Above: Rob Nail, CEO Singularity University
Education is undergoing an incredible and exciting transformation, but I can’t help but wonder if the “experts” can’t see the forest for the trees. We are continuing to see roiling debates from the likes of my colleagues such as Vivek Wadhwa and Peter Thiel over whether kids should go to college or not, administrations battling technologists over whether they need to flip the classroom, and politicians forcing us to pick sides as if there were only two options – all the while missing the extraordinary revolution taking place around us.
The education industry seems to be tracking similarly to every early stage tech industry or product with big potential – innovators are coming up with new products (check out Khan Academy, Udacity, or EdX), early adopters and investors (like Learn Capital, Apollo Group, Kapor Capital, and Education Growth Partners) enthusiastically take the initial risk, only some survive (rightfully so), and the good ones go mainstream or even viral.
Unfortunately, education is a uniquely complicated industry. Not only is there a long history of strife about spending, infrastructure, politics, (not to mention the pressures from a depressed economy), and the expectation that education is a universal right, but we also fashion ourselves as experts (don’t you?) on either what works or what doesn’t work. This creates a risky and challenging environment for innovators to dive into – not the “safe to fail” environment required for creativity and experimentation. Regardless of these challenges, entrepreneurs, educators, and students cannot resist the advantages that technology brings to the table, and thus technology is finally starting to bring about the transformation in education that we have all long hoped for.
If we want to hasten the transformation of education, we should not only acknowledge that we are in the awkward early growth stage but fully embrace it. We should be trying out every new concept and technology and helping education innovators evolve and iterate their products quickly.
And today, there are a lot of really cool new things to watch, try, and support. Here are four areas of technology that I fine particularly exciting:
Social networking: Peer-to-peer learning platforms like Udemy, Open Study, and Instructables allow experts to strut their stuff. The best rise to the top based on user ratings.
Artificial intelligence and adaptive learning: Platforms such as IBM’s Watson (the winner of a special three-match series on “Jeopardy” in 2011) are demonstrating increasingly complex intelligence that is quickly being applied to education to provide ever adaptive learning environments (check out Knewton).
Sensors and feedback technologies: Cheaper, faster, and better-sensing technologies are also going to drive innovation. A number of tech companies are experimenting with recognizing whether a student is tuned in or tuned out through facial expression analysis. We will begin to see the work of companies like Hanson Robotics translate into educational tools in the near future.
Neuroscience and psychology: Ultimately, innovation in education is striving to create the optimal learning environment. Research in the fields of cognitive neuroscience and educational psychology is rapidly bringing new insight into how we learn and retain information and how these differences between individuals can be designed into education.
Bonus: If you aren’t convinced of the enormous potential technology can play in transforming education, be sure to watch Nicholas Negroponte’s “One Tablet Per Child Project.” Earlier this year, he airdropped tablets into two remote villages in Ethiopia whose people are essentially illiterate. These were new tablets in boxes, loaded with education apps and powered by solar panels — and without any sort of instructions. In the first two weeks of this two-year experiment, over 57 of the apps were being used on a daily basis, and many of the children were reciting and competing over their knowledge of the alphabet.
If this doesn’t convince you of the power and potential of these new platforms and applications, hand a 2-year-old your iPad and watch what happens. The gestural interface of tablets nurtures a child’s natural curiosity and learning capacity.
We are witness to and able to participate in an extraordinary and empowering social transformation. Let’s not throw out a good idea by getting stuck on the debates about the “digital divide,” whether we need to force a “flipping classroom,” or whether we should stop sending our kids to college. We are still in the alpha and beta versions of these new education models, and so let’s have these debates, but let’s also stay open-minded and supportive of these visionary new technologies and educational models. Where they are taking us is nothing short of revolutionary.
This post is written by Singularity University CEO Rob Nail, a serial entrepreneur and angel investor who loves to surf and surf the waves of accelerating change. The university, founded in 2008 and based at the NASA Research Center in Mountain View, California, aims to assemble, educate, and inspire a new generation of thinkers, scientists, and business executives looking to better the world through disruptive technologies.