I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of education lately. It’s clear that our current model is beyond broken. The very young are taught to grin and bear twelve years of compulsory passive absorption. Upon graduation, they’re then incentivized to take on >$30k in debt to study random subjects which may or may not interest them and which almost always (with the exception of credentials from the most elite universities and STEM degrees) have very limited job prospects. The ultimate result is a society with >$1.5T in student debt – the second largest consumer debt category after mortgages – and a growing group of millennials and Gen Z with little hope of entering the property class and even less chance of doing so while engaging in meaningful work.
The situation seems bleak. The good news, however, is that we appear to be experiencing a renaissance in education experiments. The fusion of trade schools with creative nothing-upfront financing mechanisms like ISAs popularized by Lambda School are extremely exciting. This model appears to be successful for programming and will likely carry over into other digital creative fields like design or data science. At the earlier stages of schooling (K-12), we’re seeing a wave of fresh funding for homeschooling startups (e.g. Primer, Outschool, and Zip) designed to give families the tools and network to best administer their own education.
But while promising, these experiments are only a small part of the solution and still require substantial upfront capital investment (either from the student or an outside investor) and 1:1 mentorship (either from an engaged teacher or family) making them difficult to scale to >7 billion people. What would an education experiment look like that could successfully scale to teach everyone in the world a broad series of subjects and skills which students find engaging and which offers a clear path toward a sustainable living?
For starters, it’s probably NOT more content. While creative new expressions of ideas are always welcome, the reality is that we already have a massive surplus of information. Thanks to the Internet, you can find all of the needed resources from a variety of global experts to become world class at almost any subject or skill. Want to learn to code for free? Freecodecamp and Codecademy have proven, thorough curriculums. Want to learn about the history of philosophy? Stanford’s free encyclopedia or Wikipedia have a wide variety of in-depth entries. Need help repairing your bike? YouTube’s got you covered.
So, what’s the problem? What do people actually need to go from curious noob to gainfully employed hero. I think there are four key elements:
- A proven syllabus
- Discipline to do the work consistently
- Mentorship appropriate to skill level
- A project portfolio that leads to income
There are a variety of promising projects applying one or more of these elements to different skills and professions. Marketplaces like RookieUp and Codementor help connect students with quality teachers for a variety of creative fields. Apps like Fluent Forever are productizing research around spaced repetition (popularized by open source tool Anki) to design personalized curricula for skills like language learning. And Duolingo famously uses gamification (e.g. streaks) to foster discipline while making language learning a game. Tools like Github, Dribble, and Flocknet help users showcase skills and portfolios to their social networks, which is how people are increasingly landing jobs.
Futureland, a promising project I came upon recently, offers some degree of each component. A project based network, the site encourages users to share their works in progress while learning new skills (and comment on the work of others doing the same). The concept for this platform emerged from the founder’s experiment with teaching himself new skills like making music and programming by committing to daily practice for 365 consecutive days.
Each of these tools is exciting but only the tip of the iceberg in the coming education revolution. If you’re working on new tools that help learners decide what to learn, curate resources/syllabi, connect with mentors, build discipline, or showcase their portfolios to employers, please reach out!
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention one other critical building block to offering educational opportunities to 7+ billion people: economic security. A safe roof over your head, a working computer/Internet connection, and some amount of free time are unfortunately a luxury for much of the world (even in the USA). While solving this problem is beyond the scope of this post, I would like to echo Albert Wenger’s thesis that some version of Universal Basic Income (UBI) could go a long way.