Monday, 18 November 2013

Blogphilosophy: annoyed by genius @Thrun on education, me on a rant

Every good teacher will be able to tell anyone that education and learning is really complex and that no two learners are the same. All of us having the learning gene will learn no matter what. We cannot help it, but for each one of us learning success is something different. For some it is the classic 'career and money' goal, for others it is finding 'happiness in life'. Last week I read an article on Thrun (one of the guys who organized the AI course and attracted 1.6 million learners of which only a few finalized the course in a way that is described as successful) and it got me slightly agitated.

Giving up is the easiest thing to do
Although the article does mention a positive view on the education Thrun is envisioning for his now 5 year old son: achieve happiness (which I fully agree with), his remarks on education and specifically why he decided to turn away from MOOC and go corporate mass class just got me pissed.

So bear with me as I voice my discontent. Because the article got me increasingly agitated the last couple of days, as Mr Engineer was simplifying education rather heavily and was surprised that his GREAT GENIUS was not able to come up with an education-for-all solution within 2 years time! As a result he gets out of the MOOC idea altogether and dives into profit education (or - benefit of doubt - at least that is how the content of the article came across).

So MOOC do not work? Well Ladida! They work, but it cannot be measured in HighEd classic terms! It is simple: MOOC are a gathering of interested people, hence bringing together a group that is subject to so many changing algorithms that a solution for 'successful learning' is FAR off! Even the mere definition of successful learning is one of the tougher nuts to crack: is it certification, career, personal growth, personal deductive use, a group twist...  Nevertheless MOOC can make a difference for each individual following it: self-esteem, getting just that bit smarter, understanding where a personal interest lies or not, connecting with new people - new insights, crossing cultures, exploring the world, heck even just learning how to learn in an innovative way. It is not about the Uni professor definition of what learning is, it is about the self-defined idea of what MOOC learning is for the learner themselves.

Let's be honest, I was happy to see a high profile person such as Thrun take up free education. And when he shared  "promising a world in which education was nearly free, available to poor people in the developing world, and better than anything that had come before it" I was overly enthusiastic because money and drivers are needed if we ever want to reach education-for-all. But where I started cursing was when I read in the article that he would now focus on corporate learning, because "At the end of the day, the true value proposition of education is employment". Education is just a value proposition and employment can be assured by it? So that is his answer to lifting up a society for all?

There is more: "Not only is reinventing the university a worthy goal tuition prices at both public and private colleges have soared in recent years, and the debt burden borne by American students is more than $1 trillion", reading this I simply see what happens all around the world: the divide between the have and have not's starts in school, which certainly puts a strain on happiness for all based on the enlightenment provided by education (and dare I add critical thinking). So Boohoo, his courses do not result in as much self-defined success as he envisioned and so he turns his wagon! That is how big his altruism goes clearly. All of the down-to-earth teachers, sometimes hardly earning the money to stay afloat themselves keep at it, day in day out to reach the vulnerable and get individuals (not the masses mind you, but one kid at the time) educated in the hope that will make the world a better place. Did Thrun sit down with these teachers? I wonder, but my guess would be he did not (again, he could have). Or maybe he did discuss it with some high brow colleagues, sitting in the same well-payed institutions (which would just be too little).

Change is driven by humanity
Of course I find his inventions worthwhile (no problem with calling him a tech genius either) and it is obvious I admire him for what he has come up with. But he is innovative in tech, not in humans that much is clear. To me he choose the simpler side of life: automation consists of a limited/manageable amount of algorithms, it is far off the organic diversity that each of us comes across and solves in our mind on a daily basis. And if you do not put your efforts into motion to create a better world for all, it just seems sad to have been blessed with such good brains.

I just cannot fathom how Thrun - who is said in the article to have massively rich friends in his networks - does not keep going at it? Altruism is not a commodity, it is a way of life, a decision, a human decision to engage for life! Even if a personal dedication might not be something he is interested in, at least he (with rich friends) can set up an organization of idealist teachers/educators/researchers that are willing to put in their lifetime of thinking and finding solutions to resolve the educational divide that sets back people across the world. Of course, what is there to be gained by helping those? Not much apparently. Because which schools or learning centers around the world can compete with the fact that "Higher education is an enormous business in the United States--spending approximately $400 billion annually on universities, a figure greater than the revenues of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter combined". 

Are we - humans - just all bad, egocentric researchers?
So where does this leave us? Although humans are capable of thinking, even researching, the result of all this research almost never pushes a human change. Which completely frustrates me. If the sciences were so almighty, climate change would have been tackled, famine would no longer exist and war would be eradicated. For we have proof, there are systems, and there is enough money in the world to actually make this blue earth a better place - for us humans. But we just don't push change through do we. Why? Not for research reasons (I hope), but for material/profit reasons, stuff that is just the opposite of life itself.

... Sighing, this change will be up to us grassroots people again probably. But it would make such a difference to be able to build a mixed approach, getting grassroot and topdown people working on the same human, hot topics. They are manifold: creating local language digital content, providing digital skill training for teachers new to educational technology, understanding learning for the variety of people that we are, researching old and new learning methods (indigenous learning among others), getting minorities interested in learning... so walking to the drawing table and tackling one thing at the time.

Later addition to this post, thanks to Stephen Downes I gladly add other (more down to earth posts):  Rolin Moe says "Shifting models means never having to say you’re sorry." Also, Audrey Watters: "Why We Shouldn't Celebrate Udacity's 'Pivot'" And Michael Caulfield, "Thrun Enters Burgeoning Sieve Market." And Alastair Creelman, "Staying the Course." And Bonnie Stewart, "In the wake of MOOC hype, what shall we talk about?" And Martin Weller, "Stop me if you think you've heard this one before."