Sunday, February 26, 2012

Disrupt Education Yes, But How?

Isaac Lewis begs … Please, Someone, Disrupt Education. He does a great job at identifying the problem, but what about the solution? What's the disruption?

People in the past did lots of things that seemed completely normal at the time, and seem completely bizarre or perverse to us now. Human sacrifice, slavery, mullets, that sort of thing. So it’s likely that lots of the things we enlightened moderns think normal will seem completely backwards and barbaric to our descendants. What might those things be?

Here’s one. Having millions of young people, in virtually every country in the world, spend three years of their life doing useless busywork. Having them all repeating the same tasks, producing work which is likely of no value to anyone, but will only be glanced at for about ten minutes by their taskmasters. I’m talking, of course, about the current university system.

Up until about, say, 1991, it made a lot of sense to tie research and education together. Professors were gatekeepers of knowledge at the limits of human experience, and it made sense for students to go to them to learn. Then the web appeared, and that knowledge has slowly opened up to everyone. But the universities have remained the same.

The main priority of professors is not teaching, but research. The main priority of students is not learning, but earning grades and getting their career passport. We’re so used to this situation that we rarely stop to question it. The part that will seem really weird to future generations is the monumental waste of labour involved. At this very moment, tens of millions of students are writing near-identical essays, solving near-identical equations, or debugging near-identical pieces of software. Bleary-eyed postgrad students will then be distracted from their research to mark all this work. Yes, the students are “learning”, but in an incredibly inefficient way. The system simply isn’t optimised for learning, but for ranking people by intelligence and the disposition to complete arbitrary tasks when ordered.

The current system was great at producing the bureaucrats needed to run an industrial society, and completely incapable of producing the knowledge workers needed by modern society. Evidence: youth unemployment is in the double digits, and university graduates are being forced to work menial jobs for no pay. Meanwhile, firms in the few areas of the economy that are actually growing cannot find the highly-skilled and enterprising employees they need.

Please, someone, disrupt education.

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