The Final Two Traits
Early on, I said that our next-generation educational system must possess five traits. I’ve only discussed three of them: granularity, assessability and adaptability. Now we need to explain the final two: flexibility and accessibility.
It is not enough for the system to simply adapt when the student is struggling during instruction or studying. It must be willing and able to accommodate failure to achieve mastery by putting them through more instruction or tutoring. By the same token, how should students who achieve mastery much more quickly than average be handled?
Students may share homerooms, social settings and physical education/competition according to their respective biological ages, but their academic progress must be decoupled from everyone else. In other words, a student passes “high school” when they have achieved mastery in the minimum set of required concepts known as “high school”, and no earlier.
This is flexibility – the ability to accommodate different rates of academic progression on a per student basis.
What if a student becomes pregnant, has a tragic event occur or experiences some other massive disruption to their education? Let’s tone it back a notch – what if the student’s family wants to take a week long vacation to Europe? The previous flexibility can already accommodate these situations, but we can do one better by making the bulk of the educational system accessible at any time, anywhere.
Look, this is pretty obvious, and we’re already headed in that direction. I won’t argue that students should be able to take their final assessments from home – those should be rigorously proctored in a controlled environment. But what they should be able to do is receive their instruction, do their studying and schedule their assessment with a tablet, stylus and internet connection.
Q & A
Wouldn’t a system like this just make students lazier learners, less prepared for the “real-world” where information will not be spoon-fed to them?
On the surface, this seems like a very compelling argument against any sort of labor saving device. However, I would argue it is an example of misplaced priorities. It is tantamount to walking 15 miles to work instead of driving to avoid ever getting stuck in traffic. Is your goal to get to work, or is it to avoid sitting idle in your car?
If you want a student to learn how to learn and think critically – devote a portion of their education to doing just that! These should be honest disciplines – everyone should be familiar with the science and methods of learning, and students should be challenged to critically think throughout their entire education.
What you should not do is complicate the presentation of important information. When it is time to learn algebra, it is time to learn algebra, not learn how to learn algebra and at the same time have a philosophical debate about it.
How does this system address the problem of student motivation?
One thing that it does is reduce the stigma of failure that exists in our system now. A student wouldn’t “fail” anymore, they’ll simply require more time to complete something. The system will always be there for them.
Another point is that this system would have allowed a student like me to excel. My lack of motivation was directly proportional to the hopelessness and contempt I felt by being forced into a rigid system where every subject required me to sit still for an hour at a time. I should have been able to spend the short amount of time needed to complete the “core competencies” that society requires of me, and then the bulk of my day exploring what I actually found interesting. Which I ended up doing anyways, much to my teachers’ chagrin.
Not everyone has the same issues that I do. Motivation in general is something that has to be addressed on a cultural level. The purpose of this post is only to introduce a more efficient system of education, motivation will be the topic of another discussion. Stay tuned for “The Culture of the Future.”
Is there room for human teachers in this new system?
Yes, but their roles will evolve.
There will come a time when natural language technologies like IBM’s Watson will be standard features in your ordinary childhood robot, but we’re not there yet. In addition, robots must also be able to bridge the uncanny valley in order for students to feel at ease and communicate with them on the same level as they would with a human. This is still prohibitively expensive.
Are either of those things truly necessary for students to begin learning from robotic/electronic teachers? No. Not every student needs to empathize with their information source in order to learn from it. Even if they do, it is much cheaper to generate a realistic image of a human in 3D than it is to mass produce robotic human analogs. Students will be video conferencing with digital teachers (and not realizing it) long before they are shaking hands with robotic ones.
Uhhh, what about human teachers?!
Right. Those advancements will not happen overnight. A little thing that many futurists like to hand wave through is implementation details. They are the reason that the technologies for robotic teachers exist now, but we probably won’t see mass implementation of them for decades. The fact of the matter is that humans are really good at understanding other humans, particularly skilled educators.
Remember those decision junctions in the educational feedback loop flowchart, the ones that say “what is needed?” This is a very critical question that asks where the system has failed to prepare the student for the challenge they were presented. Sometimes, this can be determined automatically. For instance, cleverly worded questions can pinpoint deficiencies that require remediation. Other times though, it is not so obvious.
It takes a considerable amount of machine learning to even approximate the common sense of your ordinary teacher in a one-on-one session with a student. We may literally need the AI singularity to occur in order for a system with such capability to even exist. I’d argue that we’re closer to re-training our immune systems to beat most forms of cancer. Point being, teachers should be utilized at critical junctures before passing the student back into automated instruction.
This is actually an efficiency argument. I am proposing this system because it is a more efficient way, in general, to educate a large population. But there are times when it can be terribly inefficient. Sometimes, a student does not need to be tossed down the rabbit hole of granularity I described earlier. All they need is a simple question answered. Other times, the methods and sources of instruction are simply not working for that student, and they need it explained to them using anecdotes they can relate to. Teachers excel at this, and until machines are universally better at it, humans should be doing it.
Teachers should not just be utilized as tutors though. Certainly, there is a mental age below which most students would be ill-served by fully automated instruction. I don’t claim to know what that age is, but for the sake of example let’s say it’s equivalent to the United State’s 3rd grade. Granted, the knowledge a 2nd grader needs can be relatively easily granularized into a perfect knowledge tree, but just getting that knowledge into their head is not necessarily the priority. At that age, the challenge of educating most students is simply keeping them on task. In addition, a tremendous amount of social development must occur, and that will not happen if every eight year old is confined to a private cubicle where information is presented to them as quickly as the system determines they are able to absorb it.
Finally, at the higher levels of learning, a student is often looking to enter an apprentice (and eventually peer) relationship with their professor. There is a considerable component of self-guided research there, and some information that the student is seeking will be known by only a handful of individuals in the world. The system I have described is not useful in this context, other than for remediation.
Thus, the system I am proposing in no way means the end of human teachers. With younger students, their roles will probably not change significantly. For older students, teachers will be less involved in the day-to-day facilitation of learning, and more involved in actually teaching and interacting with students. Finally, the role of the research professor (as opposed to college instructor) will tighten up to include only the domain of knowledge they are uniquely qualified and most interested in teaching. Namely, their research.
How would you integrate this into our existing educational system?
This is the million dollar question. You may have noticed; there is a tremendous amount of bureaucracy throughout public education right now. It would require enormous political pressure to make the nation universally adopt the system I am proposing.
My system is also antithetical to the degree mills that most universities have become because it focuses on the learning and retention of knowledge. If you don’t believe this, ask yourself why in most universities a Quantum Mechanics class is worth the same number of credit hours as American History. Do you believe they require the same amount of effort to pass?
I hate to say it, but the only way I really see this system emerging in the immediate future is by the benevolence of a billionaire. Since that is highly unlikely, what most folks can do who are involved in education is to start developing and standardizing some of things I describe here. In particular, by creating knowledge trees and formal assessments for difficult concepts.
Over time, instructional and study material can be collected and smaller educational feedback loops can be created, once again, starting with the most difficult concepts. Whether commercialized or made available for free, they can be used as testing grounds for tweaking everything before presenting a “plan of integration” to the country. Perhaps in between those two steps a few charter schools can be designed around this system and their performance compared to existing education.
Are there commercialization opportunities available to help drive this?
Absolutely. Several major ones come to mind:
- Someone has to create the platform that houses the knowledge to be learned
- Someone has to create the platform to adapt education per student and integrate it with the knowledge platform
- Someone has to host and maintain said platforms
- Someone has to create the knowledge trees
- There must be multiple vendors of instructional material
- There must be multiple vendors of study material
- Someone has to oversee see the facilities where students will gather, attend lectures, be tutored and have formal assessments proctored
This is an enormously ambitious system. Fully implemented, it would alleviate many headaches that exist in education right now and allow more schools to accommodate greater varieties of students. I personally would have flourished if I had access to a learning system that laid my education out before me in digestible chunks, adapted to my concentration levels and worked at the speed that I needed to stay stimulated.
The technologies exist to do this now. What is needed is the considerable human effort and will to see it through.
UPDATE 27-Oct-2015: I just heard about the ALEKS system, currently owned by McGraw-Hill. What an uncannily small world we live in. Described in detail in this Slate article, ALEKS sounds almost exactly like what I am hoping for.