The Unfinished Question

Why The Future Of Learning Is Not Very Obvious

Len dela Cruz on Unsplash

The evolution of learning is a fantastic story of our constant and incomplete endeavor to find better modes of imparting education. Our struggle stems from the fact that word ‘education’ has deeper connotations than its most obvious meaning. The gap between academia and real life experience is a good proxy of that deeper meaning.

We believe that digitization can replace the existing university system. In 2018, rougly $1.45 billion was invested in EdTech in the USA surpassing the $1.2 billion invested in 2017. As per research by Seattle based Metaari, global investment in EdTech reached an astonishing $10.6 billion in first three quarters of 2018. There are about 700 universities offering an online education either through MOOC’s or paid lessons. Harvard launched their version HBX in 2013.

The reality today is far from a completely digital landscape. Instead of supplanting the old order, technology has democratized access and created other options that complement our real life university experience. We need to search for less obvious answers. To do that, we need to finish our question.

Using examples, this story illustrates three components missing from our present education system. They are by no means a complete answer. Rather, these missing pieces will help us finish an unfinished question about the kind of education system we want to create. Without a finished question, we will only have superficial answers.

Life does not always proceed in a linear fashion. While technology is eating up the world, this broad mega trend has many side effects. There is a resurgence in vinyl. As per Billboard, 2017 was the twelfth straight year of rise in vinyl sales. Raw analog photos shot using Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras are also gaining popularity as cloud storage proliferates and 5G broadband is on the anvil. It is true that the world of education is no different. The overwhelming trend is towards digitization. The biggest benefit is a near zero marginal cost product that can be distributed virally using the internet.

However, as per the Press Trust of India (PTI), millennials are quickly dispelling stereotypes by preferring physical books over ebooks. Similarly, hardcopy books and libraries are far from being supplanted by their digital versions. The limited point is this: A digital university is not a very obvious answers. In addition to traditional universities, the rise of influencers as teachers is adding to the complexity of defining the future of education. Then, there are other missing elements such as the lack of ethics as an integral part of our education. Our first step therefore is to frame the right question about what we want our education systems of the future to look like. Then, we can start searching for answers.

Cultivating Happiness As A State Of Mind

The pursuit of growth at any cost, more commonly known as pure greed, resulted in the 2018 financial crisis. Yet, the word greed is very misunderstood. In an objective world, greed is a very natural human tendency to have more. It applies not just to wealth but more broadly to over consumption. We can be greedy in eating fatty and sugary foods as well. This natural human behavior is because human desires are limitless. On a spiritual level, it is limitless because our soul yearns to be one with the cosmos. We are always searching for a higher purpose.

So, we move from one crisis to another — fixing one only to find ourselves in the midst of another. The real question we need to ask ourselves, therefore, is this: is our pursuit of our own limitless desires hurting someone else? The 2018 financial crisis hurt the whole world. The answer I am alluding to is the inclusion of morality and ethics in our education system. Ethics should be a constant reminder from primary to graduate and higher levels of education. If we define success purely as financial success disregarding the hurt caused to others, we are building a house of cards. Clayton Christensen, professor at Harvard and author of the bestseller The Innovators Dilemma wrote a very poignant book on the subject titled ‘ How Will You Measure Your Life?’. He observed a lot of his fellow alumni were millionaires, had a successful career but were not happy. Societies will continue to face challenges unless ethics becomes as important as money.

Money is a means to an end. Of course, you cannot possibly teach philosophy to a starving man. His entire existence is focused on getting his basic needs met. Money will help create a mind ripe for learning. One solution to that is to provide a Universal Basic Income (UBI) to level the playing field. Once poverty is minimized and the vast majority is ready to learn, earnings later can be based on fairness and merit.

Money also does not guarantee happiness. Happiness is a state of mind. A good system of education should teach the cultivation of that state of mind no matter what. There is no rule that says you cannot search for a higher purpose while being happy with the present. In fact, a mind plagued with reliving the past and imagining a non existent future is simply too disturbed to search for greater truths.

Quite often, happiness eludes us because we either want to be like someone else or better than some one else. This comparison leads us to choose profit over ethics. Millennials and Gen Z are extremely conscious about the environment and sustainable businesses. As per Forbes, 59.1% of Millennials say they are concerned about protecting the environment. They have become a major driving force behind a growing ecological consciousness amongst businesses.

In other words, the time to redefine success in developing happiness as a state of mind is ripe. For fertile minds, a happy state of mind will automatically place ethics before profit.

Why A University Experience Cannot Be Completely Digitized

First, a traditional university grants accreditation that is recognized by businesses and startups alike as a minimum benchmark for offering a job. Many companies increasingly proclaim that they seek skills instead of a formal education. Yet, formal education remains the primary source of employment. Even if we assume everyone can learn digitally and at their own pace, it is a very hard pill to swallow. Think about it-how did you learn a simple software such as MS Office? by practice or from an online course. An online course cannot replace practical experience and therefore the dilemma. Today, a combination of online learning with actual experience holds the key to a fulfilling career.

Secondly, a university offers the physical environment necessary to develop a network of mentors, colleagues, co-founders, teachers and companions. There is something to be said of interpersonal connections. These connections can be developed online but they still lack intimacy.

Thirdly, AI is rapidly advancing. Machine Learning that combines reinforcement learning and first principles design with a blank slate (Tabula Rasa) approach is emerging as a very powerful way of doing things in a manner humans would never have thought of. A prime example is a move known as ‘Move 37’ that was used by the software ‘AlphaGo’ to beat a human champion Lee Sedol in the ancient, Chinese game of Go.

Google DeepMind on Youtube

The beauty of that move was that most people thought it was stupid. Instead, it was brilliant because the AlphaGo algorithm learned on its own to pick a move that was an excellent deception. As this trend continues, AI will help humans to understand ‘Unknown Unknowns’ and make human co-operation almost inevitable. The company behind AlphaGo is a collection of an incredibly talented group of individuals. The global tech race will spur greater collaboration among people across the world.

The importance of co-working in the same space to facilitate real time collaboration will grow. This phenomenon represents the environment within a university — a collection of research scientists working in perfect harmony with industry leaders to create exponential technologies.

Lastly, we must not forget that all communication is 7% verbal and 93% non-verbal. In other words, the importance of human contact will only grow not diminish casting doubt on the theory that education will be completely digitized.

The Role Of Influencers In Education

If you believe proselytizers of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), AI will soon free up humanity for a higher purpose. If we extend this belief further, everybody will be part of a gig economy focused on creative and experiential pursuits. In other words, we will return to nature and spirituality to find answers to the ultimate question: what is the purpose of life? Thus, in a world ruled by AGI, we will ironically be out of our homes not inside.

The beauty of unfinished questions, in a real life classroom, lies in the fact that fellow students complete that question by adding their own experiences and insights. A more developed question then leads to a deeper and more meaningful journey of finding better and more comprehensive answers. This accumulation of human wisdom cannot be found in an online individual learning experience.

Many people have a personal Board of Directors (BoD) — a group of mentors, colleagues, friends and family that they can rely on for personal growth. It seems fairly obvious then that people will naturally gravitate to master the creative arts from the masters of those arts i.e. influencers that can teach them how to be Disc Jockeys (DJ’s), travel bloggers, artists and writers.

Even then, the importance of physical sports and meeting people outside will only compound over time. Imagine a world where everybody is confined at home doing everything online — shopping online, meeting people virtually, learning online and playing esports.

It is a perfect recipe for our human bodies to atrophy and for loneliness to be the most prevalent disease in our lives. Thus, people will chose influencers who can also convene an experience in the physical world.

Reframing The Question

To sum up, our education system needs to improve on multiple fronts. First, we must create a level playing field by including more people in the education revolution using tools such as Universal Basic Income (UBI). As YCombinator founder Sam Altman says, we cannot afford to have all of our entrepreneurs to come from the upper middle class or the affluent segments of the world population. We cannot rely on pure luck to create the next generation of leaders.

Second, a conscious effort to teach people to cultivate a happy state of mind is very important. A happy state of mind breeds contentment and trades recklessness for sustainability. If everybody aims to become the best version of themselves, it eliminates jealousy and immorality to a large extent. An element of spirituality i.e. living for others and thinking of the greater good is indispensable in both online and offline education.

Third, there are many variables such as the rapid development of AI, the diffusion of innovation centers across the globe, geopolitical uncertainty that will interact to create a very volatile and rapidly changing future. Thus, education must teach us to ride incredibly rapid waves of change.

Lastly, we must understand that when it comes to education, there are rarely any simple answers. People think about Nuclear energy and think of a mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. Similarly, we look at education and we imagine a computer. The reality is that nuclear fusion holds the key to our energy sustainability and a hyper personalized learning experience that combines e-learning, spirituality, a traditional environment that fosters human interaction and influencers holds the key to lifelong learning.

In the end, let us not jump to conclusions without understanding what our quest really is for.

Writer @ The Intersection of Finance, Tech & Humanity. Stories of a Global Language: “Money”. Contributor @ Startup Grind, HackerNoon, HBR. Twitter@akothari_mba

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