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YouTube has become the most popular way to say “streaming web video.” Every child knows that “to google” means searching for stuff. Where do you go for that quick fix of facts? Wikipedia.

From a brand-perspective, this is the ultimate success. Your brand is merged with what it’s representing. And everyday language picks it up.

But why there is no one-stop source for Online Learning, yet? Is it simply not popular enough? Or are there technical difficulties?

Now, the term e-Learning has been around for quite a while:

“E-learning comprises all forms of electronically supported learning and teaching. The information and communication systems, whether networked or not, serve as specific media to implement the learning process.”

And it’s getting less and less popular.

As you can see it just continues to slide down from 2004. Where we’d normally see press-references, it only says “no data available”. Does that mean that e-learning has failed?

If you look at the term “online class” on the other hand, you see something very different.

Here we see a gradual growth with recent bursts of popularity.

So, what’s the problem?

  1. e-Learning describes too many different things at the same time. (see also, here)
  2. The e has become virtually meaningless because we expect things to be electronic by default.
  3. It does not distinguish between technology-aided self-study and live lessons conducted via technology

But back to our question:

If online learning is so great, as I frequently like to claim, why haven’t we seen a startup or existing company take advantage of it?

With a bit of research, excuse me – googling – you can find a huge variety of startups that are definitely trying. As usual I won’t give names because of their ever-changing nature and sometimes very complicated description. Instead I will group them together:

These are generally

  1. Online Tutor directories: pick a teacher/tutor, schedule a lesson, learn in private or in groups
  2. Interactive Community Platforms: solve quizzes, drill vocabulary and exchange information in a social network
  3. Knowledge-Bases: Collections of video, texts or other materials, imagine it like an online textbook

(Note: The term e-learning would include all three of them while online classes normally would only refer to number one.)

All of the online learning startups that I can think of fit in either of this category. Correct me if I’m wrong. Also, often they mix different aspects of online learning like communities around knowledge-bases that also offer listings of tutors/teachers.

There are many of them. But none of them has managed to “dominate the market”, yet.

I find that very strange.

There is no hugely popular or even commonly-known place on the net, or a word for that matter that describes online learning in a simple and straightforward matter as google = searching stuff or YouTube = streaming video. (Note: technically rather complex concepts explained in one word!)  Another good example is “to skype” which means of course “to make long distance audio video calls over the Internet”.

Recently, a friend of mine tried to call me and I didn’t pick up his call. A few hours later I followed-up and told him I’d been busy. He asked: “Have you been learnoutlive-ing?”

Only now I realize that what he did was taking the concept of  “teaching live language lessons over video/audio conferencing software” and summarizing it in one word.

As nice as that may be for “our brand” (I usually avoid thinking in those terms) I’m telling you this to illustrate what we are lacking in the online learning world.

So, again, why is there no one-stop-source for all your online learning needs?

Reason 1: Startups are too fuzzy from the beginning. By trying to cover multiple “needs” they miss a core simplicity which is a key factor in being recognized on a global scale.

If I could give people creating “online learning” startups advice, it would be this: Make it as simple as possible! Don’t try to “increase perceived value” by slapping on a dozen secondary features and options, go for one of the three aspects that I’ve mentioned above and stick with it! Also, you can’t run an online learning business like a factory! Get people in the boat who have experience with teaching or learning, not just hard-boiled economics!

But I don’t want to blame it all on the startups.

Reason 2: Traditional education (schools, universities) still dominate the way we think about learning to a large degree! Often we are simply not ready to try something new. Online learning to many of us is still something experimental. We are not sure about it. And often, we aren’t even willing to try because it won’t necessarily give us that same sense of recognition like actually being “on campus” or sitting in a lecture. After all, sometimes our need to be seen as learning is equally strong or even stronger than the willingness to learn itself. But that’s more of a psychological problem, of course.

Reason 3: Our over-infatuation with technology keeps us from using technology in a simple and straightforward way. Over infatuation? Yes. We are emotionally invested in our gadgets and devices. Jonathan Franzen from the New York Times put it like this:

the ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance — with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.

And, as he points out this relation to technology obstructs our relations to real people. Regarding learning this can become a problem, because – this is something that I’ve mentioned many times before – learning is relational in its ultimate form.

Put simply: While we are still obsessed with our technology we won’t be able to use it for learning in a simple and constructive way.

And it is this reason why there is not yet a Google, Wikipedia or Skype in the world of online learning.

Because technology and relationships – to many of us – are still mutually exclusive categories.

There is a hope that we can substitute the uncomfortable intimacy of relationships with gadgets, toys, etc.

And while we all know that this is impossible, it might still be a long time before we can see the real difference between relating to a piece of hard- or software and a human being and employ the advantages on both sides of the man-machine divide.

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