(The Future of Education is a Mess and That’s a Good Thing)

GUEST COLUMN | by Farb Nivi

Farb NiviThe future of education and learning is going to be messy. Messier than it is today. While the prospect of such a messy future may sound unappealing, it is – in my humble opinion – inevitable, good for most, and likely will be due to market forces. I will attempt to shed light on this future from one entrepreneur’s perspective. The good, the bad and the ugly.

Education and learning have a lot of surface area. Like eating, sleeping and other bodily functions, learning is required to stay alive. Learning, or education, is also part of how we get ahead, and find personal fulfillment. The internal and external factors that reward learning are so pervasive that there is a lot of surface area for the solutions. We have everything from formalized educational institutions to high-paid tutors to our own individual, often casual, efforts at learning more. This translates to a multi-trillion dollar industry.

Necessarily, the solutions in the space will not be generalizable to 100% of learning situations. A language learning iPhone game may not reach an under-resourced student with no device and a gradebook app is of no value to the casual language learner, yet both resources are a part of a rapidly growing surface area of solutions. Over time, this gets messy.

edtech digest quotes Farb NiviThere is a tension between the increasing rate of the increasing options and the ability to find a match with the myriad of potential solutions. This problem becomes exacerbated at the institutional level as educational institutions are not able to change systems and solutions to keep up with or even try the new solutions. There are, nonetheless, solutions and innovations being built specifically for this sector. The goal is to become the next ingrained technology because the potential rewards are high. The costs of testing a solution’s viability are decreasing, and the appetite for ‘edupreneurs’ is also high.

The student in this institutionalized world, however, will not have access to the complete solution space for their learning and educational needs. While their institutions may well be charging full speed ahead into the technological and student-centered future of better learning, and while the improvements over the next 5-50 years will be real and considerable, I think it will be 50 years before the bulk of the formalized educational system is designed around curating and leveraging the best existing content and technology, regardless of institution-wide adoption. Things will get better, slowly, but it will take time for the system to be designed around curating the best content and technology at the student level.

On the other hand, the self-directed learner of Anya Kamenent’s Edupunk, or Dale Stephen’s UnCollege or Michael Ellsberg’s Education of Millionaires, is in the early days of a renaissance in personal, artisanal, meaningful, and rewarding learning options. Here, individual actors as consumers and businesses in a market can quickly iterate, experiment and reward the smartest market actors with financial and learning gains. The Lean Startup movement is a great example of a corpus of knowledge that spread all over the world in a short period of time with both sides of the market equation being rewarded. The Lean Startup movement did not require institutional adoption and has, as of yet, not received a whole lot outside of its early home in Steve Blank’s business class at Berkeley.

Individual learners can also go to the Internet today, pay a small monthly fee, and access adaptive algorithms to improve their own learning or performance on high-stakes exams that are gatekeepers to the life they want. A decade ago, those algorithms were not available at the consumer level. While the problem of options is inevitably a part of a consumer’s world, like an institution’s, the overhead of experimentation and shifting between solutions is smaller.

In fact, consumers often leverage multiple complementary solutions in parallel – an act that, due to approval processes, is much slower at an institutional level. The future is bright for the learner, but wealth distribution will bring that future to some before others.

We can see a problem here if the rates of access to solutions differ between the institutionally educated population and the population with the means and the will to exploit the latest and greatest. In fact, access to the solutions is not the only problem. Awareness of solutions could be as big of a problem. It is my opinion that the thing to do is to take it all. The successful person of the future will likely have taken control of their own education and learning, including leveraging what institutions have to offer. Institutions will get better but that won’t be enough.

While different people have different means, access to more than a lifetime of learning content is online and free and access to the web and devices will be here for everyone before there is a systemic redesign of educational institutions.

Schools are great, indispensable, getting better and aren’t enough for what the future will hold. The learner of the future will have to supplement their formal learning or it will unequivocally not be enough for the future they are moving into.

Farb Nivi is the founder of Grockit and Chief Product Officer. An entrepreneur and teacher since he was in his teens, the first company he started was Michigan-based Vision Computer Solutions. He then joined The Princeton Review as a teacher, a trainer, and curriculum and pedagogy writer. In 2001, Farb was honored with The Princeton Review’s National Teacher of the Year Award.