subsequent cycle, the number of courses has nearly doubled. The most recent, 4th cycle had 60 courses with 20 people in each course. They had to turn down nearly 70,000 additional people who applied.
  • April 2010 – – Spawned from work done at SitePoint, founder Leni Mayo formed a team and launched, a company based in Melbourne, Australia. Learnable allows anyone to create and charge for online courses with a simple authoring tool the makes each new course something that is simple and easy to create.
  • May 2010 – udemy – Incubated at the Founder Institute, udemy, billing itself as an “academy of you” was launched by Eren Bali and Gagan Biyani. Udemy’s goal has been to disrupt and democratize the world of education by enabling anyone to teach and learn online. Just as blogging democratized the publishing industry (enabling anyone to instantly become a journalist), Udemy seeks to dramatically change education by empowering millions of experts around the world to teach & share what they know.
  • November 2010 – Skillshare was founded in November 2010 by Michael Karnjanaprakorn and Malcolm Ong as a community marketplace that enables users to learn anything from anyone. It’s a company with a rather unusual starting point. As Michael Karnjanaprakorn explains, “Last year, I played in the 2010 World Series of Poker (yes, completely random) for charity. I donated 100% of my poker winnings and got coached by some of the top professional poker players in the world. When I got back to NYC, my friends asked me to teach a class on what I learned, which is when everything clicked.”  As a result, Skillshare was born.
  • March 2011 – Sophia – Social learning is part of the idea behind Minneapolis-based Sophia, a new online platform launched by founder and CEO Don Smithmier that offers free academic content to everyone. Describing itself as “a mashup of Facebook, Wikipedia, and YouTube,” Sophia lets users to create and share short lessons on specific academic topics. These “learning packets” can be created and uploaded to the site by anyone, using text, images, presentations, video, audio, and more. The quality of the learning packet’s content is evaluated by users within the Sophia community as well as by academic experts.

Rapid Courseware Builder

In 2007 I had predicted that someone would create a rapid courseware builder within the next 2 years and it would instantly generate millions of new courses seemingly overnight. Well, that didn’t happen.

Turns out, creating the user interface of a rapid courseware builder is a very difficult problem to solve. However, the work being done at, udemy, and Skillshare is very encouraging.

The trick is creating a cross-cultural user interface that works equally well for the course-creators as the course-takers.

In addition to solving the problems of authoring a new course, these sites need to develop a rich user experience. This means they need to somehow understand what’s going on inside the head of the student, their interests and preferences, and match them up with a recommendation engine that accounts for prior learning, prerequisites, and the fickle nature of humans.

To make it even more challenging, they need to incorporate some sort of rating system that allows the best courses to rise to the top.

These are very hard problems to solve. And I still think one of these companies, or one similar, will revolutionize the world of education.

However, I would like to suggest an unusual new twist in this strategy – courseware apps.

Education as an App

When it comes to mobile apps, we are experiencing a sea change in attitudes as to how we view the world.

In just a few months, the total number of available apps will exceed 1 million. Sometime next year, the number of available apps will exceed the number of books in print.

Apps are a piece of information that we interact with on a far different basis that a traditional book. They serve many purposes and enter our live from thousands of different angles.

To put this into perspective, it’s easy to visualize…

  1. The app as a source of information
  2. The app as an experiences
  3. The app as a tool
  4. The app as an extension of your business
  5. The app as a source of inspiration
  6. The app as a decision maker
  7. The app as an idea generator
  8. The app as an accomplishment

This last one, “the app as an accomplishment,” is the one that has been keeping me up at night.

Envision, if you will, a group of 20 students entering a classroom sometime in the future. After a brief orientation period and a little time spent getting to know each other, each student is given the option of choosing one from a list of ten possible apps. Each of these apps is a one-time-use course-project oriented around a specific accomplishment.

Over the coming weeks, students will be tasked with completing the assignment they have been given, and once their “accomplishment” has been completed, they can move on to their next course. Their interaction with other students will be on an informal basis, and teachers will serve more as coaches than traditional instructors.

The accomplishments can range from online activities such as building a website with a specific feature set, to launching a blog site with a specified number of entries, to creating a database with designated properties for interaction.

In addition to online activities, the apps can be oriented around off-line tasks such as building a piece of furniture, conducting a survey and tabulating results, or performing an experiment with animal or human subjects.

Whether the work is done online or off-line, human evaluators will be used to assess the results. In some cases it may be possible to build an app around an automated evaluation process, removing teacher bias from the equation.

Wrestling with Credibility

Companies like, udemy, and Skillshare are working hard to overcome the credibility barriers and reach some sort of tipping point.

By working within existing institutions, giving teachers new tools that are a quantum leap forward in both usability and efficiency, this kind of effort has the potential of giving a new startup instant credibility. For the students, this means gaining a known form of status and credits from a recognized institution.

This also may be the baby-step of change needed to unlock the doors of higher learning.

Final Thoughts

In the coming years we will be transitioning from an education system based on teaching to one that is oriented around learning. Teaching requires experts, and as information expands exponentially, we lose our ability to train new experts fast enough. Teachers have become the chokepoint.

Learning, on the other hand, doesn’t require topical experts. Instead, it requires good, competent coaches.

If we are to successfully make the transition from teaching to learning, we will need to focus on new and better tools for coaching.

As a society, we are not able to unlock the true potential of every individual by simply providing better teachers and a more aggressive structure for students. The failure points lie within the system itself. Rather, their true potential can only be realized by unleashing the genius within.

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise to the occasion.” – – Abraham Lincoln, December 1, 1862

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything


20 Responses to “Education as an App”

Comments List

  1. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Gary Lundquist</a>

    One of your very best. A keeper. >> The idea of teacher as coach rather than content expert changes the nature of education. And for the better. >> Your list of resources both implies competition and growth of quality. >> The idea of quality-controlled, yet open lists of courses sets the stage for all of us to help next generations with knowledge we've developed. >> I both like and respect your vision. Best, Gary
  2. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Peter Mclaughlin</a>

    Great piece Tom. I've been reworking my High Performance Coaching book into a "Manager or Teacher as Coach" book and course. Having been both a teacher and coach and seeing how good coaches can work with all orders of expertise to help mentor people without being the expert...your idea of the apps fits perfectly...cheers
  3. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Spherical Phil</a>

    Great piece Tom. You listed one of the hard challenges to solve as "They need to somehow understand what’s going on inside the head of the student, their interests and preferences, and match them up with a recommendation engine that accounts for prior learning, prerequisites, and the fickle nature of humans." We should get together and I can show you how we are doing a large part of this with a student sphere tied directly to courseware on an LMS for e-learning courses. And we are working on the rest. The student's sphere becomes a customized portal for the student to access the learning they need and desire at that moment. Keep up the good work.
  4. Herbert Rust

    Getting there is like one of the really steep climbs in the Tour de France. I think we are getting close to the summit. What is needed now is some kind of "educational formality" so that a student could learn his 100 courses, study them at his/her own pace, somehow verify that this has been done, take an exam and receive a diploma. The University of the World. Its an idea which has been developing in my mind for a few years and I would love your input as to how that last "tipping point" could be achieved.
    • admin

      Herbert, Thanks for your input. We are seeing the convergence of many forces, so the final tipping point may seem a bit trivial when it happens. That said, I've been thinking a lot about the kind of organizations that will be needed to evolve along with the changes. Even though it will happen quickly, it will take many years to make the transition, and no one knows exactly what will come out the other side. When we create monopolies, they are very difficult to unravel. And we have more than a few monopolies to contend with. Tom
    • <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Kumara</a>

      While at hadoop course in Hyderabad I also concentrated on the technology which you have elaborately discussed here in this post.
  5. Michelle

    My husband and I are allowing our children to learn organically, another term is to unschool, and the idea of a coach rather than a teacher makes so much sense to me, as you say in this exponentially expanding universe of available information that we are now part of. I view myself not as a teacher but as a facilitator in my children's learning process, trusting and allowing them to choose their own path at their own time. Looking forward to your next article on this subject. Thank you.
  6. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>David McCloskey</a>

    As a developer of educational playthings, I had the good fortune to attend a conference for two days on this very subject last month at MIT. The conference, entitled Sandbox Summit (, focused on developing technology to aid education through play. Your final thought, "In the coming years we will be transitioning from an education system based on teaching to one that is oriented around learning" perfectly describes the ethos of the conference and the keynote by Karen Cator, Director of the Office of Educational Technology, US Dept of Ed. You would have fit right in, but I doubt if attending would have allowed you to get any more sleep... I left with even more motivation to realize the future you are imagining. Well done, Thomas.
    • admin

      David, Thanks for filling me in on this conference. It sounds like it was a fun event with some very visionary people. You've given me a good reason to move my optimism meter up a notch. Many thanks, Tom
  7. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Judy Murdoch</a>

    I'm excited by how our definition of education is becoming more fluid with a focus on what works for the student. Imagine people finding education as much fun and as compelling as online games? How much better educated would our population be?
  8. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Michael Cushman</a>

    Hi Tom, Your staying up at night is doing the world good. :-) I like the concept of achievement. A group of students coming together to learn as a group and complete a project. And, it has a generic value, not just for learning, but for accomplishing any project, and perhaps a leap forward in collective problem solving. People have come together to erect a barn, build a schoolhouse, dig a well, fund research to cure a disease, and code open source software. The same software platform for bringing together people for a learning project could become a generic platform for bringing people together for accomplishing anything. Why not take a big problem, break it up into parts, bring teams together from anywhere in the world to solve each part, and continue until we have a flying car, a community with no pollution, a town with no unemployment, a country with no poverty or a month without a crime? Basically it is Event Management and Association Membership combined with Project Management and Learning Systems. The trick is to make it simple, functional, and easy and fun to use. Maybe it's not just education as an app, it's also networking-human-genus or making-the-world-a-better place as an app. Thanks for thinking.
    • admin

      Michael, Thanks for the feedback. I really like how you are stretching this to the next level. Suddenly its moved from the realm of education into something far more expansive. I will have to give it much more thought, and I'm sure its going to ruin a lot more nights sleep :-) Tom
  9. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Ken Thompson</a>

    I think this is a useful article as far as it goes, but it leaves significant questions unanswered. Once you strip away the social engineering aspects of the public education system, you wind up with 4 primary functions: 1) Content development 2) Content delivery 3) Knowledge evaluation 4) Daycare services Educators don't appreciate the last item, but it is the thing that keeps education a local business for the most part. You offer some vision for how the first two items might evolve, and for the most part I think those are reasonable. Knowledge evaluation, however, doesn't seem well represented, and I think this is a problem. Most of us are often not particularly competent to evaluate specialized areas of knowledge, so we depend on third parties to certify competency for us. How do you envision that role will develop in the future?
    • admin

      Ken, Thanks for your comments. While many different learning methodologies will be experimented with, one that holds considerable promise is confidence-based learning. Some experiments in this area have demonstrated a significant reduction in learning time. The first Confidence-Based Assessment study appeared in the Journal of Social Psychology in 1932 by Kate Hevner. Her goal was to improve the validity and reliability of standard musical assessments at the time. She did so by adding confidence assessment to knowledge. Fron 1932-1967, Confidence-Based Assessment focused on statistical validity and reliability. In 1967 it was discovered that Confidence-Based Assessment also improved memory retention. This is the discovery where people began to realize that the process of taking a test can and will make you smarter. What started as a breakthrough approach for measuring knowledge and confidence is now moving front-and-center into corporate training centers in the form of a fast and accurate learning methodology. Confidence-based learning is on the rise among organizations that are transitioning their companies from training organizations to learning organizations. Confidence-based learning is designed to ensure that learning actually takes place and mastery of a topic is achieved. It is much more than simply delivering information to students. It ensures learning by assessing precisely what people know and what they don’t know without guesswork and doubt skewing the results. It then works to rapidly remediate a learner’s gaps in knowledge and confidence. I talked more about this here - Tom
  10. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Ken Thompson</a>

    CBL sounds like what I see Salman Khan incorporating as the primary evaluation component in the Khan Academy. It seems to be working pretty well for him. His program taught more people *yesterday* than most public school teachers impact in a lifetime. This seems like the direction education should be heading. What is really interesting is that he does it for FREE! That fact alone makes this a very disruptive technology - putting it in the class with the PC, Search Engines, email, and mobile phones among others. Thanks for the response! Regards, Ken
  11. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>educational app</a>

    This sounds perfectly amazing to me. education as an application is a great way to enhance learning to all, as we deal with this age of technology its nice to know that education is also upgrading.:)
  12. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Tom Turnbull</a>

    Great post. It's exciting to see so many efforts to make education more accessible and affordable. At OpenSesame, we are building an open educational marketplace, initially focused on corporate training. By the way, we are big Khan Academy fans and make his courses available in our marketplace.
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