A Primer on the Future of Education

In the Diamond Age, a novel full of astounding technologies, the clear star is the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. Sure, nanobots and cyborg implants and geological engineering and kitchen 3D printers and--well, you get the point--are cool, but the Primer--the talking, moving, intelligent and empathetic book that educates Nell--is at the heart of the novel. More than a McGuffin, the Primer links all the characters together, and plays a pivotal role in the explosive conclusion.

Primer technology is so awesome that it one of the moonshots for the SOOPER SEKRIT PROJEKT, which is why I’d like to take a closer look at it. I know two things for sure: 1) computing technology is getting better all the time, and 2) our model for education is broken.

Let’s start with the technology side. Cellphones have achieved basically universal penetration. A decently powerful computer is within the budget of the global middle class, and there are many people trying to make it more accessible all the time, from the One Laptop Per Child computer, to the $50 Indian Education Ministry sponsored Aakash Ubislate, or about $300 for an Acer or Asus netbook. These aren’t particularly great computers, but they’ll let you do access the internet, watch videos, create and edit documents, and learn to code. Not that there aren’t very real problems with getting electricity and bandwidth to the poorest billion, but there are also lots of very dedicated people and organizations pushing on the technology. It won’t be as slick and indestructible as the Primer, but the hardware is definitely getting there.

The second side is education. According to Bruce Mau, higher education is accessible to only 1% of the world’s population. Schools are underfunded and overcrowded pretty much everywhere outside of a small group of wealthy post-industrial countries, and then you get ridiculous soul-crushing South Korean study mills. If you believe that education is a pre-requisite to living a good life (and I do, by and large), then we have problems. Big problems.

I’m not alone in this assessment, and there is a tidal wave of innovation directed towards applying the power and scale of information technology to education. Khan Academy, MITx, and ShowMe are some of the bigger names, but probably the most innovative players are Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, the Stanford professors behind the 160,000 student open access graduate level course, CS221: Introduction to Artificial Intelligence. You should really just read the whole article about it at Wired Science, but I’m going to pull out the crunchy philosophical bits.

After seeing Khan at TED, Thrun dusted off a PowerPoint presentation he’d put together in 2007. Back then he had begun envisioning a YouTube for education, a for-profit startup that would allow students to discover and take courses from top professors. In a few slides, he’d spelled out the nine essential components of a university education: admissions, lectures, peer interaction, professor interaction, problem-solving, assignments, exams, deadlines, and certification. While Thrun admired MIT’s OpenCourseWare—the university’s decade-old initiative to publish online all of its lectures, syllabi, and homework from 2,100 courses—he thought it relied too heavily on videos of actual classroom lectures. That was tapping just one-ninth of the equation, with a bit of course material thrown in as a bonus.

Thrun knew firsthand what it was like to crave superior instruction. When he was a master’s-degree student at the University of Bonn in Germany in the late 1980s, he found his AI professors to be clueless. He spent a lot of time filling in the gaps at the library, but he longed for a more direct connection to experts. Thrun created his PowerPoint presentation because he understood that university education was a system in need of disruption. But it wasn’t until he heard Khan’s talk that he appreciated he could do something about it. He spoke with Peter Norvig, Google’s director of research and his CS221 coprofessor, and they agreed to open up their next class to the entire world. Yes, it was an educational experiment, but Thrun realized that it could also be the first step in turning that old PowerPoint into an actual business…

He’s envisioning his own digital university, with a less conventional curriculum, one based on solving problems, not simply lectures on abstract topics. It would offer a viable alternative for students of the global one-world classroom—particularly those who lack the resources to move to the US and attend college.

Thrun decides that KnowLabs will build something called Udacity. The name, a mashup of audacity and university, is intended to convey the boldness of both Thrun’s and his students’ ambitions. His goal is for Udacity to offer free eight-week online courses. For the next six months or more, the curriculum will focus on computer science. Eventually it will expand into other quantitative disciplines including engineering, physics, and chemistry. The idea is to create a menu of high-quality courses that can be rerun and improved with minimal involvement from the original instructor. KnowLabs will work only with top professors who are willing to put in the effort to create dynamic, interactive videos. Just as Hollywood cinematography revolutionized the way we tell stories, Thrun sees a new grammar of instruction and learning starting to emerge as he and his team create the videos and other class materials. Behind every Udacity class will be a production team, not unlike a film crew. The professor will become an actor-producer. Which makes Thrun the studio head.

He’s thinking big now. He imagines that in 10 years, job applicants will tout their Udacity degrees. In 50 years, he says, there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them. Thrun just has to plot the right course.

Yikes! If education is about transferring knowledge from teachers to students, i.e. information transmission via some sort of web app, then we know from observation how that process plays out. With Google, Amazon, Youtube, Facebook, and so on, one firm establishes technological superiority, gains a larger market share, and then just eats everybody else. Education is actually a fairly conservative business, (the oldest continually operating institutions on the planet go: the Catholic Church (~2000 years), Medieval Universities (~1000 years), and the a bunch of Johnny-come-lately corporations and governments), and it’s based a lot of prestige and momentum, but web apps are very cheap to develop and operate compared to a traditional university, and they are much more scalable. The only real barrier is credentialing, the process of giving somebody a piece of paper that says that they’re qualified to do something, and as soon as the education app developers figure out the politics of their credentialing system, the whole edifice of higher education is just going to blow away.

Universities are increasingly expensive, lousy at teaching useful skills, and produce a worthless credential. And all this is doubly true for American primary and secondary education. It won’t take much innovation to make something that is a lot cheaper, and has comparable or even better educational outcomes.

The stage is set for something like the Primer to actually come about. It won’t be slick and seamless like in the novel, but the continuously improving combination of hardware and software that we see in real gadgets can make an educational platform that is cheap, accessible, and able to a take a student from kindergarten to a bachelor’s degree. The technological problems are essentially solved.

But wait, education isn’t just about information transmission. Schools do more than teach facts and theories, they are factories of socialization. They produce citizens. What kind of people will tablet educated students grow up to be? There’s an echo of this in the Diamond Age, where the most impressive feat of the Primer is not that Nell knows kung fu, or computer programming, or nanoscale engineering, or even how to get along in NeoVictorian society, but that the Primer creates a Mouse Army of 100,000 Chinese orphans who are capable of acting as a perfectly coordinated network. We spend only a little time with the Mouse Army girls, but on reflection, they are a profoundly strange society.

Now, I’m not going to defend the kind of socialization that happens in the American school systems that I’m familiar with. I think it’s often dominated by the most pathological personalities, both students and teachers, and results in trauma rather than personal growth. Much of what made me who I am today happened far away from the classroom, and from the structured process of education ((And I had, objectively, one of the best educational trajectories possible, from pre-school to Oakwood to Caltech, Vassar, and ASU)). But socialization has to happen, in fact, students are going to be socialized in some way whether we want it or not.

The question that I therefore pose to you, my loyal readers, is what kind of citizens do we want our schools to produce? How can we best socialize students for the future? And how can new educational technologies and our legacy systems work together to maximize opportunity for all?

I have my own theories, which I’ll try and explain later in the week, but I want to hear from you guys first.


  1. I'm not ready even to sketch the outlines of an answer to this, but I'll note that there's a fairly solid body of SF that deals with this issue, from Firestar's technophilic privatization to John Barnes' Orbital Resonance and The Sky So Big And Black.

    If you want weird, and provocative, read Orbital Resonance. It's one of the best culture/institution fits in SF, based on the question, "what if we actually had to teach kids useful stuff quickly?" Barnes argues that "useful stuff" for a technological-frontier society should include a *lot* more cultural knowledge than Americans get.

    That may be the thing that Firestar and Orbital Resonance share as educational philosophies: breadth of vision. Teach to the civilization, if you would, rather than teach to the test. Begin curriculum design with civilizational goals, and then branch out and down.

    Applying that to our current educational system... would involve burning it all down and salting the earth. And now I'm starting to sound like Jim Gee.

  2. I can say that some experimental curriculums have tried rooting socialization in something like civilizational goals.

    The case study I know best is the "Spiral Curriculum" at the pre-K through 12 Ross School (located in the Hamptons on Long Island) developed by William Irwin Thompson, Howard Gardner and Ralph Abraham. Thompson is a cultural historian, Gardner the famous architect of Multiple Intelligences theory, and Abraham is emeritus professor of mathematics at UC Santa Cruz and co-founder, with Rene Thom, of chaos mathematics. Chaos math notions of bifurcation, basins of attraction, and other terms are central to the worldview/socialization process at Ross: a guided tour of the history of human consciousness proceeding over vast spans of time and distance, sensitive to environmental changes while shaping environments in ways that in turn impact civilizational ecology.

    The Spiral Curriculum might be one of the best socialization tool- sets in town. If possible it should be exported and applied at scale, customized to fit each user community. http://rossinstitute.org/#/The-Ross-Model/Spiral-Curriculum

    [Caveat: Ross School tuition is over $50,000 for high school students, and over $13,000 for pre-nursery toddlers; but there's no reason this figure couldn't be reduced significantly. Most of the money pays for teacher training, facilities, equipment. My, how I wouldn't mind being a teacher there!]

    Things these kids are doing throughout the year, and year after year, might actually be generating a new type of human.

    For example, the 9th grade mathematics curriculum uses the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci as a lens for exploring not just Renaissance culture, art, math, physics, and much else, but the INTERIORITY of renaissance artistic-mathematical consciousness, so much as this can be communicated. Students listen to the music of the time in alternate tunings, make their own notebooks using Da Vinci's compositional styles as a template (pictures, prototypes, explication, dreams, questions). And yes, they learn quite sophisticated mathematical techniques. Mathematical concepts that emerge in Da Vinci's notebooks are connected to 100,000 years of human mathematical intuition, which students by grade 9 have grown to appreciate in detail, in dozens of civilizational-ecology settings, and with multiple intelligences. They understand how mathematical formalisms co-evolve with architecture: Ralph Abraham's great love is overcoming math anxiety in children of all ages through graphical interfaces that weave formalism with visual demonstration. Is this a math class, a music class, or a shamanic healing -- I mean, what's going on here? The trip doesn't just last for a few weeks, it unfolds from month to month and year to year, incorporating patterns from previous years in the Spiral Curriculum, offering not just access, but structured immersion, into a highly globalized world.

    Kids that emerge from this socialization process are hardly to be considered American, which is one of the great strengths of the process, I would say. Perhaps nations need to rethink nationalism as the most appropriate socialization process or civilzational goal, for starters.

    If somehow this curriculum could be made accessible to a great mass of humans on many continents, this would be something worth documenting, worth writing a dissertation about. As it stands, only a few hundred students have the opportunity.

  3. Hi Michael, it's mathisyourfriend. I'm a licensed elementary and middle school math teacher and I find this fascinating. Thinking about my own education, from 4th grade on I was always in classes with the same few people (those with high grades). I went through high school basically seeing the same 20-25 kids in every class every day. The only time I mixed with kids not in "advanced" classes was gym. I graduated from high school a shy geek with one friend. Lucky for me all that stuff got me into Brown and now I'm a not shy geek with >1 friend.
    I'm taking a graduate ed class at UMass Dartmouth in methods of middle school math teaching and our last paper was 1/2 about this topic.
    As a math teacher most of my time is spent fixing how they've been taught (I really hate "cross multiply and divide") so it's hard to "socialize" them more than demanding basic classroom decorum.