by James A. Bacon
Washington venture capitalists Ted Leonsis and Steve Case have put money into Echo360, a Dulles-based software maker that converts college classroom lectures into a digital format that students can watch online. They made what they described as a “significant new investment” through their Revolution Growth Fund.
“Technology has had a transformative impact on many facets of our lives – but the one major area where we have failed to leverage technology to its potential is in education,” said Case in a prepared statement. “Echo360 empowers universities and colleges to enhance and extend the classroom experience to bring a much needed revolution to higher-education. Blended learning is about marrying the best of online with the best of in-person teaching.”
The technology creates video and audio recordings of professors’ lectures and makes them accessible online, along with notes and web links, where students can access them anywhere, anytime. Other capabilities enable students to re-watch, search and bookmark specific spots in the lecture and also to form virtual study groups. As Echo360 describes it in its promotional literature, the technology “liberates the lecture from the classroom.”
At present, the company is working with established institutions of higher education — some 500 in 30 different countries. The goal is to reach 50% of all U.S. students within five years.
Bacon’s bottom line: Existing institutions are where the money is, but the impact of “blended learning”will not likely be revolutionary. For an incremental added cost (roughly $15 per student per year) the technology make an incremental improvement (the ability to review lectures) to the higher ed experience. It takes a leap of faith to suggest that this will transform the higher ed business model.
The potential to disrupt higher ed, with its out-of-control tuition increases, will come from empowering start-up institutions to design entirely new business models around the technology, not using it as a add-on to existing processes. Strip out bricks-and-mortar, administrative overhead, luxury dormitories and tenured professors who teach two or three courses a year. Virtual institutions should be able to pay professors handsomely (100,000+ per year) and keep tuition below $1,000 per course on average ($5,000 per semester or $10,000 per year). Whether Echo360 will be the company that accomplishes that goal, I don’t know. But it is a step in a positive direction.
Update: It is clear from the comments that I did not make clear my admiration for Echo360 and what it is trying to accomplish. This is a very worthwhile endeavor that pushes education in the right direction and is part of a broader technological movement that will push higher education to change despite itself. The old model is dead — higher ed just doesn’t realize it yet.