Digital Aristotle: Thoughts on the Future of Education

Uploaded by CGPGrey on 05.11.2012

Hello Internet,
Recently YouTube invited me to California for a conference with a bunch of really interesting
people. There were many talks and giant balloons and much discussion of what the future of
education might look like -- which is no small issue because how society raises the next
generation of scientists, doctors, and programmers shapes the future of human civilization.
It was an amazing few days and, if you'll tolerate my ramblings, I'd like to share some
of my thoughts on this as someone who's worked as an educator both in and out of schools.
So this is how schools have pretty much always looked: a guy in the front who knows all the
things and students who don't so the guy tells them.
But a teacher explains things at the right pace for maybe *one* student in the room during
a lesson. Everyone else is either bored because they already understand the material or lost
because they're missing knowledge they should already have.
But, at the end of the lesson, regardless of student understanding, the circeirculem
marches rentlessly on.
And whether the teachers use a blackboard, whiteboard or smart board and whether students
use tables, or paper, or tablets (again) this system really isn't any different -- it's
just technology doing the same thing in a shiner way.
But the Internet is different and behind the scenes something interesting is happening
that hints at the shape of things to come.
In a perfect school, each student would have a personal tutor, like Aristotle to Alexander
the great.
But if your education policy is 'Aristotle for everyone' then there are three big problems
with this:
1st) There aren't enough humans on Earth to individually tutor every child, and even if
there were it would be horrifically expensive and even if neither manpower nor money was
a problem not everyone is as good a tutor as Aristotle.
But technology is solving these problems: starting with number 1:
For who needs humans when the Internet can teach you all the things?
Want to learn calculus: get started.
Need an AP biology course? Go watch this one along with hundreds of thousands of other
The Internet massively multiplies the audience of potential teachers and solves the manpower
But isn't cheerleading the Internet the same thing I was complaining about before: new
tech doing old things just with more shiny? After all if you were a pre-Internet child,
with bookish inclinations, there's *always* been a place to teach you all the things.
And people thought that radio and TV were going to revolutionize education by giving
teachers huge audiences, but here we still are.
These are good points but Internet also solves the cost problem in a way that Radio and TV
never could.
Real shows are expensive to make and even the best of educational TV often gets pushed
aside for dumber, more popular stuff that, not coincidently, is also more profitable.
This is known as the History Channel Effect.
But the cost to access to the Internet is only going down, as is the cost to make stuff
for the Internet.
Which is why a guy with some paper and a marker in his bedroom can pull in a million views
a month at essentially zero cost and doesn't have to worry about competition from stuff
like this.
So the Internet solves problems one and two, but educational videos still aren't personalized
to students and that leaves YouTube still as a library of video, not a tutor like Aristotle.
But you can build on top of YouTube and what I see coming is this: Digital Aristotle for
A computer program that tutors students individually, by pulling from a library of videos like YouTube,
a program that tests students on what they know and, more importantly, adapts to the
way they learn over time by comparing the effectiveness of different videos and different
tests to discover scientifically, what works best.
This isn't a fantasy, there are people building parts of this right now (even if Digital Aristotle
isn't their explicit goal). And one of these places is The Khan Academy which is more than
just Sal's soothing voice. If this does not blow your mind, you have no emotion. Behind
the website is incredibly complicated software testing everything about student learning:
the effectiveness of different videos, different tests, and different ways of asking questions.
And while it may seem primitive now, technology only gets better, faster. When Digital Aristotle
arrives it will be cheaper, less labor intensive and better than human teachers ever could
I often hear the argument that Digital Aristotle, or something like it, will free teachers to
float around the classroom helping kids works on interesting projects -- and while that
might happen in the near-term, I don't think that's the long-term reality.
For what happens when Digital Aristotle truly knows students better than the teacher? When,
for every topic of human endeavor, it's able to take the best and brightest kids farther
down the path of knowledge than their teachers ever could?
I doubt that schools will go away -- after all they aren't just about learning but are
also freeing parents to work in the economy while their feral children are turned into
civilized adults -- but schools will be radically different and there will be far fewer teachers
working in them doing far less.
And while that's not great news for teachers, it's awesome news for students and society.
Right now, if you're a student doing poorly school moves on without you and if you're
doing well, school holds you back.
In the future, I see every human using a Digital Aristotle for their whole life, a tutor personalized
to them, teaching them exactly what they need to learn when they're best ready for it and
when that comes, we'll have both a better educational system and a better society.
I want to thank YouTube EDU and the people who ran it for bringing me out to California
to meet up with these awesome people. I had more interesting conversations over the space
of a few days than I normally get to have over the space of a few months.
If you want to see what the best of education looks like right now, go check out their channels
and if you want to hear more on this topic, I've also put together a playlist of talks
on this topic I hope you like.