Thursday, December 29, 2011

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Future of Education

The development of the internet and related technologies has revolutionized many areas of the modern world, everything from research to shopping. However, the educational system has basically remained the same as always, with little improvement or innovation. Yet, things are starting to change. New technologies and developments in online education will help make learning less expensive and more effective and enjoyable.

Currently, most educational institutions follow a lecture-based learning model. In general, the teacher or professor recites the same lecture each time for every class he or she has on a specific subject. This raises a simple question: why can’t students just watch a video of the lecture?

The basic advantage or repeating lectures is to make the class more interactive so students can ask and answer questions while the material is being taught. However, this is often not so effective in practice. Different students understand different things, and one student’s question might just be an interruption for many other people. Therefore, a student might not ask the question, but then won’t be able to follow what comes afterwards.  Perhaps certain subjects could get a discussion-model to work for small, selected groups, but then the per-student cost for the class would be very high.

What actually happens in many cases is that students sit passively in class for most of a lecture, with little interaction and varied levels of attentiveness. Such a class does not really provide any advantage over a video of the same lecture, which students could watch instead. In fact, once the lecture becomes a video, it can be given once by the best presenter on the topic, and then shown to all future students throughout the world. This model has been particularly successful with Khan Academy, a website with thousands of free videos on various topics. By having the lecture on video, a student can watch at his own pace, pausing it, fast-forwarding or rewinding it when necessary. Many students preferred learning from these videos over any other approach.[1]

Khan Academy does not even show any lecturers in its videos, the focus is on the material itself. This might be a little too extreme, since a blackboard can get a bit boring at a certain point. However, educational videos can move beyond such simple graphics and display sophisticated diagrams and visualizations that can make the material clearer and more interesting. For example, the focus of a biology video can be on the actual organ or cell being studied, rather than on a lecturer or blackboard.

Videos themselves can be useful but they are not the ideal total system to learn new material. They offer little interactivity, and play at a constant rate, ignoring the student entirely[2]. Newer technologies allow the student to go through the material in a more active and engaged manner.

At a simple level, the student can always be required to be answer questions and complete challenges in order to move forward to the next topic. This way, he will always be involved in doing things, not just watching them. The system can quiz him and keeps track of what he knows, so he can be tested on it later. There can also be various gaming elements as students compete for high scores in their topic. Khan Academy has recently begun adding such features to their website, and has reported much success.

Besides just having quizzes, the educational content itself will be much more interactive than a simple lecture, text or video. The student will not just passively watch content, but will be able to manipulate and explore virtual representations and objects. Some topics can be learned through simulations and games where the student will be able to directly partake in the subject material itself. For example, when learning physics, students can play around with a physics simulator to explore how different laws work. They could then be required to complete a virtual activity that requires the correct physical knowledge, such as building a bridge or firing a rocket. This would make the subject more interesting and understandable than current methods.

Although computer-based education provides many benefits, there are also some apparent disadvantages that need to be dealt with. When learning a subject it helps to have someone to whom one can ask questions. Googling questions do not always turn up good results, and sometimes one needs specific help with a particular issue. A good online educational system would need to provide ways to get specific help. Some of the content and questions can expandable sections and links that provide more explanation when needed. General questions can be asked in online forums, where other students or experts can answer them. This model has worked well on sites like where strangers often give excellent answers to answer to other people’s questions for free. It can definitely work for a group learning a subject online, and there can be experts who review some of the answers or answer the most difficult ones.

If a student needs help with a specific issue, it may sometimes help to have an actual person he can ask the questions to. However, there is no need to have a teacher give a whole lecture just so he can answer students’ questions. The student can learn the subject online, and then if he runs into an issue that another student cannot answer, he can ask a designated expert on the topic.[3] When needed, these experts can also give specific feedback on a students’ work. Overall, this model of answering questions can be both cheaper and more effective than the traditional one.

One apparently minor issue that arises when with computer-based education is the opportunity for distraction. Before computers, people only had their pens to distract them while studying. (In fact, for some students, scribbling is one of the main skills learned in school.) Yet now, thousands of distractions lay just a click away at any moment.  While this may help alleviate the boredom of a student stuck in class, it raises a fundamental issue: How will people learn how to scribble? Also, it raises another important issue: How can one focus in the age of Gmail, Facebook, YouTube and non-stop news? In one way, moving education from the dry lecture to a more interactive model may help it compete better with modern distractions, but they will still remain a major problem.

Any technology that puts people at a computer to learn will need to take these issues into account. On the superficial level, time-management programs, such as RescueTime and LeechBlock, can be placed on computers to help prevent students from wasting time. To help encourage people to actually do work, there can be general tasks they must complete, so they can’t just do everything right before the tests. This will help encourage deeper learning of material than the current test-focused models. On the more fundamental level, people need to develop proper focus and work habits, but this is something which becomes easier when the material is more interesting.

Currently, education is extremely expensive. Over the last few decades, costs in education have risen far higher than the pace of inflation, but without improving their results. For example, at Yeshiva University, tuition rose from $16,000 to $33,000 between 1999 and 2010.[4] Obviously, if people switch to a completely online education system, they will be able to save a significant amount on tuition. But there can also be significant savings if schools switch to a “blended model” where students learn most of the material on a computer but still meet in person for some study groups and classes. University costs will be able to be dramatically cut, while the education may become more effective and enjoyable.

The move to online education is already happening, and it is already working.  A 2009 meta-study by the US department of education found that “...on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”[5] Online education is not only far less expensive than traditional methods, it also has better results.  These results will only improve as more sophisticated interactive content and methods are developed.


[1] See Wired’s article on Khan Academy, at

[2] It is true he can pause the video, but one doesn’t have the same control of “processing” the content when it’s a video, and it is hard to refer back to a previous part.

[3] This would be similar to the “shoel u’meshiv” of a traditional Beit Midrash. One expert will be able to serve a large number of students for each subject.