Digital Aristotle: Thoughts on the Future of Education

Digital Aristotle: Thoughts on the Future of Education

September 22, 2019 0 By Ronny Jaskolski


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 students. The Internet massively multiplies the audience
of potential teachers and solves the manpower problem. 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 everyone. 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 be. 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.