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Hacking Education, aka What Can We Do to Improve This Mess

If you’ve never watched (Sir) Ken Robinson’s RSA and TED talks on the changing paradigm of education, take some time to do so. It’s well worth it. Super inspiring stuff. I’ve come back to these talks every so often over the past few years as I’ve grappled with designing online education alternatives.

I’ve been an eager observer of (and participant in) the “educhange” movement that has emerged in the last few years. The change education is currently undergoing has been simultaneously exciting and frustrating to see. On one hand, there certainly is palpable disdain for the traditional system, real enthusiasm to change things up, and new tools that can allow for meaningful change to occur. On the other hand, traditional school systems at every level seem mired in the status quo, and while tools are changing at a rapid pace, systems are stuck in a distant past that no longer resonates with modern learners. As Sir Robinson points out, these systems were designed for a completely different era, and significant change has not really occurred in quite a long time.

We spend such an integral part of our life in school. We learn how to socialize. We attempt to find our identities. We develop relationships that come to define us. We (hopefully) become passionate about certain topics and strive to actualize our potential in these areas. Because of how fundamental schooling is in shaping our lives, it’s no surprise that we hold school dear as a cultural institution. And such deeply entrenched institutions are always the hardest to change.

But we must. The current system has been broken for some time, and worst of all, today’s students are not really being equipped to succeed in a new globalized, tech-centric world. Yet at the same time, school is more expensive than ever (side-note, if you’ve never read about Peter Thiel’s thoughts on the Education Bubble, check this out). It’s high time for disruption.

Here are some of my thoughts on what a “hacked/modernized” system would look like (and for anyone reading this, I’d be curious to hear what you’d like to see in a modernized education system).

Highlight the Best Teachers and Give Them a Platform to Reach More People

When it comes down to it, amazing teachers are the backbone of great education. We all have had that fantastic teacher that has fundamentally changed our life. And luckily, there are now platforms that allow the best teachers to broadcast to the world (the most notable are the “MOOCs” (massive open online courseware systems) – Cousersa, Udacity, MIT OpenCourseWare, and more).  However, rather than being a nice-to-have option that people take on the side out of interest, these open online systems must become more meaningful and substantial (and eventually, allow people to prove the knowledge they have gained via some type of reformed credentialing system.. more on that below).

As well — we  need to do a much better job of highlighting the work of our best teachers. They should have a special status in our culture. Teaching should even be seen as a potentially LUCRATIVE career path, not merely a selfless one. On this note, did you know that some “rock star” teachers in Korea make millions of dollars a year?!? While that is a bit over-the-top, it points to the fact that teachers ideally should have as much upward mobility as any other profession. We need more Dan Shiffmans of the world attracted to becoming teachers.

Less About Credentials and Testing, More About Real-World Performance

The usefulness of modern-day credentialing has largely run its course. What used to be an effective way to “prove” what one has learned, has now become outdated and ineffective. The piece of paper that says you went to Yale has become more important than the actual classes you took while there (and that piece of paper is why Yale costs a whole ton of money when most of its class content is available online for free). As Paul Graham nicely puts it, “an elite pedigree becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Meaning, once you’ve got that piece of paper, you’re set, whether or not you actually are a high-performing individual.

But this system doesn’t make sense anymore when people can learn through so many mechanisms outside of a traditional institution. That is why credentialing must be replaced by more meaningful real-world performance indicators. Code on GitHub or a blog of your work is a great example. Mozilla’s Open Badge Framework is super interesting (yet early). We need better systems here and much much more mainstream adoption.

Self Paced

Students learn in different ways and at different speeds. Rather than lump them all together in one progression that is the same for everyone, we need to give students room to go at a speed that makes sense for them. The best solution I’ve seen here is to flip the classwork/homework model: watch lectures at home (through video), and do actual work/exercises in class when the teacher can actually offer guidance. Our very own Nature of Code class is being conducted in just this way in the coming semester. I guarantee you it will work. It’s a better format.

Leverage the Long Tail

The Internet has created tremendous new dynamics, and one of my favorites is the long tail (wow, I didn’t know that ITP’s own Clay Shirky contributed to coining the phrase!). The long tail applies beautifully to education, wherein we can one day picture a system where there would be an expert teacher available to teach you literally anything at a moment’s notice — from filters in Photoshop to mitochondria in biology. In the tech world, is going a great job creating a long tail system. We need more platforms like this.

Students Teaching Students

Who says the school dynamic HAS to be instructor teaching students? Don’t we all learn even more when we have to teach someone else the material? I believe classes should increasingly be centered around students taking an active agency in teaching the material they are learning (it’s proven that this makes students more active learners). Thus, an ideal class set-up would involve:

  • Video lectures outside of class
  • Work/Activities inside of class (with the instructor providing guidance)
  • Student responsibility to take agency and teach parts of the class

These are just some of my ramblings, but I believe many of the above changes must happen for education to become more effective and meaningful for modern leaners. The system is broken. Buy hey, we’re the perfect people to fix it right?

4 comments to Hacking Education, aka What Can We Do to Improve This Mess

  • Nancy

    Question: AT what level of schooling do you think MOOCs would not work? It seems to me that you have to deal with elementary and middle school education in a way to create enthusiastic learners with enough skills and curiosity to take advantage of some of these more distant learning/just-in-time learning possibilities. But maybe not.. What do you think?

  • nd876

    Hey Sam!
    Thanks for your post. I also think (Sir) Ken Robinson’s TED talk about schools killing creativity to be one of my all time favorites.

    In a modernized education system, I would like to see more focus on knowledge and skill and less on quantitative things like tests and diplomas. I think tests, especially standardized tests, are so bad for education. The result is a lot of students who are good at taking tests, but lack the skills the tests are about! Education is more effective when a skill is learned for a real life application rather than to pass a test, even if that means an application is made up for the purpose of education. For example, students create assignments that require the desired skill to complete them, and do not merely require answers on a scantron sheet.

    I went to art school with the mindset I was taught in high school: Grades and tests are the only thing that matters. So I made sure to give the professors what THEY wanted to get an A. Well, I ended up with a lot of mediocre works that I hate. (So much for that A.)

    I am so thankful that ITP has the cognizance to make classes Pass/Fail. I can thank ITP for reuniting me with my childhood self who was not afraid to take risks.


    I don’t think we need to create enthusiastic learners or curiosity in children as long as we start from the beginning. Children are born enthusiastic learners. Even the brain of a child with a bad attitude is programmed to be curious, learn like a sponge, and has no fear of failing. But, once a child is subject to the brainwashing of “failure is bad” from tests and strict curriculum imposed on them, they lose their curiosity and drive to explore.

    The good news is, they are already finding ways to keep their curiosity. Kids understand the internet better than anyone who remembers a world without it. And they find information faster too. But if children are going to learn freestyle, what they are going to need is a really good coach.

    Teachers can be that coach — “Ok, so we want to win the game called “Spelling” Who’s got a strategy they want to try? So, how’d that go? Did you get it? Its fine if you didn’t get it this time. Why not try from a different angle? Your teammate is falling behind can you share what worked for you? What other ways could we find the answer?” I think students, even very young ones would benefit from discovering their own learning style.

    These thoughts come from my observations of children and old memories of my own experiences, but not having kids of my own, I wonder if someone who does would agree with me???

  • tw981

    It’s an interesting issue. But I want to start with NYU. NYU is a university without campus, which made me feel hesitate to coming here at one time. Since I was wondering whether good educations could just from these small buildings. But now I think my choice is right. It offers whatever I want. Great playgroud and grass are just the stuffs making up for the lack of university soul. I say that not because I was in NYU now,most of the reason is that I admire another way of education she created- the education which not happend in a place has playgroud, church, river and other routines, an education which is different from what it should be,

    So what will the new education be? First of all, it could happen in everywhere and everytime. Yes, this is not a new concept at all. The main problem could be, the campus are too beatiful and decent for people to “destroy” and “reconstruct”. And then think out of box to create a new container for “education”.Owning campus is also one kind of routine. Campus is not like church. When we talking about the church, it is the place people hold their similiar belief even during serveral hundred years, it is always about love, truth, freedom. So church is always alike and seldom changes during these decade. But education are not like belief, it changes rapidly, especially when new form of communication emerge these years. So why don’t we subvert them ? Should it always like schools? campus? maybe camools? Why don’t we get out of “comfort zone” where equipped with chairs and desks and people need to go there at certain time everyday?
    I think there could be a concept called “big educations”(LOL.I am stealing from big games). We provide and get education everyday and everywhere, and it is a life long education. It could just be an virtual system, an interactive process or even a methology! I agree with sam’s Leverage the Long Tail theory, we can see there are many education websites on the internet like Linda, code school and they are good beginners for the new field untapped. I guess the next would be a world education searching engine or somehthing? and google will be replaced since ecause google let us know things but don’t teach us how to get stuff…At last, I hope when we are 60 years old, we will laugh at the way we learn now.

  • Oscar

    I’ve also watched Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk and just watched his RSA talk. As a person who had a really hard time in school early on in life I really identified with his speech. Growing up, school was always a major source of anxiety for me. It really didn’t help that I hated my first day of school. I just remember that I started crying when my mom left the room and that I didn’t stop for a really long time. I never really had trouble with other kids other than when I was really young, I always managed to make friends fairly quickly, but teachers was another issue. I always had problems with teachers, or should I say teachers always had problems with me. I don’t want to turn this post into some kind of sob story about how traumatic my time at school was but I can’t help but feel really angry when I think about it. Admittedly it wasn’t all bad, some schools were better than others and luckily I didn’t have to stay too long at most schools because my family moved around so often. To be fair I was probably a pain in the neck. Always hyperactive, always being naughty or doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing. By the time I was fifteen years old, I didn’t want to go school anymore.

    I remember a story, although I don’t remember where it came from, maybe someone told it to me or maybe I read it somewhere. It was about a guy recalling his days in first grade or second grade, and how he specifically remembered one teacher. He started off by saying that on his free time he liked to draw and paint. He wasn’t going to change the art world or anything but he was good at what he did. The reason he remembered the teacher was that she had once complimented him on a drawing he had done in class. He said he remembered thinking that he picture he had drawn wasn’t anything special, but her comment had sparked something in him. He continued drawing until he became proficient, and then soon started painting. The reason I thought of this was that I thought it was a good example of a teacher tapping into a student’s potential talent and I identify with the guy because I used to draw obsessively when I was younger.

    The only times that I really felt comfortable at school was when I was in art class and when I was a bit older music class. They were the only classes where I put 100% concentration into what I was doing. I didn’t have to worry about being scolded because I was daydreaming. I think what Ken Robinson is proposing is really important and I’m very happy someone is bringing up the subject of this type of education reform. In response to Nancy I agree with nd876 in some respect, children are born curious. I think Neil deGrasse Tyson said it best: “We spend the first year of a child’s life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down. There’s something wrong there.”