Lately, I’ve seen three interesting bits on the future of education, and I wanted to share some thoughts on what they mean. The first is a quickie by Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek, titled “Grocery School.” It starts “Suppose that we were supplied with groceries in same way that we are supplied with K-12 education.” It’s a fun thought experiment. The second is this video, which is worth watching through:
What Khan says about why his cousins prefer him on Youtube rings true. But “rings true” to Adam doesn’t matter here. By deploying the system online, it becomes a testable proposition. That will feed a level of experimentation and improvement that we haven’t seen in education. Before I get to what that all means, one more data point, which is this press release from the Gates Foundation, which covers how they’re spending 7.5 million on games for education.
To bring all of this together, what we’re seeing is recognition of the failure of the “Taylorist” system of education, where we think of education as a mechanistic transfer of information from teacher to student that happens at a constant rate, and the realization that we need systems that handle the amazing diversity of students. To do that, we’re going to need not just experiments followed by reform, but a constant process of experiment and adjustment. If you think the home-schooling movement and the early college movement have transformed school, just wait. Those are like Martin Luther’s theses, and they’re going to kick off layers of transformation. And with that transformation and chaos all sorts of things will emerge. A lot of them are good, but before we get there, there are several risks that we can foresee.
The first is that learning becomes but a set of discrete activities, rather than a lifelong process. That “hierarchy” that Khan discusses is not just a breakdown of learning, it’s inherently an exclusion of something that doesn’t make the chart. For example, research methods for young students will likely be a combination of search engines and critical thinking about web sites, with an ever-diminishing value placed on going to the library. You know, “reflecting the modern world.” Going to the library and really digging for an old book won’t help you stay at the top, and even a great teacher will only be allowed to award a few discretionary points. Another way to think about that is with the addition of game mechanics (the “leaderboard and badges” that Khan discusses) and games for learning that Gates is funding elsewhere, we’ll see a distinct quantization of learning. That the goal is to hit the badge, or top the board. When things become easy to measure, the hard to measure gets ignored.
Another risk is what will happen when teachers can see every moment of goofing off? Will that be used to drive diagnoses of ADHD even higher for normal boys? Will “not living up to potential” be a new and ‘data-driven’ part of the report card?
Yet another risky area is privacy and commercialization. Will digitization lead to marketing of new tutoring systems? Will report cards and transcripts convert from an A-F summary to a computer-readable XML-encapsulated explanation of every problem set that little Robert and Jane have been through? (And note that that the process of making the transcript computer-readable will further drive out non-standardized activities. If there’s no code for “went to the rare book room,” there’s no credit for it, and if there’s no credit for it, why bother in today’s hyper-competitive world of college admissions?)
Interestingly, one of the few broad privacy laws in the US, the COPPA protects those under 13 to some extent, but I don’t think it considers educators as much as commercial web sites, and when Harvard demands the XML file, well, you can opt-in to their admissions process or not.
So even recognizing those risks, we’ll likely get an educational system that will stay with students who are having trouble without holding back those who want to move faster. We’ll learn to give students skills and approaches faster and faster. We’ll have to figure out now to ensure students learn cooperation, project management and other harder to quantify sorts of things. But I do think that we can give kids more skills and knowledge faster and better than we do today. If we do that, the world will have more smarter people than ever before, and even more interesting chaos will emerge.
I suspect there’s other things that will predictably go wrong, and other outcomes that I’m not seeing. What do you think?