Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Future of Education: Fighting Obesity or Fighting Hunger?

I have been following with interest the discussion about the future of education.


Some people criticize existing educational institutions, indicating that they offer little in terms of real training, and that real learning occurs outside the classroom, by actually doing. "Nobody learns how to build a system in a computer science class." "Nobody learns how to build a company in an entrepreneurship program."

Others are lamenting that by shifting to training-oriented schemes, we are losing the ability to offer deeper education, on topics that are not marketable. Who is going to study poetry if it has no return on investment? Who is going to teach literature if there is no demand for it?

These two criticisms seem to be pushing in two different directions.


In reality, we need to address two different needs:

One need is to really try and democratize education, trying to take the content of the top courses and make it accessible and available to everyone. People that want to learn machine learning, can now take courses from top professors, instead of having to read a book. People can now advance their careers easily, without having to enroll to expensive degree programs.

The other need is to preserve the breadth of education, shielding it from market forces. This need wants to preserve the structure where students during their education get exposed to diverse fields, no matter if there is a market and demand for these fields.


This tension reminded me about the discussion about genetically modified foods.

Mass production of food pretty much solved the problem of world hunger. A few decades ago, there was a real problem with world hunger. Famine was a real problem in many areas of the world, due to the inability to produce enough food to feed the growing population: floods, droughts, diseases were disrupting production, resulting in shortages. Today, the advances in agriculture allow the abundant production of grains and food: wheat and rice varieties are now robust, resistant to diseases, adaptable to many different climates, and allow us to feed the world.

The advances that solved the problem of world hunger, ended up creating other problems. Processed carbohydrates and causing obesity, diabetes, gout, and many other "luxury" diseases in the developed world. The poor in the developed world are not dying because they are hungry. They are dying by starving themselves from essential ingredients in their diet.


The parallels are striking. The MOOCs, Khan Academies, and Code Academies of the world are the genetically modified foods for those living in the "third world of education". These courses may not be the most nutritious, and they may not provide all the "nutrition" for their education. However, the choice for many of these people in the "third world of education" is not Stanford vs. a Coursera MOOC. It is nothing vs. a Coursera MOOC. Given the choice, take the MOOC at any time.

Those that live in the "developed world of education" can be pickier. They may have access to the genetically modified MOOCs, but if they can afford it, the organic, artisanal, locally sourced education can be potentially better than the mass produced MOOC. 


Horses for courses (pun intended).