Education is not the filling of the pail but the lighting of a fire — William Butler Yeats
Education is a process that goes on ’til death. The moment you see someone who knows she has found the one true way, and can call all the others false, then you know you’re in the company of an ignoramus — Maya Angelou
This article explores human ingenuity in designing alternate content and delivery mechanisms to surmount obstacles such as poor infrastructure, lack of teachers and technologies that are pushing the current state of the art further than our imagination.
Alternative Models of Education
An alternative school is an educational establishment with a curriculum and methods that are nontraditional. Such schools offer a wide range of philosophies and teaching methods; some have strong political, scholarly, or philosophical orientations, while others are more ad hoc assemblies of teachers and students dissatisfied with some aspect of mainstream or traditional education (source:wikipedia)
The world has been active in developing alternate models of education with mixed results. Although Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) and MOOC platforms have proliferated to support lifelong learning, their acceptability by companies that still rely on the existing formal education system to fulfill requirements is questionable.
One might argue that the world of the future will not look anything like it is today. By that token, the current content and delivery methods are outdated. That is true. However, unless you test someone through an experiential learning experience, it is hard to judge capability. If we imagine a scenario where Universal Basic Income (UBI) becomes the norm, it becomes a different discussion altogether.
A look at the development of various alternative forms of education may provide clues to uniting disparate attempts into a common, acceptable form of education.
Media Center Model, Manaus
Deep within the Amazon rainforest lies Amazonas, the largest state in Brazil. With a population of roughly 4.02 million people, Amazonas presents a host of challenges to the delivery of education to its residents. Most of the state is a tropical jungle and its various cities including its capital Manaus (population: 2 million) is accessible by air and water. In addition to the obvious logistical challenges, the absence of qualified teachers meant that only technology held the keys to education.
Enter the Media Center or ‘Centro de Mídias do Amazonas’ which delivers education by two way video teleconferencing using old fashioned satellites.
I would go one step further. If possible, creating small media centers where children reside would be helpful in case access to the center itself poses a challenge.
During my time as a consultant at a Big 4 consulting firm, my colleague was assisting a partner in the firm with streamlining Pratham’s operations. I was extremely curious to learn more about Pratham and was always in awe of the work the organization was doing . Pratham is one of the biggest non-governmental organization (NGO) in India. It’s mission is:
“Every child in school & learning well”
Established in 1994 as a charitable organization, Pratham succeeded UNICEF’s Bombay Education Initiative in Mumbai to establish a tripartite-partnership between the government, corporate and civil society to improve India’s primary education.
Initially, Pratham began it’s intervention by recruiting volunteers to teach ‘Balwadis’ (pre-education classes) in the slums of Mumbai. Essentially, Pratham’s model was : if people cannot go to school, bring the school to them. Volunteers would teach in local communities, temples, offices, and even people’s homes.
Today, Pratham supports interventions in 23 States & Union Territories. It also has supporting chapters in the United States, UK, Germany, and Sweden. Through it’s partnership with the governemtn, Pratham has reached more than 5.7 million beneficiaries across the country. It publishes an annual report on the impact of it’s operations titled “ Annual Status of Education Report (ASER)”
The School In The Cloud
Imagine a place with a roof on it and computers connected to the internet below that roof. Now, picture dozens of curious children playing with the computer and learning at their own pace i.e. essentially self teaching. To that, add a ‘Granny Cloud’ of volunteer teachers from as far as Greenland teaching students in rural India. The mixture of these non-standard elements results in what is known as the Self Organized Learning Experience (SOLE)
Professor Sugata Mitra’s “Hole In The Wall” experiments resulted in the concept of self organized learning become common knowledge in 1999. In 2013, Mitra delivered a TED talk on his concept of School In The Cloud.
The concept of the school in the cloud is fairly simple. Take a shelter, add internet and volunteer teachers and you have all the ingredients of a learning experience where the concept of “knowing” becomes obsolete.
As per the School In the Cloud Website:
From the slums of India and villages of Cambodia, to schools in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, the USA and United Kingdom, Professor Mitra’s experimental results offer an intriguing new future for learning: a future in which ‘knowing’ may be obsolete.
Today, there is a SOLE experiment running in virtually every continent from America to Australia. The course content begins by asking open ended “Big Questions” which dont have simple answers. Finding the answers to these questions represents the journey called education.
Favelas of Monkey Hill, Brazil
Charles Leadbeater is a prolific British author who was also an advisor to Tony Blair. He went looking for radically innovative forms of education and ended up finding the most innovative ideas in the Favelas of Monkey Hill, Brazil and the slums of Kibera, Kenya
To me, a lot of the work performed by leading thinkers such as Charles and Professor Sugata have eerie similarities. In addition, the concept of AltSchool in Silicon Valley California is a surprisingly similar analog in the developed world.
These models bring education to people rather than the other way around. The key takeaway is the easy accessibility of schools to pupils.
Boarding Houses in Tazalt, Morocco
Berbers or Amazighs (Berber: ⵉⵎⴰⵣⵉⵖⵏ Imaziɣen; singular: ⴰⵎⴰⵣⵉⵖ Amaziɣ / Amazigh) are an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa. Basically, any of the descendants of the pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa.In the Atlas mountains of Morocco, there is a truly radical concept that has taken root. To improve access to education, a small NGO Education For All (EFA) provides boarding houses for its students to live. These students live at great distances from the school and the boarding house is located minutes away from school thereby offering it’s student lodgers a chance to study.
Children in the remote villages of the Atlas mountains suffer from a difficult landscape and lack of transportation which hinders education. lliteracy rates for rural women and girls remain as high as 90% (guardian.com). This story is very similar to many villages in India and Sub-Saharan Africa which also suffer from abnormally high illiteracy rates.
However, it is not hard to find beacons of hope in otherwise dark places.
The EdTech Landscape
Application of technology to education is a very old endeavor. One of the first patents on an educational technology was registered in 1866. Subsequently, the first testing machine was invented in 1924.
In 1971, Ivan Illich wrote a book ‘Deschooling Society’ which can be considered a predecessor to the concept of Education Technology. However, one of my first memories of digitizing education was a company in India called Educomp solutions. Educomp was established in 1994 by an Indian Institute of Management (IIM) alumnus Shantanu Prakash. As you can imagine, my recollection of EdTech is older than the modern usage.
In 2007, Salman Khan setup the Khan Academy as an offshoot of his experiment teaching his cousin using youtube videos. To me, that was a symbol of the inflection point of EdTech.
Today, the EdTech landscape is mind boggling. Think about how a completely digital school would look like and you can visualize each of these startups automating all activities from admissions to graduation.
Fueled by Venture Capital and foundations, the EdTech industry has seen steady and rising interest:
Today, the avenues to obtain an education are virtually zero cost. That’s because once the content is made digitally, it does not cost much to deliver. Of course, building and constantly updating the content library is critical. Perhaps, there will be an education portal in the cloud where people can have access to a bouquet of courses using a single search engine. We are already going:
“Siri, search for a course on machine learning 101"
It is quite unsurprising that Silicon Valley is on the forefront of experiments in the future of eduation. One of the biggest experiments is the AltSchool. Founded in 2013 by ex-Googler Max Ventilla, the AltSchool is a school in as small a place as a storefront.
AltSchool is really a laboratory mixture of hardware (alternate properties) and software (EdTech) and provides partners schools with insights into human learning. Surprisingly, it looks strikingly similar to the school in the Amazonas in Brazil or the School in the Cloud except that the AltSchool has more urban structures such as the storefront.
Today, there are 130 alternative private schools in California serving 7,694 students. These schools offer a non-traditional curriculum that falls outside regular and vocational curriculums.
As per WIRED, Ventilla likes to call AltSchool’s approach to teaching “Montessori 2.0.” The Montessori method emphasizes letting kids learn primarily through independent projects rather than direct instructions. In addition, personalized education results in better student performance.
One of the key takeaways from alternate schools is a finding by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which concludes that students with personalized education perform better at standardized test scores than students without personalized education.
Other Schools That Think Out of The Traditional Class
Innovation doesnt belong to any country but many of the same problems do. Therefore, it is not surprising to find constant innovation in the education space.From a school that doesnt address students by gender to a floating school on water, human imagination knows no bounds.
Then, there is THINK Global School. As per it’s website:
THINK Global School is a traveling high school where you’ll live and learn in four countries a year, making unforgettable connections between your education and the world around you.
Many education systems that produce great standardized test results also are the most stressful because they emphasize rote learning. Other alternative models may be less stressful but are yet to be proven. Part of the problem is that most of the benchmarks for evaluating great education are standardized tests. While very few of us have all the answers, what I have understood to be essential ingredients of a good education system are:
Infrastructure: The first order of business in backward areas would be to create basic infrastructure — water, electricity. Solar power could be an alternative. In addition, providing transport and lodging as applicable to make the centers of learning accessible is critical. It could also mean creating centers of learning where people reside.This is where adaptive Artificial Intelligence could come in. It could be a simple as a screen hung in the village square which gets activated by children playing and speaks to them in their local language.
Teaching: There is no denying that human interaction is the best way of learning. It could be supplemented by digital learning. However, the scarcity of teachers poses a dilemma. Itinerant teachers, learning through two way video, adaptive AI can all be considered while addressing this problem. At a professional level, the ability to keep learning will be the substitute teacher.
Delivery: Instead of standardized tests and rote learning, teaching children how to learn is more important especially as AI becomes more sophisticated. Foster curiosity and collaboration through self learning methods and team work. Also, there is no substitute to personalization of education.
Pragmatic: Create an education system predicated on happiness of which economic independence is a major component. Therefore, create an education that is directly applicable to jobs including the possibility of an entirely hands on education. This is particularly important in poverty stricken areas. However, supplement that education with an introduction to computers and machine learning.
Experiential Learning: by doing and applying concepts rather than by rote. Having said that, I find it hard to completely do away with rote learning. This is because you always want to leave students with a few basic concepts. Utilize AI to automate information gathering and as an input to decision making centered around real world problems. Create real life projects or employment that involves a multidisciplinary approach to solving problems.
Education is a way of creating a bridge to the human heart. Once you unlock the passion to learn, learning to learn can be a natural and consistent outcome. As it should be.