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!

Rob Nail
Rob Nail
For more than eight years as associate founder and CEO of Singularity University (SU), Rob was teleported into the future through the eyes and work of some of the greatest thought leaders and changemakers of our time. He helped shape SU into a global leader for understanding exponential technologies and utilizing them for transformation and positive impact. He has worked directly with many startups, Fortune500 companies, NGOs, and government leaders to help inform and inspire their visions of the future, while building the paths to create it. Today, as a global ambassador for SU, Rob has returned to the present to focus on creating the roadmaps necessary to reach the future he has seen as possible. He is passionate about technological disruption, global entrepreneurship, social impact investing, the future of education, transformation of work, innovative diversity, robots, AI advisors, and the ethics of technology. He has two small kids who remind him daily that his past is mostly irrelevant to their future. In his past, Rob co-founded Velocity11 in 1999, building automation and robotics for cancer research and drug discovery. After being acquired by Agilent Technologies in 2007, he traded the CEO role for a general manager role attempting to be a catalyst for change at a big company. He gave up in 2009 to go surfing, then found his biggest challenge yet with Singularity University. He was recently a public director at Harman (HAR), on the technology and audit committees. He helped Harman explore options for long-term growth in a rapidly changing automobile industry, ultimately resulting in an ~$8 billion acquisition by Samsung. As their largest acquisition in history, it brings Samsung directly into the automobile and autonomous car market. Rob is a member of the MG100 (Marshall Goldsmith’s leadership cohort), is currently on the board of Light&Motion, is a co-founder and director of Alite Designs, is an active angel investor and advisor, holds degrees in Mechanical, Materials Science and Manufacturing Systems Engineering from UC Davis and Stanford University, and is a struggling author, maker, and surfer, but above all, a proud husband and father.
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