March 18, 2018

The future of online learning

Following is the script from my talk at Student Talks Barcelona.

Let’s start this talk by imagining that all of us in this room could travel to the future. We have built this amazing time machine and we can choose when to travel to.

In order to really see how much education is going to change, let’s not travel in just 5 or 20 years, let’s go to the year 2218, in 200 years from now. You can probably imagine what a typical school will look like (if that will even exist), what a teacher does or how a student learns. Maybe students have computers plugged in to their brains to learn at supersonic rate.

Thinking about the future happens to all of us. We can worry about the future, a lot of company executives do. They ask: “what new technological trend is going to disrupt my business?”. I think a question that is way more valuable than asking what will change in the future is asking ourselves what is NOT going to change in the future. Focusing on the constants over the variables can help us see more clearly about what to build next.

So what are the constants of education? What will NOT change in education in 200 years? This is the question I asked myself 2 years ago. What will NOT change in education in 200 years? In order to answer this question, let's first understand what education is. 

Basics elements of learning

Education is the process of facilitating learning. But what is learning? Learning can be roughly summed to three basic elements: transmission, feedback and repetition. Each element is essential to the process of learning: learning without feedback is only remembering and learning without repetition is only understanding. 

3 basic elements of learning: transmission, feedback and repetition

Transmission is what happens when I share an idea from my mind to yours. Great transmission means I successfully transmit a 100% of the idea to your mind. Feedback is the necessary step to connect this idea with other ideas, to train it inside your mind. Finally, we’re pretty forgetful creatures, repeating things over and over with practice is necessary to learn things over the long term.

Personal experience

I learned how to make special effects online when I was 12 with a website called videoCopilot. Then I got into minecraft and learned how to build redstone machines with my brother. Then I learned about design and built a design agency at 16. It became evident to me that the web was the best way for me to learn what I wanted. I didn’t hate school, but I definitely thought what I learned online was more interesting. 

That was until a year ago when I thought that the next thing I should learn is programming, so that I could really build anything. So I just googled “how to code” and learned how to code in 3 days.
Ok, that did not actually happen. It was surprisingly hard to learn how to code. 

So I gave up. But then a few months later I tried again. 

I failed again. But then I tried again. 

And I failed again.

It just didn’t work. Or maybe it was just me.Though I first thought the web was a great way to learn, failing to learn programming taught me otherwise.

Problems encountered

I was convinced that the web would be how everyone would learn in a few decades, but when I hit the barrier of learning how to code I wasn’t so sure anymore. I was frustrated so I asked myself why I couldn’t learn. And I asked other people too.

common reasons why people fail to learn online

Basically 3 majors problems appeared:

  1. The web had become so huge that I couldn’t know where to start, if you type in learn how to code in python you’ll find over 10 million links.
  2. Once you learn something you don’t know what to learn next, there is no one to guide you and tell you to start here and finish there. There are no feedback loops. 
  3. Finally the web is also great for communication, entertainment, and those things compete for your attention against education.

Online learning is a disorganized, lonely and distracted process.

A better way ahead

We need to build tracks, playlists to guide people learn online. We need to build communities that can provide feedback to the inexperienced learner while being respectful of the learner’s attention.

After failing so many times, I was finally able to make something that works with code. I’m the founder of a project called Weblist. The idea behind the project is simple: if we can solve the problems of online learning, we can turn the web into the world’s best school.

weblist logo

Let’s get back to the future. In 200 years, I’m pretty certain that people will look back to the year 2018 and think that we’re crazy for not using to web to learn. Today, all of humanity’s knowledge is sitting around in our phones and we still have very little leverage over it. Only when we understand the inherent problems of learning AND the problems of the web can we build on each other’s strengths. And I’m convinced that doing so will bring us to a new Enlightenment, a second Renaissance. 

—Benjamin @Bissenmann

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