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Education is Undergoing a Startling Revolution — Let’s Support it!

This post is written by Rob Nail – CEO of Singularity University, serial entrepreneur, angel investor, who loves to surf and surf the waves of accelerating change.

Rob Nail - CEO Singularity University

Education is undergoing an incredible and exciting transformation, but I can’t help but wonder if the “experts” can’t see the forest for the trees.  We are continuing to see roiling debates from the likes of Vivek Wadhwa and Peter Thiel over whether kids should go to college or not, administrations battling technologists over whether they need to flip the classroom, and politicians forcing us to pick sides as if there were only two options – all the while missing the extraordinary revolution taking place around us.

The education industry seems to be tracking similarly to every early stage tech industry or product with big potential – innovators are coming up with new products (check out Khan AcademyUdacity, or EdX), early adopters and investors (like Learn CapitalApollo GroupKapor Capital, and Education Growth Partners) enthusiastically take the initial risk, only some survive (rightfully so), and the good ones go mainstream or even viral.

Unfortunately, education is a uniquely complicated industry.  Not only is there a long history of strife around spending, infrastructure, politics, (not to mention the pressures from a depressed economy) and the expectation that education is a universal right, but we also fashion ourselves as experts (don’t you?) – at either what works or what doesn’t work.  This creates a risky and challenging environment for innovators to dive into – not the “safe to fail” environment required for creativity and experimentation.  Regardless of these challenges, entrepreneurs, educators, and students cannot resist the advantages that technology brings to the table, and thus technology is finally starting to bring about the transformation in education that we have all long hoped for.

If we want to hasten the transformation of education, we should not only acknowledge that we are in the awkward early-growth stage, but fully embrace it.  We should be trying out every new concept and technology and helping the education innovators evolve and iterate their products quickly.

And today, there are a lot of really cool new things to watch, try, and support – of which, here are four technology areas that are particularly exciting to me:

1.)Social networking – peer-to-peer learning platforms like UdemyOpen Study, and Instructables allow experts to strut their stuff: the best ones will rise to the top based on user ratings.

2.)Artificial Intelligence and Adaptive Learning  – Platforms like IBM’s Watson (the winner of 2011 Jeopardy) are demonstrating increasingly complex intelligence that will is quickly being applied to education to provide ever adaptive learning environments (check out Knewton).

3.) Sensors and Feedback Technologies  – Cheaper, faster, and better sensing technologies are also going to drive innovation.  There are numerous tech companies experimenting with recognizing whether a student is tuned in or tuned out through facial expression analysis.  We will begin to see the work of companies like Hanson Robotics translate into educational tools in the near future.

4.) Neuroscience and Psychology  – Ultimately innovation in education is striving to create the optimal learning environment.  Research in the fields of cognitive neuroscience and educational psychology is  rapidly bringing new insights into how we learn and retain information and how these differences between individuals can be designed into education, not ignored.

Bonus: If you aren’t convinced of the enormous potential technology can play in transforming education, be sure to watch Nicholas Negroponte’s One Tablet Per Child Project.  Earlier this year he airdropped  tablets into two illiterate remote villages in Ethiopia.  These were new tablets in boxes -  loaded with education apps and powered by solar panels – and no instructions whatsoever were provided.  In the first two weeks of this two year experiment, over 57 of the apps were being used on a daily basis and many of the children were reciting and competing over their knowledge of the ABCs.

If that doesn’t convince you of the power and potential of these new platforms and applications, hand a 2 year old your iPad and watch what happens.  The natural curiosity and learning capacity of kids is being enabled by new and intuitive technologies like the gestural interface of tablets.

We are witness to and able to participate in an extraordinary and empowering social transformation.  Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater by getting stuck on the debates about the “digital divide,” whether we need to force “flipping classroom,” or whether we should stop sending our kids to college.  We are still in the alpha and beta versions of the new education models,  and so let’s have these debates, but also stay open minded and supportive of these visionary new technologies and educational models.  Where they are taking us is nothing short of revolutionary!


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  • Panpiper says:

    Despite all the marvelous developments mentioned in this article, I believe the greatest impediment to education is being entirely unaddressed. All these extraordinary tools will have relatively little impact on a child that does not want to learn. Our current approach to education is the exact opposite of what is needed to address that problem, indeed it actively fosters resistance to learning.

    Imagine if you will a hungry child, more than willing to eat. In the next room is a table filled with all manner of food. You grab the child, pick them up and haul them into the room. Without telling the child a thing, you hold their head steady, grab some food and stuff it down their throat. Handful after handful you shove it in and demand that they swallow. Just how receptive do you expect the child to be towards your benevolence? That is our existing educational paradigm.

    Children are naturally curious. They do not need to be forced to learn. If they are surrounded by interesting educational opportunities, they will educate themselves with virtually no effort on our part. Any effort on our part to ‘require’ them to learn something ‘we’ think they should learn is far more likely to inspire in them a resentment of our imposition. They may obey out of fear of punishment, and learn the minimum necessary to escape it, but that is a far cry from the effectiveness of the education they will gain if they themselves discover and pursue their own interests.

    To the retort, “But what if my kid doesn’t want to read?” I would reply, “Look to your example, not to your fist.”

  • anthrobotic says:

    Here’s a brief and somewhat more lighthearted piece on new education movements: TERMINAL ANACHRONISM: The Traditional University System (ENDANGERED) – Somewhat dated shameless self-promo, but along the same lines as this piece with a long list of resources in the article. So yeah – JSYK!

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  • redwoodkiwi says:

    Inspiring and thought provoking post. Thanks Rob.

    However, for all this innovation to make it into the classroom, and for the revolution to take hold, we need an education system that is receptive to change.

    Earlier today, I came across a new video created by Intel. The video shows us what technology can do for the educator and how different modalities of learning are possible with the right ecosystem (always connected, always learning). It’s actually quite amazing and well worth the 3 minutes:

    Articles like yours and videos like the one mentioned are exciting but I am worried that our education system is too far riddled with inertia and paralyzed with old-school methods, thinking, fear, uncertainty and doubt.

    Something disruptive we need. Mmmm. More thinking like yours.


  • Gorgand Grandor says:

    Kids should certainly learn what is necessary and follow what they are interested in, because it is their interests that they will be passionate about.

    There’s no point in forcing 10 year olds to learn French. Education at that age should all be about important basic education in math and science and things that are actually useful beyond the tiny number who would become translators and so on.

    Furthermore, public money should go to useful subjects. Publically funded colleges should teach practical knowledge, or at the very least, society should only give funding to useful applicable subjects. If you want to major in 15th Century Gender Studies, waste your own money.

    That’s what I think about education. Fund what gets results, and then let people choose their own path if they want to spend their own money on it. As for further in the future, technology is going to make it possible for kids to potentially learn at home too. And if AI is doing the teaching, that’s teachers out of a job.

  • David Lindberg says:

    I think a good way to motivate people to learn, is to put the old material in an entirely new light. I have a project I want to work on when I start (IF I can get in, I really, really hope) on the IT-University of Copenhagen. I’ve noticed throughout my time in school, that something people would always, ALWAYS do at some point during lessons in various fields, was to put up their hands and ask “But why am I supposed to learn this? What can I even use it for?” A question that is commonly mistaken by the teachers as “I don’t really want to learn this, so I’m saying this to avoid having to do it”. But I thought to myself that it was actually a quite sincere question, not only as an excuse, but many times the student is actually looking for a motivational factor. Something I know because it’s not very long ago since I was in the same position, I know what it feels like to not know those things. But during my exams I realized something really interesting, and that was just how gripping and engaging all the subjects suddenly became when you sat down and shaped an overview, then put it into a completely different perspective. My idea is to emulate these ‘purposes’ that the students so frequently ask for, through simulation. An example that I want to pick up on (try not to steal this idea btw, lol) is language constructs. I’ve just had spanish for 3 years now, and I have to admit that I had a really, really hard time engaging myself in the subject. But then when I were to read up on the subject for the exam as well as my english exam, I decided to put everything into an overview as if it was a machine with different parts that all had their various functions assigned to them. I quickly realized just how much sense it made in that perspective, and how engaging it could actually be if you did an overlay of game mechanics ontop of the engine – the better you are at the language, the better you are at the game. My idea is to make it a bit like a fantasy-genre’ish golem construction simulation where the individual parts consist of words with their individual function, each described with their individual functionality and each one of them has to be put together correctly for the golem to function properly. Something which in turn will boost statistics for that one construct and can be brought to life in, for example, a combat scenario. The kids will get an understanding of language constructs in all shapes and sizes, and be motivated to learn more about them because it has a direct impact on the things they create in the emulator – and therefore provides a simulated answer. It might not be exactly this that they are supposed to learn the language for, but it adds a purpose to the learning, gives that extra motivational boost because you feel that what you learn makes a direct impact. It’s like motivation through simulation, something that can more or less literally be applied in all fields and can easily be tailored in different shapes and forms all depending on the student (it might not be everyone who want to have their sentences go and beat up each other).

    • johndraper says:

      These are all great ideas, but the underlying problem is that novelty is a poor long-term motivator.

      Freakonomics put it best: “people respond to incentives”. And to add to that people respond very poorly to incentives with a payout far in the distance.

      Why do most students have a low motivation towards education? Because the incentives are stacked against them. Smart kids are less socially popular, they don’t get any payback for their talents for many years, and they often don’t even get to pursue the subjects that really interest them within an academic environment.

      Make things more interesting or stimulating and you’ll get a quick motivational boost. Fix the incentives, both social and financial, and then you’ll truly solve the education problem.

  • ryancameron says:

    This is something good to focus on, but I would argue the approaches to learning remain stuck well in the past. Video streaming, text (ebooks) still represent old ways of thinking of education as they are directly analogous to books and lectures, both of which have been proven to be some of the worst and least effective ways to actually teach. I’m currently working on a project that, I believe, is the start of transforming learning to an asynchronous mentorship experience where the learner actually has a voice both individually, collaboratively, and collectively with the instructor. We seriously do not need to simply replicate the book and lecture world, technology is far more sophisticated and capable than that. I hope to be a part of the evolution towards the asynchronous mentorship movement, which I believe is the next phase of evolution for education. If you’re interested in hearing more email me at [email protected].

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