Architect and educator, Fred Stitt spoke at H+ 2012 about the future of education. Stitt said that he had problems with education from an early age. It annoyed him how inefficient it was to transfer information in a traditional classroom lecture. It has a very low rate of bits per minute according to Fred. I am less inclined to discount the bit rate of non-verbal communication, but I agree with the overall sentiment. The “Education is broken” meme is gaining steam as evidenced by Thiel’s 20 under 20 fellowship where he pays promising young people to forgo college and start working directly on the projects they are passionate about.
Stitt’s preferred solution to the education problem is a little less controversial, namely, online learning. Online learning has received a lot of attention lately. Norvig and Thrun’s Stanford online AI class famously attracted more than 100,000 students and was recently transferred over to Udacity, which is a private player in the online learning space. MIT is a big participant with it’s OpenCourseWare and edX partnership with Harvard. Coursera, which partners with many schools such as Stanford, Caltech, and Duke rounds out the Big Three of the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) world. So many big name schools have already started providing courses online.
Of course, I don’t want to neglect one inspirational small player, the Khan academy whose earnest founder, Sal Khan, won over the hearts (and pried open the pocketbook) of the Gates foundation. Sal records very engaging lessons himself primarily using a virtual blackboard. The Khan academy has quizzes for students and tools to help teachers keep track of student progress. There is also a cool map to show students which foundational skills are required to learn each subject. I am pleased to say that I myself contributed in a small way to this project when I helped Asante Africa image a bunch of laptops to help native translators could translate Khan academy videos into several African languages. My friend David is really into a free-schooling and was less enamored with Khan academy when he checked it out. He thought it was too geared toward helping kids pass tests as opposed to actually learning the material. I do agree that Khan academy’s work is more complementary to rather than than a replacement for standard classroom education.
But yeah, online learning. It’s a thing. According to Stitt, one of the issues that make online learning so important is the discriminatory practices of the current education system. He pointed out the quotas that previously restricted Jewish student enrollment at the ivy league colleges and the current Asian quotas that appear to be in place. He also mentioned that the faculty pose one of the largest obstacles to broader adoption of online learning. So academia appears to be populated with backward racist luddites. Do tell, Fred, do tell.
Stitt did acknowledge some drawback to online learning such as the lack of accreditation. He argues that there will be various mechanisms for teachers to sign off on student mastery of subject matter as the field matures, but that schools that have traditionally acted as guardians of accreditation are fighting to maintain the status quo. Stitt seems to suggest that skyrocketing education costs will provide more opportunities for new players to disrupt this situation. Another problem with online learning is the lack of personal contact and feedback. One solution Stitt brought up that I found interesting is the concept of multiple campus enrollment. He is apparently suggesting that online students would be able to physically attend multiple campuses to interact with students and teachers. Arguably, the students who stand to benefit the most from online learning, such as those in remote or undeveloped parts of the world, don’t have access to campuses anyway. Those folks might be stuck waiting for immersive virtual reality to provide a technical solution for remote personal interaction.
Finally, it seems from my notes that Stitt suggested online learning could provide a platform to research the learning process itself. I scribbled something about optimizing perception and lobe activation. Now that does seem interesting. As teachers can gather more data about precisely how the courseware is consumed, they will be able to identify the highest value techniques for students with various learning styles. The Inner Life of the Cell video comes to mind when thinking about optimizing perception and lobe activation. The maker of this video also presented at H+ this year and I will say more about this later, but students that watched this video scored well above a control group deprived of this animation when testing time came.
There is plenty more to say about online learning in relation to free-schooling and also the question of how humans will stay competitive in the face of automation. I will try to dig into that more in future posts.
UPDATE: I just came across this article in which the One Laptop Per Child folks just dumped a bunch of tablets on some African kids and let them teach themselves. I must say that I have some skepticism around free-schooling, but this is pretty compelling. My nagging concern is that without some curriculum, kids will overlook important foundational knowledge that is maybe less fun or interesting. I like the idea of presenting kids with a carefully curated set of apps to explore on their own. With this approach, care can be taken to include stuff grownups agree is important.