Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Disruptive Path for Deutsche Welle - Udacity is the future not news

Deutsche Welle, the German international public broadcaster, is holding a conference in Bonn next month. It is supposed to be about the future of growth. That's ironic when this part of Europe is collapsing under an economic meltdown. 

They've invited scholars to talk about globalisation. And political figures to speak to us about the German view on the world. Not quite sure what the take away on that one will be this time. Because we've heard the general story several times.

Mission Control. DW HQ in Bonn
This is the sixth time the DW and the city of Bonn has brought a couple of thousand people to former parliament building next door to one of DW's gigantic broadcast complexes (the other one is in Berlin). Yet, I believe,  the program demonstrates that there is a huge missed opportunity here.

What next for DW in its 60th year?

I believe that instead of pressing the reset button each year in July, the DW should be taking the discussion started last year a lot further. Because the elephant in the room is that Deutsche Welle, along with several other government-financed broadcasters like VOA, has no future as an international news organisation. Radio Sweden, Radio Netherlands, Swiss Radio International have all gone away.

As the streets of Europe come alight with people rioting for change (you don't want to be in Stockholm at the moment), I don't believe audiences anywhere are turning to the Deutche Welle to try and find answers. 

In other words, DW is no longer influencing the global conversation. Other stations with much deeper pockets and a more focused strategy have taken over that role. I would love to be proved wrong. But I cannot find any evidence to prove the contrary to that conclusion. How has DW's activities in Bonn changed the course of a history in any one particular country?

Sadly, DW seems to be missing the main point that I took away from last year's gathering by the Rhine, when the topic was Education and the Media. 

We all got what we said back in a beautifully bound book, as teams of student reporters captured every word of the panels. So what's the point?

Higher Education is going through major changes. Disrupted by start-ups. Lots of what they teach in Universities are no longer in books. The structure of lectures is totally different from what it used to be.

And the irony is that one of the most disruptive organisations bringing about this change is driven by someone who was born and educated in Bonn. Within walking distance of the Deutsche Welle.

I grew up in Germany, a country that offers excellent education. Yet when I started my Master's degree in computer science, I found myself among 1,200 other Master's students with just five professors. Needless to say, I ended up mostly educating myself through books that were available at a nearby research institute.

He left for Silicon Valley, eventually finding his way to Stanford, leading the university team's entry in the 2005 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) Grand Challenge to create an autonomous vehicle that could navigate 132 miles through a desert. He founded Google's X Lab. As the Wall Street Journal reported in their profile of Sebastian...

He insisted on a blank slate, letting student imaginations run wild as opposed to proving that some professor's arcane research actually works. "It's sad that we never get trained to leave assumptions behind," he says. Stanford won by 11 minutes.

At the Darpa challenge he met Google founder Larry Page, who would attend the races hiding behind dark sunglasses and a hat. Mr. Page hired Mr. Thrun and his team at first to work on StreetView for Google Maps. But his role soon evolved: "Larry frequently had me to dinner and every time, Larry would dream something up that was completely crazy. My gut reaction was that this makes no sense, it can't work, it's completely flawed. And I'd go home, do some calculations and a day or a week later I'd apologize and say: You were completely right."

He's now picking a huge problem that matters to society. That of the cost and access to higher education. The economic woes of the world are having a major impact on who gets access to the minds that will change this planet.

If, as a young student, I had the chance to learn from the best professors in the world, my life might have been different. I have been fortunate. Yet so many potential learners are still denied access. Education has become much more exclusive, and getting into a top-10 computer science department is still out of reach for all but a chosen few. 

Sebastian is the founder of Udacity, one of the growing number on-line education platforms. They give away excellent courses on important subjects for free. Like the course by Steve Blank on how to start a startup. 

A similar type of course by Prof Kevin Werbach on Gamefication attracted 60,000 students when it launched on Coursera earlier this year. It turns out that putting a course on line doesn't destroy the business model of the Universities behind it.

This triumvirate of industry and academia is now teaming up to use 21st Century technology to level the playing field in computer science education. And while the degree rightfully comes with a tuition fee -- after all, to achieve the very best in online education we will provide support services -- the bare content will be available free of charge, available for anyone eager to learn. We are also launching non-credit certificates at a much reduced price point, to give a path to those who don't care about Georgia Tech credit or degrees, but still want their learning results certified.

So what's this got to do with the Deutsche Welle?

In Bonn last year, several speakers, including myself, suggested that DW wake up to the fact that it has everything in place to become one of the world's leading educators. The country has leading technology companies, universities, even disruptive start-ups. It could really influence the world. Instead of just reporting about it. 

As they say in Silicon Valley - time to pivot! And quickly. I wonder what on earth will happen.

DW Forum last year on the future of Education. But what does it mean for the DW itself?

Outgoing Director General Erik Bettermann leaves DW on 30th September 2013

Discussions by the side of the Rhine. But discussions need to be acted upon.

Guido Westerwelle speaking last year in Bonn about educational partnerships. What happened to that discussion?

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