The scaling of education really could change everything

I enjoyed a series of articles that Vinod Khosla wrote on TechCrunch this weekend. His final one on education reminded me of just what a suboptimal situation we've gotten into with education (not just education until high school which he focuses on, but even most professional education.)

What was supposed to help you prepare for your future, has somehow become to many just another box to check on the way towards it. As a society, we've lost the plot a little bit.

"I've never let schooling get in the way of my learning" - Mark Twain

Its understandable how we got here, but the technology we have at our disposable now gives us little excuse to stay put or continue in the same direction.

Assuming someone wants to learn (i.e. is willing to study, learn etc.), most education (in fact everything that excludes academia and research), finally comes down to three things that you expect from an institution:

  • Instruction: - i.e. teaching you and telling you what to read and how to learn  
  • Support: - i.e. help with material, rituals, regimen as you learn
  • Certification: - i.e. tests and finally a degree/certificate confirming to the rest of the world that you indeed did learn whatever you were supposed to

Today, all of these come tightly grouped together, and we've come to point with education where the incentives are to always focus on the certification - you try insanely hard to get into a school; if you get in you pay (increasingly more and more!) for it, and then try to get the best grades you can - in the process hopefully you learned well!

But most of us, from personal experience, know that this often doesn't work. There are a few different reasons for this.

  • Instruction: Most teaching sucks. A lot of the discussion above may seem US-centric, but the problem is orders of magnitude worse in most developing countries where teachers are even more underpaid, and are able to get away with doing even lesser.
  • Support: Same as above.
  • Certification: when time becomes the forcing function (i.e. we have a limited amount of time and a certain date to prove ourselves by, on the margin we choose to either optimize grades or gravitate towards systems where the learning itself isn't important, but getting the right grade is.) In my own experience, I've seen people take classes (or more often drop classes) based on maximizing their grade rather than what they actually wanted to learn or what they knew was the right thing to do.

    In some systems, even those that should believe the certifications no longer do. For example, most software companies in India have a 3-6 month training programs in software engineering for recent college graduates. They know that the lack of Instruction and Support has meant that students aren't actually ready though they've picked up the Certification that says they are.

    Think of all the wasted time (i.e. those 3-6 months and perhaps even most of the 4 years spent in college) and all that wasted effort!

    Even worse, think about how much effort students put in, into getting into good schools vs. actually learning. We're missing the point!

Which is why model that the Khan Academy proposes and is deploying so successfully is so promising (video below.) Students, learning at their own pace from quality instruction via video and re-enforcing what they're learning through online exercises that are better with repetition. They use the classroom to ask questions and do homework. The model could easily apply to most education including college and arguably most post-graduate professional education.

Think about the things that we know the Internet does well:

  • Democratizing access to information: we already have some of the best teaching materials, and increasingly teachers available online, and with the right incentives it allows the best teachers to scale. The best teachers no longer need to be available to those that can afford it or get lucky. They can (almost) scale to the entire world.
  • Allowing people to collaborate and learn from each other: Arguably not enough in itself for supporting students, but helpful. However, software is (literally) infinitely more patient as a teacher than humans. It won't hesitate to ask you to repeat things when you get them wrong, and will keep doing it (hopefully guiding you along the way) until you do. - these are problems we know we can solve.

Given the tools we have today, we know we can radically change Instruction and Support for the better - making the best of these available to (eventually) everyone that can access these resources. Its silly to pretend this completely democratizes education - there are huge societal hurdles to making sure people have the time and then the motivation to learn, which we currently solve by sending children/adults off to school, but the building blocks to improve education are now available to everyone with access to a decent Internet connection.

The most challenges remain with Certifications - but that will follow.

  • Will schools admit someone that purely learned online? - I believe they soon will and some already do. 
  • Will people hire folks whose educations and credentials were earned online? -  Yup. 
  • And what do schools and colleges look like in this world? What do they focus on? How do they add value? What does their business model look like - That will be more complicated.

I've been raised to believe that nothing is more important than education when you're growing up. My parents worked hard, and sacrificed many, many things to help me get a good education, and their parents even more so. In their mind, learning, was the key to future happiness, and they had remarkably similar models for what it meant to get that learning (school, college, grades, studying hard, good teachers etc.)

It seems to me though, like the revolution has begun and my experience with my kids will be very different. The future will be fun. :-)


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