If the 2.1 million views on Daphne Koller's TED Talk are any indicator, the promise of online education has captured the imagination of many.

According to Koller (you can watch her TED Talk below this article), with online education, hundreds of thousands of students from anywhere in the world will be able to partake in Ivy-league-quality education for free.

But the most exciting promise of online education yet is to solve the "2 Sigma Problem" of providing a level of support that would help 98% of students perform above average--in a way that is scalable and cost-effective.

Multi-billion Dollar Promise

This prospect is so compelling that companies and investors have capitalized on it:

  • Udemy, one of the largest marketplaces for online courses, received $113M in investment from 2011 to 2015
  • CreativeLive, an online education platform, $30M in 2012 and 2013
  • Programming education company Treehouse received $12M from 2011 through 2013
  • Lynda.com was acquired by LinkedIn in April 2015 for a staggering $1.5 billion
  • Koller's own company, Coursera, $85M from investors in 2012 and 2013

All this money has gone into sophisticated technology and mechanisms to create exciting learning platforms and courses accessible to anybody in the world with a computer (or smartphone) and internet connection.

Promise Unfulfilled

But in fact that promise has gone unfulfilled.

The University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education found, for example, that on average, only half of students enrolled in massively open online courses (MOOCs) even viewed the first lecture. No surprise then that only about 4% actually completed the courses. And we don't even know how much those 4% learned!

Hundreds of studies comparing the outcomes of courses taught in person versus online have arrived at the same conclusion: no significant difference.

Clearly, most online learning just isn't designed to provide the support that students truly need to succeed.

No surprise there. Teaching anything worth learning is complex, and the possibility of doing it online is too new for anyone to be an expert at it yet.

Towards Online Education that Works

How can we create online education that in fact teaches?

We can draw inspiration from the "agile development" concept of the tech industry: First make it work, then make it better.

This underutilized process can be applied by online educators to improve student engagement, interest, and learning. The key is to get it right on a small scale before taking it to the masses.

Start with a simple course delivered to a small number of people, pay attention to what is and isn't working, and change the curriculum and delivery plans to make it better next time around. Keep testing, learning, and deploying in a cycle of improvement.

Do this before scaling up to the masses, because the paradox of scalable education is that, to deliver education at scale, you have to invest more time and money in things that don't scale. Not in the delivery platform, but in the course content itself--which includes student support.

Think Outside the Classroom

To reimagine online education, we must break free of our assumptions about what makes for effective education inside a classroom. Most online courses are traditional classes on a different medium. The problem is, many traditional classroom practices are based on incorrect best guesses that have persisted due to inertia and economics. They don't work in a classroom and they won't work online, either.

So we need to think outside the classroom and reimagine education to do better for students. Some ideas:

  • develop a curriculum on the fly with the input of the students
  • deliver lessons in more of a conditional flow-chart pattern rather than one-size-fits-all curricula
  • make course content as long or as short as is called for, not dictated by the teacher's and students' availability
  • facilitate peer review to improve the internalization of the subject matter as well as to scale the delivery of meaningful feedback to all students
  • use gamification for tracking, feedback, community, and incentives to make the learning process more engaging and experiential

These are only some of the possible innovations that can stretch the impact of online education. Many more and new technologies and platforms will add even more tools in the online educator's toolbox. Not all of them are essential to begin with. The key isn't to use every single one, but rather to use the right ones for the right purposes.

Eventually, maybe education can finally get a passing grade.

Published on: Jan 17, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.