4 February 2014

An optimist’s view of the changes in education and in our lives

changes in education

Changes in education are inevitable. An optimist always thinks that change is for the better. In his book, The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley describes the progress of human knowledge, a process of accelerating, spontaneous, change. Larger and larger human communities connect  and exchange goods, information, and ideas. Only the best ideas survive. As these ideas accumulate, they become part of our collective intelligence. The result, in the last few hundred years, has been a dramatic improvement in living standards, health standards,  and a reduction in the number of hours of work necessary to acquire basic goods and services.

In a book which I recently bought and read via the Kindle app on my iPad, “The Better Angels of our Nature”, Stephen Pinker shows that violence has been declining in the world, and this decline of violence is largely attributable to the modern, capitalist, democratic world we live in. These optimistic books run contrary to the negativism about the modern world that is so often passed on to young people in our schools and universities and pervades the media. Things are good and going to get even better.

Perhaps our education system needs a little closer scrutiny. The efficiency and effectiveness of public education, in fact, is a bit of an exception since it has not improved in most societies. In the US, the cost of K-12 education, in constant dollars, has increased by 350% since the 1960s with no improvement in results.

The solution to this is less public monopoly and more entrepreneurship. There are more and more sophisticated “smart phones” and mobile phones being bought everywhere. These are really hand-held computers, and they are already the main way people access the Internet in most countries. There are as many mobile phones as people in the world, 7 billion. This is true more or less on every continent and in most countries, rich or poor.

These are mobile learning devices and  with increased educational entrepreneurship surrounding mobile telephones, handheld computers and internet learning, we can expect education to finally take a significant step forward.

1)  Larger learning communities: The Internet is an almost limitless space for the creation of communities with common interests. Learners, teachers, schools and universities, and just plain entrepreneurs, are exchanging course content, ideas, learning systems, and other resources using a variety of media. A search for “French verbs” on google finds 653,000 pages.

2) Differentiation: The web is not only large, but it enables people of different cultures, with different perspectives, different skills,  and different ideas, to interact. This creates a dynamic marketplace where people can learn from from each other and influence each other.

3) Accessibility: With handheld computing devices, not only iPhone/iPad or Android, but many others devices that are coming forward to compete with them,  learning communities are more accessible. People are now able to connect anytime and anywhere,  while waiting for the doctor, reclining on a sofa, or lying in bed. Traditional concepts of time and space related to learning in a classroom or lecture hall are being cast aside.

4) Rich content: The distinctions between radio, TV, Internet, telephone, school, university, entertainment, education, are becoming blurred. Education is the acquisition of information, and the variety of ways in which information can be presented is constantly being expanded. Entrepreneurs are creating literary millions of applications for the hand-held devices,while books are becoming more accessible with the expansion of e-books and e-book readers.

5) Cost and speed: In many countries, companies are competing to develop faster and more powerful processors and higher speed wireless connectivity. This will further accelerate the pace of interaction and change, and bring in more participants with more diverse perspectives.

6) Customization: All learning depends on the motivation of the learner. Our brains learn all the time, on their own timetable. Traditional learning has been top-down, one size fits all, seeking to impose a curriculum. The Roman school child had a wax tablet to write down the lessons dictated by the master. Nothing much changed for 2,000 years. Now with individualized hand-held learning devices, the learner can be in control, choosing what to do, where, and when. The teacher’s role will increasingly be to coach, helping learners find what they need and what suits their interests.

Sugata Mitra, an Indian scientist and educator, has placed computers in remote villages and Indian slums and watched children learn without teachers, using the Internet. According to Sir Arthur Clarke, famous science fiction writer, “a teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be”. As Mitra said in concluding his inspiring TED lecture, education can be a self-organizing system.  The explosion of mobile access to the internet through hand-held computers symbolizes how a bottom-up, spontaneous, self-organizing system of education will change how we learn and how we live.

One Comment

  1. Posted May 24, 2014 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Twentieth century collectivist bias leads one to ask “who was in charge” looking for a central initiator of policy. Ridley suggests that the world is a complex adaptive system, where trade and progress emerged from the interaction of individuals. It was an evolutionary rather than a planned process.

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