Idea #20: The 21st Century Apprenticeship
Vision & First Principles:
A new path to education has been blazed in the last decade, and is poised to revolutionize an education system designed for The Industrial Revolution. From MIT OpenCourseWare (which really kicked this party off) to iTunesU to Khan Academy to Skillshare, anyone with an internet connection can today access education resources only available to a select few, at great cost, just a few years ago. This utopia of inexpensive digital learning has run squarely into the reality of the labor market, however. And the reality is that most employers continue to rely on degrees from branded institutions in the hiring process. In other words, you can now learn anything you want to online, but you can’t get any credit for it with an employer.
Online providers have responded to this with course credit offerings, however they are force-fitting an old approach into a new paradigm. The enormous power of digital, inexpensive, high-quality education is not that someone in college can digitally supplement their credits, though this will put much-needed downward pressure on college affordability. The real magic of these new education resources is in tapping the potential of those for whom formalized learning is impossible. In making advancement through learning achievable for those unable to access still-pricey, time-intensive, one-size-fits-all degree programs.
I see the solution to this impasse in an old Economics insight about education: that it has both signaling value and “real” value. What does this mean? Basically, that when you go to Harvard, there’s actual value in the additional information and skills you acquire, i.e. you’ve increased your productivity. This is the “real” value. But there’s also value in the signal that your attendance at Harvard sends to employers. Said another way, you could go to Harvard, learn nothing, and that “education” would still create a lot of value for you in the labor marketplace. Conversely, you could be Will Hunting. This signaling value exists because it’s difficult and inefficient for each employer to assess four years of education. It’s much easier to allow Harvard to signal, in the form of a degree and a GPA, that those four years were well-spent.
The solution, then, is to eliminate the signaling value of a degree by making the “real” value of an education as demonstrable and accessible as possible.
Early Product Ideas:
With all of the Economics talk, I’ve made this sound more complex than it needs to be. In fact, the concept is an old and simple one, and still in widespread use today. A portfolio of work is nothing but “real” value. Here is the quality of my work. See for yourself. No signal from a third-party is necessary. Artists of all types have been using portfolios for centuries. Today, this extends far beyond artists: programmers effectively build portfolios via contributions to Github, all variety of expertise is demonstrated in forums such as Quora, even Twitter has become a resume of sorts for many.
Despite this, the portfolio approach of demonstrating expertise has a serious limitation: many are not able to share their work. A lawyer cannot publish his briefs. A consultant cannot share work done for a client. A marketer cannot detail for competitors successful strategies pursued.
What I have in mind to overcome this confidentiality challenge, and provide a path to employment for those without the “right” signals, is a task marketplace in which the employer’s obligated to provide resume-building review. In other words, to turn labor marketplaces like MechanicalTurk and 99Designs from a downward spiral of labor commoditization to an upward ladder of economic advancement.
I imagine it would work something like this: You learn a new skill, you find and complete tasks in this marketplace with this skill, you’re provided publicly-shareable feedback on your performance, and then you’re prompted with resources to improve (if feedback is negative) or move up the ladder of expertise (if positive). Rinse and repeat until you have sufficiently advanced and/or proven your expertise to get credit for it in the labor market.
In a way, it’s 21st century apprenticeship: fragmented, remote and recorded.
What Would Keep Me Up:
As often discussed, building two sided marketplaces presents an enormous challenge from a standing start. Finding the right initial vertical, along with the right early employers and participants, would be critical. Even if one succeeded in building a marketplace, employers may not change hiring practices to value work-product portfolios.
We’re talking about nothing short of unleashing the potential of millions of people who have little or no access to the master key of the current labor market: the branded degree.
Paying The Bills:
As the middleman between employers and participants, capturing a small percentage of payments would generate an immediate revenue channel. In addition, recruiting tools would provide a lucrative opportunity as employers increasingly use the product to discover undervalued talent.
We’re experiencing a revolution in the way we educate, but haven’t seen a corresponding revolution in the way we hire. Moving to an approach based on demonstrated work, instead of degree signaling, levels the playing field and opens the labor market to millions for whom it has to-date been inaccessible.
Check out Chris’s idea today and vote on which is better!