Inefficient education must evolve

Emerging platforms such as the TED conference series and Khan Academy are challenging traditional teaching methods

Student organizers address the crowd at last year's TEDx QueensU conference.
Student organizers address the crowd at last year's TEDx QueensU conference.
Supplied by James Arthurs

In an Aug. 20 piece in the Wall Street Journal, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen wrote about how software was, in his words, “eating the world.”

In short, his argument was that we’re in the middle of a very real and rapid economic shift in which most industries are being disrupted and transformed into ones based on software — and, more specifically, the Internet.
With declining barriers to entry into many of these industries — thanks to commoditized pricing of web technologies and hardware — we’re starting to see a wealth of new platforms that are democratizing learning and knowledge.

Think about that for a moment. Thanks to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, all of our relationships are in digital form. It’s also a safe bet that the last movie you watched came from the Internet rather than a physical DVD. Books are headed that way too. Not to mention photography, music, retail shopping and options trading; the list goes on.

So where does education fit into this picture?

An example that epitomizes how this phenomenon is influencing education is the not-for-profit Khan Academy. The roots of the Khan Academy trace back to 2006, when former hedge fund analyst Salman Khan wanted an easy way to help his younger cousins with their grade school math problems.

He began recording short videos of himself explaining the math problems and posted them on Youtube. His videos quickly caught the attention of parents and children looking for similar online help.

Five years later, Khan is now changing the rules of education on a global scale. As of October 2011, Khan has made over 2,400 videos of himself explaining topics ranging from algebra to biology to art history and computer science.

Khan and his foundation now have their vision set on “changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education to anyone anywhere.” An ambitious goal indeed, but one that I believe foreshadows much of the change we’ll see in education over the next two decades.

Considering this, I feel that sitting in a classroom with 300 other students seems like a rather arcane means for students to internalize knowledge. It seems better optimized for student churn than actual learning.

Many universities are catching onto this realization. This semester, Stanford University began offering full-fledged courses in Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence in online video format, free of charge. It’s a bold move that could pave the way for a revolution in online learning.

The Technology Entertainment and Design (TED) global conference series follows a similar vision of spreading knowledge. The premise of TED is to get a large number of passionate, intelligent people together in one room and have them share the issues they are most passionate about.

In June 2006, videos of conference speeches began to be posted online. To date, videos from the conferences have been viewed over 400 million times globally.

I’m convinced that this model of amalgamated intelligence galvanizes ideas and manages to create something in which the sum is greater than its parts.

To this end, there was a great piece of research done by University of Toronto neuroscientist Kevin Dunbar who wanted to understand where these epiphanies of inspiration and so-called “Eureka” moments come from. What he did was observe a number of scientists, taking note of every small intricacy of their job. It didn’t matter whether they were sitting in front of a microscope or having a conversation with a colleague at the water cooler — he recorded it all.

What he found was fascinating. It turned out that almost all major breakthroughs came not during the individual lab work but in the collaborative discussion that emerged at weekly meetings in the conference room with other scientists, when everyone shared their latest findings and the problems they were having.

Events like TED achieve the same effect. The conference brings together a multi-disciplinary group of academics, students and people together to create discussion — a surprisingly rare event at the university level.

So how — and why — should we apply this model to our current higher-education system? PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel is famous for his stance on what he calls the higher-education bubble.

“It’s basically extremely overpriced. People are not getting their money’s worth, objectively, when you do the math,” he stated in a Jan. 20, 2011 interview with National Review.

Thiel also discussed students’ rationale for attending university or college, claiming, “There’s this sort of psycho-social component to people taking on these enormous debts when they go to college simply because that’s what everybody’s doing.”

My stance on the state of the education system isn’t quite as polarized as Thiel’s, but I think he makes a valid point.

Personally, I’m more of the belief that educators have been caught in a rut of consistency and seem hesitant to take advantage of recent innovations. And I think that’s opened the doors for educational tools like the Khan Academy and TED to fill these inefficiencies.

Schools like Queen’s have started to implement online learning initiatives, but simply allowing students to stream lectures or post discussion topics online isn’t enough. A predictive approach requires building a framework from the ground up that’s tailored to take advantage of emerging tools. I suggest we take a cue from TED and the Khan Academy if Queen’s hopes to remain current and a leader in its approach to education.

Ted Lee is director of the TEDx QueensU conference.

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