It’s high time that higher education was usurped by a cheaper and more flexible alternative. The replacement of broken, centuries-old institutions was one of the primary promises of the information revolution, but this hasn’t yet come to pass for education.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why. After all, much more serious fields have proven themselves pliable and yielded to the technological shift. Political movements have been shaped by the internet and social media. FinTech is amassing a long record of disruption. And even the minor advances in communications technology have enabled a growing remote workforce.

So why is education falling behind? Why are online courses still viewed with suspicion? Why is something in such dire need of improvement so resilient to our attempted fixes?

An example

Mathematics is one of the oldest and deepest academic disciplines. Over the centuries, an unimaginable amount of resources have been developed to teach its topics. For generations, the insights that would eventually give us unbreakable cryptography, heavier than air flight, and the atomic bomb were passed from teacher to student.

Video sharing resources like YouTube should have completely changed the game. It should’ve made an Ivy League-level education available to everyone. Instead, it’s made the first semester of an Ivy League-level education available to everyone. That’s a really big difference.

Linear Algebra for Beginners (and Beginners, and Beginners)

If you have a second, I’d urge you to go to YouTube and search for Linear Algebra lectures. Linear Algebra is a core topic of the mathematics curriculum, and is a required course for Maths, Computer Science, Engineering, and Physics majors. It is an interesting, nuanced subject that can be studied for entire lifetimes.

And yet, what you’ll find is hundreds of videos that deal with the introductory topics in the subject. That might not be a surprise - of course there will be more videos in the preliminary stages, that’s what most people are interested in. That’s a fair point.

Now take a second to look for Advanced Linear Algebra lectures. It’s hard for me to describe how disappointing that results page is. The top result (at the time of writing) is a playlist entitled ‘Mathematics - Advanced Matrix Theory and Linear Algebra for Engineers’, this may well be an advanced matrix theory course, but it’s also an introductory level Linear Algebra course.

The Big Picture of Linear Algebra is the next result. It’s a clip from Gilbert Strang’s excellent Differential Equations course. It covers the basics of Linear Algebra.

Next up is a playlist that contains letures half in Hindi, half in English. From what I can make out, this is also an introductory Linear Algebra course even though it’s called ‘Advanced Linear Algebra’. You get the idea.

Things get even worse when you search for Graduate Linear Algebra lectures. What you get this time is a series of videos between 10 and 30 seconds long that advertise the existence of books in the Springer Graduate Texts in Mathematics series. At least you know that there are some resources for learning this stuff - they’re just not on YouTube. Or maybe they are, and they’re just hard to find. It’s hard to believe though that a Google-family company is failing to find the highly-rated, highly-watched series of lectures that you’re looking for and choosing to display these ads accidentally instead.

The skills funnel

This does not just apply to Linear Algebra. Or mathematics. It applies across all of the fields I’ve been interested in studying (which is more than I’d like to admit) and probably many others. The advanced topics in every subject from computer science, to graphic design, to the humanities are suffering from this reduced visibility.

I’m calling half of this phenomena ‘the skills funnel’ - the natural tendency for people to drop out after they’ve got what they came for. If you need to pass your high school Linear Algebra exam tomorrow, you’re probably not the target market for a more advanced exploration of the subject. The CliffsNotes will, literally, suffice.

The tapering off of people at every level (or even lecture) is an expected consequence. And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this. But why do the resources stop here?

You may be thinking that anyone trying to learn anything seriously on YouTube is misguided. You might be right. I had the same thought and cast a wider net. I tried Coursera, Udacity, edX, MIT OpenCourseWare, Yale, Princeton, Oxford, and Cambridge. All of them cater nearly exclusively to the introductory audience.

MIT have one of the most impressive collections of university-level study materials ever compiled - their crystal ball allowed them to start taping and storing lectures long before nearly everyone else. Even so, the ratio of undergraduate videos to graduate (or even advanced undergraduate) videos can exceed 10:1 in some subjects.

Newer companies, ones that were created specifically to take on the burden of providing the next generation with a high-quality education, like Udacity and Coursera, have also fallen into a similar trap. In these cases, the problem may be even more pernicious as the education is mostly targeted to what they think you should learn, usually for a specific job role. The idea of an exploratory education dissolved by skills-shortages.

Algorithms in education

The skills funnel alone doesn’t explain why there aren’t any online courses that cover years two through four of a university education. To explain that you have to combine the proclivity of the masses to delve shallowly into a topic with the content distribution platforms’ propensity to cater to the masses.

Some original content notwithstanding, YouTube relies on you to make its money. It wants you to provide engaging, original, and (most of all) highly-watchable videos.

Anyone who has taught an advanced course knows how difficult it is to do so. The material is more of a challenge to discuss, present, and transfer to a third party. Whiteboard maths mistakes might be a speed bump in an otherwise smooth introductory lecture, but a transposed symbol half way through a complex proof can derail an advanced lecture completely. That doesn’t make for gripping viewing, and casual viewers will not hesitate to take the omnipresent exit when they lose their grip on the subject matter.

Dropping out before the video ends means less ad impressions. Less ad impressions mean less clicks. Less clicks mean less revenue. Less revenue means a lower ranking. And a lower ranking means that anyone with a desire to publish difficult to understand material eventually caves and adds yet another 101 course, hoping for a bump in views.

The lowest common denominator approach to recommendations is great at showing you the funniest cat videos, but it’s terrible at showing you the most informative learning materials.

Platforms like these attract people from all walks of life. That’s one of their main benefits. They are diverse communities of creators, sharing their thoughts and passions together. The best universities have elements of this. But the individual programs within a university do not, they are necessary ‘monocultures’ that bring together similarly skilled people to undertake a common course of study. A university dean wouldn’t ever let the geologists, the physicists, and the art students decide what is on the English lit curriculum but YouTube will - that’s what pays.

Hyphen-shaped people

This is not just a rant from some guy who couldn’t find the videos he wanted (though it is in part that), I’m seriously concerned that we’re creating a generation of learners who will end up hyphen-shaped.

Promoting the most widely watchable videos makes good business sense for YouTube. Building courses around skill shortages that attract people looking to get started on a specific career path is a great innovation, and a profitable one to boot. But replacements for the traditional liberal arts education they are not.

The best students take a wide array of courses early on and then specialise. They develop deep skills in a specific area. They become T-shaped. This is a pattern that has produced diligent, intelligent, and rigorous thinkers for decades. Online education, for right now, has no idea how to emulate this. It’s got the breadth covered, but not the critical depth necessary to become a viable alternative to an over-priced, administratively-bloated, ancient higher education system.

Businesses are hesitant to hire MOOC graduates because of a misunderstanding about what these courses are, the high dropout rate, and most importantly, the fact that anyone can get in. That hiring managers will select the worst performers from Harvard, MIT, and Stanford over the best from nearly anywhere else has been widely studied. Being accepted to these schools shovels prestige upon you. And while I fundamentally disagree with this view, the social media-ification of online learning environments only removes prestige.

Social media is an echo chamber where your friends and acquaintances present the best of themselves (or the worst, depending on you social circle). You’re primed to have an emotional response to everything you see. You can ‘like’ this, ‘applaud’ that. Many websites have a social element. The perennial parody is the business who wants to be the Facebook for X. But you cannot gamify the tight end of the skills funnel. Connecting the world is not Veritas - even Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard.

For online education to seriously rival and once and for all displace traditional education we need an alternative to ad revenue as a business model. We need to teach depth. We need more brave instructors to suffer through low rankings and angry comments. We need to wilfully ignore the chatter of the masses and remember that there are already plenty of resources for those new to the topic.