The Future of Education?

In a recent TED video, Salman Khan talks about his Khan Academy, which evolved from a few YouTube videos into a whole library of videos plus resources for teachers to track student progress. The idea is that teachers can assign video lectures for homework and save classroom time for more individualized guidance.

The amount of data available is truly impressive. The program tracks how well students are doing on a host of concepts (e.g., fractions or decimals), and teachers can even see how long it took a student to answer online test questions and which ones he got right.

A lot of the comments on TED.com question whether Khan Academy is truly a reinvention of education, since it uses a common technology (video) and common practices (like focusing on one-on-one tutoring and remediation). What strikes me as interesting is that the teacher role, though changed, is not eliminated. But visions of futuristic education usually involve students learning from online video, and not going to school. Is that realistic?

Khan’s talk suggests that it might be. In addition to teachers helping struggling students, his program can facilitate interactions between students. Students could connect with peers who have mastered a subject and even view their “reputation” (which I assume means comments or ratings from other struggling students who have learned from them). An education system that went fully online would require such peers—young or old—to provide help to those who have trouble learning from video content alone.

Would this be a good thing? I once spoke with someone who was starting a college, and asked her about online education. She replied that in-person interaction is vital for students because it allows them to witness the teacher interacting with others, demonstrating virtues of character in action. It gives them a role model. This relates to a broader view of education as growth as a person, not simply growth in knowledge. Fully online education may mean that parents have a greater responsibility for this aspect of their children’s development.

A Liberal Arts Manifesto

This sentimental article, In Defense of the Liberal Arts, caught my eye.  I am currently finishing a philosophy degree in my university’s Arts Faculty, but I consider myself to be a scientific thinker and have become increasingly skeptical about the methods and subject matter of the liberal arts.

Unfortunately, Jon Meacham’s article doesn’t provide much insight into the benefits of a liberal arts education, except the broad claim that it nurtures creativity.  Students of liberal arts, he explains, have “a habit of mind that enables them to connect ideas that might otherwise have gone unconnected”; they may become the entrepreneurs of tomorrow who define the future of our economy.

If training the creative entrepreneurial mind is the goal, however, a liberal arts education isn’t ideal; Meacham himself notes that expertise in Homer and Shakespeare has a questionable economic value.  Students could be taught to think creatively about the related subjects of technology, business, and economics, for example – the details of which are exceedingly relevant to economic success.

But I don’t mean to downgrade the liberal arts.  Reflecting on my own education – a blur of reading hundreds of pages and writing nearly as much – I have benefited in ways that will serve me in the future.  I have learned to understand alternative viewpoints; to see patterns and make comparisons; to clearly articulate my own ideas in writing.  More broadly, I have learned that the answers to life’s questions – whether philosophical or political, theoretical or practical – are not as straightforward as they might appear.

Questioning the benefits of any particular education is certainly valuable.  In fact, it might be useful to offer students a wrap-up course within their department, explaining major themes and take-away lessons.  The practical benefits of some courses of study may be more apparent than others, but I suspect that they’ll all retain their place in university culture – if only as knowledge for knowledge’s sake.