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The End of Education
Ben Goertzel   Jun 26, 2010   Cosmist Manifesto  

As civilization has advanced, education has become increasingly important—and increasingly pervasive. This trend will continue until “education” as a separate categories dies, replaced for those who choose to grow by learning that thoroughly pervades life.

Education at the Dawn of the Internet

Young (and not so young) people spend more and more of their lives in school ... and further, education is increasingly a regular and ongoing part of a person’s career. The pace of technological and social change is such that it’s rarer and rarer for a person to receive, in their youth, all the training they’ll need to carry out their work for the rest of their life.

However, our formal educational methodologies seem to have advanced less rapidly than many other areas of science and industry. Our formal education systems seem more analogous to those old-fashioned, fusty domains of industry that haven’t yet caught up with the times.

imageInformal means of education are accelerating dramatically, due to largely to computers and most prominently due to the Internet. Software primarily labeled as “educational” has made a relatively small mark on the world, yet Wikipedia, YouTube, Google, ArXiv, CiteSeer, and other such resources have had a tremendous impact and are doing a remarkable amount to spread knowledge throughout the population of humans with regular Internet access (along with spreading entertainment, nonsense, and a lot of other things).

At the high end, MIT and other universities are putting more and more of their curriculum online. For example: anyone with a computer, an Internet connection and a reasonable high school background can get a thorough education in computer science and software engineering via viewing free online lectures, reading free online textbooks, asking questions on free online forums, and practicing programming using free compilers and development environments, etc.

Internet technology provides amazing and accelerating means to bring people together to allow them to teach each other. Online forums are one example ... another is language learning websites, that allow, say, a Japanese speaker wanting to learn English to connect with an English speaker wanting to learn Japanese, for mutually educational multilingual education.

And the interactivity of many of these knowledge resources is important. A child researching a school project using Wikipedia may notice an error or omission in Wikipedia and update the site accordingly. A child can study animation and then upload their animation to YouTube for others to comment on. The boundary between learning and doing breaks down.

All this is well known. What is not sufficiently discussed is where this trend is leading us.

Future of Education

The schools of the future are going to look nothing like the schools of today. If indeed there are schools at all.

imageEven given all the educational affordances provided by modern technology, there may still be a value for schools of some sort, for social reasons. But if they do exist, schools of the future will serve more to regulate students’ educational interactions with the world at large, rather than to disseminate information directly. Students will learn by doing, and learn by exploring the Net and interacting with people and artificial agents from around the world ... and teachers will be there to gently nudge and guide this activity.

The main reason education isn’t this way right now is inertia. And this inertia is very strong, especially in places like the Orient where education is based almost entirely on rote, with minimal emphasis given to initiative or creativity.

But this aspect of society will change—because it has to change ... because old-fashioned schools are getting less and less useful at preparing people for newfangled society.

Where this leads is to the end of the distinction between education and plain old everyday life. If you learn by doing, and you need to constantly learn while doing anything due to the constant influx of new information ... then where lies the distinction between learning and doing?

This is plain vanilla (or maybe rainbow-colored?), hippy-dippy “progressive education”, really—but what’s not sufficiently appreciated is that it’s going to happen, not because it’s a nice and friendly and creativity-encouraging way to do things, but because it’s going to be judged necessary for preparing students to deal with a rapidly-changing and increasingly information-rich world.

And that’s without even mentioning the really groovy stuff—the possibilities for education afforded by, say, cranial jacks feeding knowledge directly into the brain ... or virtual worlds allowing students to try out new experiences in a manner partially self-guided and partially remote-controlled by others ... etc. etc. etc.

These various advanced educational technologies could potentially be shoehorned into the old-fashioned, rote-based, one-size-tries-to-fit-all, learning-separate-from-doing style of education ... but doing so would plainly squander most of their potential.

Education wants to be free ... and free of schools and traditional educational methodology ...

Moral of the Story

And so, as technology advances and society adapts, “education” will disappear as a separate category and pervade through life ... for those who want to keep growing.

On the other hand, some folks may wind up choosing to spend their time ignorantly pursuing repetitive pleasures in simulated worlds, or other similar activities. But these folks won’t need schools nor much education either. So one way or another, education per se will soon be a thing of the past.

The moral: promote informal learning that pervades life ... it’s the way of the future. Use formal learning set apart from life as a tool when it’s the most valuable choice given our current situation, but be aware that it’s decreasingly relevant as the future unfolds.


This brief article is part of the overall Cosmist Manifesto.

Ben Goertzel Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, and founder and CEO of two computer science firms Novamente and Biomind, and of the non-profit Artificial General Intelligence Research Institute (agiri.org).



COMMENTS

I love online education. It saves me time to study new things in time. But there are really too many online education programs on internet and it is hard to tell which is good and which is not. You need experience. I am using this website and want to select some programs. Still underconsideration. Any suggestion?

The education that matters will transition from the school to the workplace. The best, most sought-after schools will serve the needs of the industry most directly and efficiently, but the real learning that responds to the requirements of the marketplace will happen increasingly only on the job.

You don’t need the general information anymore that schools mostly provide, but specific tools for the mind to get a particular job done.

Granted, first you have to be a bit of a generalist before you can become a specialist, but the time spent on learning general vs specialized skills will be overwhelmingly on the latter since all non-specialized tasks and jobs will get automated away.

As current “schools” do not emphasize education so much as blind obedience to authority, their end is no great loss.

Self directed learning through a dedicated “tutor” program capable of evaluating and modifying educational programs to suit individual learning behavior are definitely the way to go, allowing people to learn in their own personal “best mode” on any subject which they become interested in.

The main (perhaps only) advantage left of formal education is external structure.  It’s very difficult to do a project (whether you are learning or not, but preferably you learn with all projects) without a structure external to your mind.  For instance, without a professor (or team leader) setting due dates and inquiring on status, things can drag on for a long time.  The project may never finish, or may go off course.  Certainly learning projects can go off and course and not be finished (I’ve done hundreds of those 😊)  but without finishing some things morale will go down.

Also, taking forever to do something means you learn much less than you could in the same time period.  That’s one of the reasons competitions work well in place of old-fashioned education, because they provide the structure of rules and a deadline, but everything is ridiculously accelerated and most of what you learn is applied.

Life extension can be taught in HS; so can intro to immortalism; and if it is felt balance is needed, religious studies (as distinct from theology) can also be offered in HS.

Ben, the online education and “death of education” movement(s) has a long and distinguished intellectual history.  Practitioners include Paul Goodman, the sociologist/writer who wrote “Growing Up Absurd,” Jonathan Kozol, and especially educational theorist John Holt. 

Holt was an educator who tried to reform the educational system before concluding it was flawed and fundamentally inhumane by design.  Since there was no Internet at the time, he became an advocate for home schooling - a position I believe he eventually repudiated when he saw the direction it took.

There are several elements to this movement:  Re childhood, it includes the belief that institutional education is fundamentally ineffective and dehumanizing.  Then there’s the belief that it serves to enforce economic structures designed to reduce freedom of choice and prepare people for pre-defined roles in a social hierarchy that’s meant to benefit the powerful.  Third, there’s the idea that it fails to maximize human potential.

That’s an oversimplification, of course, but that’s the gist.  Does this intersect with the stated goals of many people here?  Absolutely.  Thanks for raising the issue.

PS:  Congratulations to commenter “Educamation” for what appears to be a Dr. John reference.  The word appears in his song “I’m Qualified,” whose premise might appear to John Holt—you don’t need a degree to be qualified for some things.

My dad is a college administrator, and he hit virtually every point from this essay during the course of a car ride this afternoon: the Ivy League online, teachers as facilitators, the imperative to adapt to new technologies, resistance from defenders of the status quo, inertia. He was just talking about his job. Says we’ll see implementation of pretty radical changes, institutionally, within the decade. Says it’s better to be “on the side of the angels”. Let information be unbounded.

Education is being hindered by the heavily featherbedded unionized teachers, and the rest is b.s. We need a national Apollo Project to give every student in the U.S. a free broadband Internet terminal along with a remote teacher system to allow them to study complete curricula online, then go to a reduced number of schools only for testing, social and athletic activities, maybe once or twice a week. This will allow 80% of the teachers to be laid off, and the funds freed for the new Internet-based education era.

http://tlwinslow.weebly.com

Excellent comment. But a compromise will almost certainly have to be made with Creationists. Say to them: if you’ll agree to keep Creationism out of all curriculum, we’ll allow comparative religious studies in every school. Quid pro quo on everything.

...there’s no reason 21st century curricula can’t be combined with non-theological-school Religious Studies to buy off religionists (they always get their pounds of flesh); it wouldn’t technically violate church-state separation. IMO it isn’t so much teachers’ unions, the problem is more that—outside of science classes—the curriculas are oriented towards the mid-20th century or earlier. All the good teachers wont change anything if the subject matter is archaic.

I appreciate the moral of the story.  Informal learning can be the key to the future while formal learning is still helpful but can significantly decrease the relevance the future unfolds.

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