By Simon Karpen, Technical Consultant

The Churchill Club, a Silicon Valley group dedicated to Igniting Conversations to Encourage Innovation and Economic Growth, recently held the annual “Top 10 Tech Trends” event. A panel of well-known venture capitalists discussed, argued, and eventually had the audience vote on a selection of 10 tech trends that will be relevant over the next five years.

One of these trends is a movement towards Zero Marginal Cost Education.

In this industry, the key problem in the coming decades will be finding enough truly qualified innovators, thinkers and do-ers to build the next generation of companies and technologies. Whether or not somebody even has a chance at the level of education required to succeed in this industry depends on many factors, most of which are outside their control. These include:

  •  Who your parents are, and the nature of their background
  •  Which school district you live in
  • Whether or not you lucked into good teachers
  • Whether or not you found a good mentor
  • Access to extracurricular classes, materials, projects
  • What books you had access to
  • Whether you had access to online resources
  • Your social network consists of people with similar backgrounds

While some of these problems are not easily solvable (you don’t get to choose your parents), the availability of zero-marginal-cost educational content can help even the odds level the gap, and at least give students from disadvantaged backgrounds a fighting chance. Many of the problems with traditional educational models stem from what are effectively high per-seat costs, location dependence, or just plain old luck.

The key with Zero Marginal Cost Education is just that — zero marginal cost. It doesn’t require that you luck into good parents, buy expensive books, pay for high-dollar extra-curricular, or access online resources behind a paywall. While it’s not a new idea (ask anybody with a library card), the breadth and depth of available material (and the location independence) are new. CK-12, Khan Academy, OpenCourseware, Codeacademy, and even Wikipedia don’t care where you’re located, whether you have a reasonable local library, or how much you spend on extra-curricular.

In short, Zero Marginal Cost educational resources help even the odds, particularly for students with disadvantaged backgrounds. They may not be as optimal as a top-notch class taught in person, but for many students, they are far better than the alternative.

But why does this tie into the talent shortage? In many ways, we don’t have a shortage of potential talent, we have a shortage of realized talent. For every Stanford graduate working for the latest tech startup, how many students with the same potential talent didn’t even make it to college, slide through on an easy major because they lack the background for anything else, or drop out of high school due to sheer discouragement and despair? Zero marginal cost education helps students of all backgrounds realize their talent, perform to their potential, and develop those 21st-century skills that are critical for meaningful 21st-century careers.