January 5, 2021

Why Big-Tech is a glimpse into the future of education

Can big-tech teach us how we we should teach? I allowed myself to let my thoughts roam freely to rethink education, based on first principles, from a clean slate.

Why Big-Tech is a glimpse into the future of education

A food court with salad bars, smoothie stands and street food vendors. Five young people sit around a small table and argue about a physics problem. Another team is sitting in a cosy and quiet room with comfortable lounge chairs, reviewing a text together and discussing potential changes. In a small auditorium five people pitch their respective ideas to solve a specific problem in an internal competition.  What I am describing, however, is not the campus of a large tech startup, but instead what I believe to be the schools we should have in the future.

Looking at the success Amazon has at dominating the cloud business, Google and Facebook in the online advertising space, Netflix for movie streaming or Nvidia in the GPU space: If we could use similar methods and resources to focus on educational success that tech companies pour into increasing or defending their respective market share, we might end up with something very similar on the surface, but for education it might be the single biggest revolution since the introduction of classrooms.

It is no secret that I am a big critic of education in the way it currently is executed. It is not inclusive, not adaptive to students' needs, is way to slow to adapt to changing requirements and overall antiquated to a troubling degree.

There are not many industries that have this many unhappy customers. German education sucks, as I can attest. But in most countries it sucks. As a society, we often hail Finland's education, only to peddle back because "It wouldn't be practical in a country of our size" which is about the most bullshit excuse there is. But I'd argue, even Finland isn't the be-all, end-all of education, far from it. Instead of looking at what is working  and where, we should embark on a different route to revolutionise school-education.

Build. Measure. Learn.

If we conduct a first principles analysis and focus everything to be centred around student success, this is what I think should be the framework to shape the schools of the future:

Let us start with the obvious: measuring success. The current system of measuring success with exams, and in some parts of the world, also through participation grades, should be ignored, because they are a terrible success metric when looking at first principles. They don't actually reflect anything besides the ability to adapt to the education system. They are no measure of anything else. Not intelligence, not learning progress, just adaptation to the system.

So, what success metrics should be used instead? Applying the tech company analogy here, this is actually something education employees should figure out together. Just like in a typical tech company, I envisage dashboards that display key metrics that have been determined by groups of engineers.

This leads me to another point: We have to abandon the idea of teachers the way we know them today. Children's education is one of the most valuable things we have in today's society. Thus, making it successful should be the job of the brightest minds we can assemble in any given institution. Optimising how we can leverage their minds and skills for educational success should be a big focus. I propose we replace teachers with "education engineers" that treat educational success as an engineering problem and use any technique available to them to maximise yields in key metrics, just like Facebook tries to optimise ad impressions.

And education should be addictive. If today's' teens think TikTok is more captivating than a maths lesson, it is not TikTok to blame: It is the maths lesson, that failed to optimise for its audience. In the project "Farbige Zustände" (literal: colourful state/ colourful condition) [1] researchers have have shown that at the beginning of the educational journey, prejudice to subjects is low in students and how their interest and performance in subjects develops is also influenced by how they are taught. Yet in education we never see massive scale A/B testing, reinforcement learning to optimise captivation etc. I am confident that most skills and knowledge I possess, I learned on my own and not in school, but not every student is lucky enough to discover the satisfying feeling of letting their minds wonder and explore new worlds in learning. My best ever grade in physics was during the year I went home with the new books, had no homework to force my hand that same day and I just spent an afternoon by myself, on a sofa in my study and reading the physics book, all by my own. If we focus on telling great stories and telling them well, education will be vastly more successful, because children will want to learn, and we can only do this if we use everything at our disposal to make education better, through endless build, measure, learn cycles, to optimise individually for for every single student. Hyper-Personalisation is used extensively in online advertising and ecommerce, yet in education we seem to only rely on machine learning for restriction and identifying so-called fraud, instead of how to create better and more effective learning experiences.

Failing towards success

Another important factor is how we treat failure. It is a source for learning, yet in contemporary education, and even in the scientific community it is regularly stigmatised. Instead of trying to adapt the same standards and goals for all students and try to apply the same measures to everyone, education should be as individualised as the Youtube start page, and students' failures in their educational journey should be celebrated as a way to learn how they can improve and not stigmatised.

I learned almost all of my useful skills as Tech-CEO through past failures, some of which with a lot of negative consequences, yet they helped me compare and identify different circumstances, trained me to recognise situations and ultimately provided me with more leanings, often in a single week, than 12 years of school. (Side note: Reading and writing was something my mother taught me during a three months suspension I had during my first school year, so not even for that school can be credited, neither for learning English which I also did on my own far before it even was a subject for me in school).

There is more than one way towards educational success

In my vision for the ideal education system, schools are campuses, filled with education engineers that constantly work on improvements. They focus on creating an atmosphere that both pupils and education engineers will enjoy spending time at. But there should also be competition between those education engineers, as it would act as an amplifier of striving for performance. I envision "labs" where new ideas are tested and teachers pitching subjects in front of students and compete on who gets more votes for their class.

The idea of this Blogpost is not to suggest what I think to be the ultimate solution to education problems world wide, it is a mere attempt to spark thoughts and document my own. A suggestive idea that is a merely an attempt to stir up the conventional thinking, in hopes that someone a lot smarter than me may tackle and ultimatly solve this problem as an engineering and not a policy issue. I know, most likley this is withful thinking. Generations of children are forced into oppressive school systems, cut to measure and damned to not learn as effectivly as they could, their enthusiam cut and their will to do better things shrunken down to fit grading scales instead of learning to solve actual issues, be respectful towards each other and helpful amgont each other;

Yet, I firmly believe there is hope in education. It may not be a future I live to see, but one I hope will come before the end of civilisation, but maybe I am wrong and the revolution is already on its way, unbeknownst to me.

Sources:

[1] S. Sobich, C. S. Große, R. Drechsler, L. Mädler: "Schule in Farbigen Zuständen: Ein Projekt zur Förderung von Technikinteresse", Resonanz - Magazion für Lehre und Studium an der Universität Bremen, 27/04/2020. [Online]. Available: https://blogs.uni-bremen.de/resonanz/2020/04/27/technikinteresse/ [Accessed 04/01/2021]

[2] "Alphabet Research and Development Expenses 2006-2020 | GOOGL", Macrotrends. [Online]. Available: https://www.macrotrends.net/stocks/charts/GOOGL/alphabet/research-development-expenses [Accessed 20/12/2020]

[3] "Höhe der gesamten öffentlichen Bildungsausgaben in Deutschland von 1995 bis 2020", Statista. [Online]. Available: https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/2526/umfrage/entwicklung-der-oeffentlichen-bildungsausgaben/. [Accessed: 20/12/2020]

[4] "German parliament passes record budget". DW. [Online]. Available: https://www.dw.com/en/german-parliament-passes-record-budget/a-51463550 [Accessed: 20/12/2020]


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