Will it look like this in the future? Hopefully not...
Ignorance is a contributing factor in many of the problems we face today, such as AIDS, pollution and food production. A first-rate education for the citizenry synergizes
with every other element of an advanced civilization: scientific discovery happens faster, open collaborative projects grow faster and at a better quality, public health improves, solutions to our problems come faster and ambitious projects like colonising space
or curing cancer become more and more feasible.
There is no reason whatsoever for education to be a scarce resource. Education is a resource of information, rather than of physical goods, and reproducing information is free. In a world of universal connectivity, education can be ubiquitous if it is made freely available online. This is a task for open collaboration.
It is no secret that the schooling system nowadays is in a crisis. Our schools are based on a factory-line model: a child goes in one end, is processed according to a standard procedure and comes out the other end with a certificate. No regard is paid to the person's interests, curiosity, creativity, passion. Students are taught outdated material from a peculiar selection of often irrelevant or downright boring subjects. Their flexibility and capacity to deal with unexpected, non-obvious solutions are not encouraged, and are often actively suppressed. They are not free to pursue their passions and talents. They are not given the chance to apply their skills in any practical way. And worst of all, most students simply hate school. (One study  found that only 10-33% of students report being satisfied with school. The same study found that most students feel their teachers are uninterested in supporting them.)
How can we promote better education? The answer seems simple: make learning truly interesting, more relevant to the individual and make proper use of modern media. An inflexible curriculum only benefits the schools and assessment bodies.
It is becoming ever easier to create interactive 3-D environments such as those found in advanced computer games. With the right scripting for interaction and behaviour, these can make a captivating experience where the student hardly realises they are learning.
It is a crime for education not to be interesting! Luckily, for every module of every subject there are educators (and others) who are truly gifted at explaining and teaching key concepts. We must make better use of these people in conjunction with open collaboration and the latest technology to disseminate knowledge to all who wish to learn, wherever they might be in the world.
Collaboratively generated educational material
Educational material can be created and edited collaboratively, constantly evolving and increasing in both quantity and quality, similar to the evolution of the famous wikipedia .
Such material is made available free for anyone — teachers or students — to use and customise for their own purposes. This project is in early days, but is very much under way already. Listed below are several sites
- Wiki books
- WikiEducator - dedicated to building a complete education curriculum by 2015
- ck12, free, flexible textbooks for the whole American educational syllabus
- Khan Academy, a series of tutorial videos, mostly of science and maths, explaining concepts very well. Includes a testing feature exactly like the one described below. Not collaboratively generated, but released under a Creative Commons license.
- Udacity, from February 2012, offering high-quality, no-cost, univeristy-level courses focused on computer science
- OpenCourseWare such as —
- eToys free and open-source software that teaches ideas in innovative ways. Comes as standard on the XO-Laptop which has been given to over a million children in the Third World
- Open University's Open Learn
- P2P university
- Connexions. Open educational content in hundreds of subjects.
- The material from Connexions is being compiled into complete textbooks for college courses through their initiative OpenStax, sponsored by Rice University. The first set of textbooks are due out in March 2012. According to Richard Baraniuk, the founder of Connexions, "If we capture just 10% of the market with these first five textbooks, an estimated 1 million college students in the United States could save $90 million over the next five years"
- List of educational video websites on Wikipedia
- Open Culture has lists of online courses
- Wolfram Demonstrations Project. Compilation of interactive visualizations of hundreds of phenomena in science, mathematics, music and other areas. Not collaboratively generated, but released under a Creative Commons license, allowing the elements to be used in collaborative projects.
- ShowMe is an app that allows anyone to record and share lessons using a simple interface of voice recording and a touchscreen whiteboard.
- How much can you really learn with a free online education (Wired)
Stanford University are running an experimental new course from October-December 2011. It is an introductory college course in artificial intelligence, led by Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun (a leading developer of self-driving cars). The course is available to all free of charge and combines video lectures with online quizzes and assessments. As of August 2011, over 130,000 people have signed up. In the coming years, courses like this are sure become become more interactive and multiply to cover a greater range of subjects.
Video of Salman Khan of Khan Academy and the teachers of the Stanford online AI Class talking about the new kind of education - free, online, lifelong, curiosity-driven, student-directed education.
Sigmund Freud wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900 that academic examinations were one of the most common themes of nightmares. As true today as it was when it was written!
20th century education systems usually assessed students with a big, climactic examination at the end of the module. Whatever grade the student achieves on the exam is his or her standard; whatever he or she got wrong in the exam is a hole in their knowledge, which the student does not go back and master, but rather has to accept as an imperfection in their knowledge.
Examinations do not test how capable a student is or how much they know; examinations test how well they perform on a particular day. We are all familiar with the sight of the overly nervous or stressed student in the exam hall, gnawing the end of their pencil and unable to write what they often know quite well. While many people take exams in their stride, a few suffer deeply from stress and anxiety.
The fundamental assumption underpinning all examinations is that being wrong is bad or unacceptable or must be punished. It is now well recognized that this assumption stifles creativity 
An alternative means of assessment is exemplified by the Kumon Mathamatex system. This consists of 4400 worksheets of mathematics drills, from basic arithmetic to advanced calculus. The student works on the questions on a worksheet until he or she can answer them all correctly in the allotted time. When one worksheet has been mastered, the student moves on to the next. Unlike a traditional examination-based or classroom-based system, the student moves through the course at his or her own pace; there are no inflexible timetables to be kept to. In a classroom situation, the student must move on to the next topic even if he has not properly mastered the first one; knowledge is built on an insecure foundation and this is very frustrating and ineffective. By contrast, with the Kumon model, each lesson is mastered in its turn, building a solid foundation and there is no performance anxiety created by a once-off exam, allowing the student to take pleasure in successively mastering the material. Educators who have implemented Kumon Mathamatex have noted increased focus and interest from students, as well as better performance . This is not surprising when you consider that children master computer games in exactly this progressive, low-pressure, try-it-til-you-get-it way — and computer games are more effective than anything in holding a child's attention.
Modern computer software would make it extremely easy to implement a system like Kumon. The software could display a countdown timer and bring up a series of questions to be answered within the allotted time, making learning almost exactly like a computer game. This could be applied to many subjects. Khan Academy is building this kind of assessment system. Navigator Schools is an innovative network of school in the USA; they set a learning objective for every lesson, and those students who demonstrate mastery of itt at the end of the lesson can move on with a personalized learning plan, while the other students can get further instruction from the teacher.
Another notable example of this low-pressure method of assessment without time constraints is the Michel Thomas method of learning languages. The Michel Thomas method is based on creating an experience of successive successes, giving the student a feeling of growing mastery. The method is extremely effective at teaching languages in remarkably short spaces of time.
The model of education in 20th century school systems involves one teacher, who is supposed to have all the knowledge in his or her head, imparting knowledge to thirty or so students, who are more or less passive receptacles of the teacher's knowledge.
Children are immensely capable of entering states of total engagement with the things that fascinate them. A prime requirement of education should be to harness this state.
One obvious disadvantage of the teacher-and-class situation is that there are thirty catchers and only one pitcher. Just as no one could be expected to play thirty different musical instruments at the same time, no one can tailor their communication to thirty different listeners at the same time. So in the classroom thirty heterogenous nervous systems are exposed to one homogenous stimulus, all at the same rate. Of course, the chance that all the students will understand the material at exactly the same rate and in exactly the same way is zero. Inevitably, some fall behind and get frustrated, others race ahead and get bored, and it doesn't matter how good the teacher's intentions are; nothing can be done within the classroom model to accommodate these students. Flexibility, customization, each student learning at a pace that is correct for him or her — these things simply are not possible in the classroom model. But they are possible in a situation where each student explores educational materials for her- or himself.
This is the essence of the Montessori Method : children are put in contact with good educational materials and their natural curiosity is allowed to do the work. The child's learning is directed by their own inner passion and inquisitiveness, it proceeds at the child's own rate, according to their own interests. Boredom is therefore impossible. There is no 'teacher' as such, though there may be a supervisor who can answer the students' questions and handle any problems that may arise. Montessori-educated children consistently have higher cognitive and social abilities than conventionally-educated children.
Conventional education underestimates the power of a child's playful curiosity about the world. A child is the most sophisticated learning machine in the known universe. Put a child in a room with nothing but a piano, come back three months later, and you would expect that the child will be able to play the piano. An experiment called The Hole In The Wall project has been done in which computer-booths were left in some of the poorest areas in India. There were no teachers or other intervention, just a computer put in contact with children. The findings give strong support for self-directed learning; the children's academic performance consistently doubled or quadrupled, the children learned 200 words of English vocabulary in three months and they became computer-literate within days. Sugata Mitra's TED talk gives more detail. As with the Montessori method, there is no teacher, but children learn by themselves and teach each other in groups. Sugata Mitra is currently researching whether the method can be extended to cover an entire educational curriculum. His research aims to answer the question of whether groups of children can complete their schooling on their own, without a teacher.
In late 2012, One Laptop Per Child
revealed perhaps the most powerful evidence to date of student-directed learning. They left 40 Android tablets, in sealed boxes, for children in villages in rural Ethiopia. The tablets were equipped with educational software but the children received no instructions in using them. Within 4 days, the children has taught themselves to use an average of 47 apps each. Within 2 months they were singing the English alphabet and within 5 months they had hacked the software.
With cheaper computer technology and the sort of optimized teaching materials described above, this is likely to become the preferred method for education in poor countries. It could be applied to students of all ages.
Some skills -- such as walking, riding a bicycle, putting a basketball in the hoop, and swimming -- are most rapidly learned by actually doing it, perhaps with someone who already knows how to do it putting your hands in the right place, etc.
Other skills -- such as skyscraper design, aircraft engine-out recovery, parachuting, leading troops into battle, urban planning, etc. -- are generally considered not appropriate for beginners. These skills are today generally learned with a bunch of classroom lectures and simulation.
For example, modern flight simulators have a combination of computer graphics (simulating the view out the front window) and robotics (moving the simulator round to simulate the "feel" of climbing, spiraling, rough landing, etc.).
Improvements in computer graphics and robotics can improve education in several ways, including:
- The simulation looks and feels more like reality to the person being trained, so when that person does it "for real" it feels more familiar, and there is less risk of "overtraining to the simulator" -- learning to do things in a way that won't work in reality.
- Simulators themselves have dropped in price and require less effort on the part of the teacher to set up and monitor each round of simulation, removing some of the barriers that keep most people from ever learning those skills.
- Things that were once "too expensive" for beginners keep falling in price, eventually passing the threshold where it's faster and cheaper to go ahead and do it "for real" (throwing away or recycling the early common beginner's mistakes) than to train how to do it in a classroom and with a simulator. For example, "printing a newspaper" is far easier and cheaper today with copiers and computer printers than it was with earlier printing press or even earlier manual copying. For example, "building a chair" is much easier and has less risk of bloodshed using Grid Beam than using raw lumber and a circular saw.
Free and open-source computer-aided design/Virtual environments for scenario modelling.
World Game .
Educating the whole person
Those responsible for educating the young must recognize that if a young person leaves school with a command of three languages, maths and science, but is overweight, unhappy and socially inept, then our educational system has grievously failed them.
Inherent in the open source attitude is a practicality, a faith in the ability of an ordinary person to take on a task and complete it for themselves. But, as Alan Watts said, "Our educational system, in its entirety, does nothing to give us any kind of material competence. In other words, we don't learn how to cook, how to make clothes, how to build houses, how to make love, or to do any of the absolutely fundamental things of life. The whole education that we get for our children in school is entirely in terms of abstractions. It trains you to be an insurance salesman or a bureaucrat, or some kind of cerebral character." This must be remedied. People must also be taught to think for themselves, rather than learning by rote - again something sadly lacking in most education systems.
There is useful scientific knowledge now emerging from positive psychology (and from the scientific study of Buddhist practices etc.) in how to create happiness. This is working its way into the school system, with the UK government recently making a course on Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) a standard feature in British schools.
It seems reasonable to expect people to be educated in the fields of practical psychology (both for controlling their own emotions and behaviours and for optimally dealing with other people), engineering (including the use of a Fab Lab), cookery, computer programming, agriculture (growing their own food), exercise and sport science, music, dance, art and social entrepreneurship as well as the intellectual subjects ordinarily taught. The time saved by more efficient teaching of the abstract subjects will more than make room for such an expansion of the curriculum.
Many experiments in the educational sciences have stressed the importance of social learning. A student of any age will learn more by learning in a group of friends, who all teach and learn from and help each other, than by trying to learn alone from a book. Besides, it's more fun this way.
The Montessori Method and the Hole In The Wall project both found that when a child learns something, a small group (typically of four children) will spontaneously form around him and he will teach them what he has just learned. This helps the children to learn social skills as well as cognitive ones.
The Internet has made it much easier for people who share interests to find each other and form groups. (This has been called "ridiculously easy group-forming".) We now have the intriguing possibility of using this to create Montessori-style social learning groups. Educational hubs (such as those listed to the left) could incorporate facilities for people who are learning a subject together to form groups, keep in contact via teleconferencing and social networks (and later virtual reality), to teach each other, keep each other motivated and learn together. This can, of course, happen in the real world, but if someone is living outside of a major city, or if the subject being studied is particularly esoteric, people with shared interests are not easy to find. The Internet overcomes this difficulty by bringing together people selected precisely on the basis of common interests, but not at all selected on the basis of geographical constraint. OpenStudy is a website allowing students to form these study groups.
As well as classmates, digital communications make it easy to find teachers. It is difficult to find someone who can teach you Sanskrit in your town, but it's easy to find them online. With modern telepresence technology such as videoconferencing, it is possible to access experts on even the most obscure subjects, no matter where you are. These should be organized into a topic-based list to allow students to easily meet tutors.
Compiling the best educational material
Some rare people have an exceptional talent at explaining difficult concepts clearly and interestingly. Masters of verbal explanation include Alan Watts, Carl Sagan and David Attenborough , but there are also those with talent at crafting visual, diagrammatic, experimental, interactive or other non-verbal ways to convey ideas. Hans Rosling's colorful visualizations of data are a great example of this. A well-made animation can allow us to easily understand a complex process, see for example these videos of DNA transcription.
Alan Kay, the founder of the Viewpoints research Institute, in his TED talk gave some remarkable examples of the power of good explanations, including a method of teaching differentiation to six-year-olds.
For the first time in human history, we have the means to pull all of these educational materials together in one place, covering every level of education and every subject, and make it freely available to the world's youth. That means is open collaboration.
It is a matter of finding the best teachers in the world and encouraging them to contribute to the common educational resources for humanity (like those linked to above). It may be necessary at first to incentivize contributions from these people, and it is vital to publicize open-source education as much as possible, to generate the greatest possible collaboration. Occasionally particularly talented teachers spring up such as Sudhir Karandikar who got 91 of 104 high-school students to pass a college-level course. Wouldn't it make sense to videotape these people and make their lessons available to the world? Academicearth.org is making an organized effort to find great educators and film their lessons, but there is another, complimentary approach — to allow online communities to upload lessons and allow the best teachers to organically rise to the top.
As with all open collaborations, plenty of bad material is submitted (have a look around Connexions for examples). But with the help of ratings, recommendations and dynamic testing, the cream will soon rise to the top. One exciting possibility of a large-scale online learning system is dynamically testing different lessons so that the most effective can be found. Imagine three different videos have been created explaining how molecules come together in a chemical reaction. If these are put into an open-source learning hub, they can each be shown to thousands of users. After seeing one of the three videos, each user is tested on their understanding of the chemical equation. From the results of these tests, the software will be able to know which of the three videos is most effective at explaining the chemical reaction. Anki is an open-source software program that has used this method to calculate the optimal time intervals for repeating facts in order to facilitate memorization.
It is even possible in to program software to dynamically model the student's mastery of the material and adjust the difficulty level accordingly. This ensures that the difficulty is always at a level that challenges the student to the full of their ability without being either so easy as to bore them, nor so difficult as to baffle them. Such dynamic difficulty balancing is being introduced more and more in computer games. It is ideal for creating that peak state of creative engagement which Mihály Csíkszentmihályi named Flow and which has been identified as a key factor in fulfilment, learning and growth.
Teachers if they wish could then use any of this material where appropriate, and use their own skills to check it has been understood by their students and elaborate further where necessary. The current education system necessitates the same thing to be explained again and again by millions of teachers around the world - a massive reduplication of effort. It would be a better use of teachers' time to have just a few top-quality explanations of each idea available on-demand, so that teachers can spend time giving students personalized attention.
With open collaboration, we have the opportunity to create a global educational curriculum for all levels of education and all disciplines, built from nothing but the most engaging, most colorful, most entertaining and effective explanations, as determined by statistical data gathered from thousands of samples.
It will be exciting to see the results of this sort of education. How much music, physics, chemistry, mathematics, programming, engineering will a young person of eighteen have mastered when they have studied these materials full-time since the age of three or four? How many languages will they speak? How will our medical system change when all our doctors have been trained by 3-D interactive visualizations of human anatomy and biochemistry?
What we are talking about here will be more powerful than any educational system yet seen. However, unlike the "best" educations of the old system, these materials will be as available to a farmer's daughter in Malawi as a politician's son in New York.
Taking learning out of exclusive institutions and into a free and open domain dissolves the hard-and-fast distinction between someone who is 'in education' and someone who is not. If anyone has access to any curriculum, then anyone who takes an interest in it becomes a student, regardless of age or a formal enrolment process.
This enables citizen-scientists, who in turn empower open collaborative projects. It removes the exclusivity of professions and opens up scientific and other knowledge to the citizenry as a whole.