And schools are next

There’s a reason that Stanford sells sweatshirts and spends as much on athletics as it does academics: loyalty. Universities aim to create a sense of shared identity, of allegiance to a tribe, and most importantly, prestige for the university itself.

In education, the locus of authority, of popularity, of loyalty is the school, not the teacher.

This won’t last.

In the old world, companies built their brand for decades, then leased their good name to their employees. You were a reporter for the New York Times or a writer for TV Guide. What was your name? Who knows. Why should anyone listen to you? Because you worked for an outlet we trusted.

Then, the internet happened, and journalists no longer relied on the endorsement and employment of established news companies. Instead, they built direct relationships with their audience via social media. They developed their credibility through good work, and their devotion through the intimacy, authenticity, and unscripted candor that the internet provides. Their fans followed them from project to project, platform to platform.

People used to trust brands. Now they trust faces.

The dominant media corporations are just beginning to topple. In time, every profession dominated by institutions will transform.

And no field is more ripe for renaissance than teaching.

Higher education shares many of the same characteristics that news media once did. The institution dominates; value flows to and from the school. While students cross their fingers Harvard or Berkeley – few applicants know the names of the specific professors who will teach their courses. Teachers derive their reputation from the schools in which they work. Unless they write a best-selling book, they must remain inside academia in order to retain credibility and income.

Authority is even more concentrated in primary and secondary schools. A family might move to attend a “good school”, but rarely because they seek a particular teacher. Even when teachers are beloved by their students, the value and scale of that popularity ends at the borders of their school district. If a physics teacher in New Jersey moves to California, her reputation doesn’t proceed her, and her students won’t follow. Her previous school keeps the reputation for excellence that her work created.

The next decade will upend this dynamic. The next wave of superstar teachers will distribute their lessons on Youtube, full of recurring jokes. They’ll hold office hours on Facebook with two thousand students across the world. They’ll share their academic and non-academic hobbies on Instagram. They’ll create weekly podcasts, nerding out on their favorite subjects and discussing the ways in which their field shapes the news and affects real people. They’ll earn a living through exclusive lessons on Patreon, individual and small group tutoring over Google Hangouts, and monthly private donations. Sal Khan started Khan Academy by uploading lessons to his family on Youtube. The next Sal Khan will build his following on Snapchat.

This change will bring about many of the same practical and ethical issues that have emerged in journalism over the past few years: does training and licensing matter? How do we enforce standards of accuracy and objectivity? What happens when a popular teacher accepts advertisers on their podcast? If these questions disturb you, then start thinking about them now. Ask an executive at Sony Music or the Washington Post: you can’t fight the internet, you can only prepare for it.

Unlike record stores, brick-and-mortar high schools aren’t going away any time soon. Stanford will still be sought after for the next several decades. Yet, more educators will opt to work directly with students at scale, rather than serve the needs of a stodgy bureaucracy. Salaries of the savviest teachers will rise as they create side incomes as podcasters and tutors. Schools will compete for teachers that command a loyal, global audience. And students will have direct access to the best teachers in the world, no matter what town they live in.

If you are a school administrator, then this all sounds rather stressful.

If you are a teacher or a student (and we all are, always), then the future couldn’t be more exciting.

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