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More about teacherless education...


(Editor's note: This is the second of two parts. Read part one.)

Starting with a definable piece of learning, such as Econ 101, a class taught in most colleges, I envision a competition to transform an entry level economics course by changing the format and style of the course into one that people can consume quickly, with maximum retention, and an effective way of certifying the results. So the process would involve three distinct steps – learning, retention, and certification.

1.) Learning – Learning is the process for acquiring new knowledge, skills or behaviors. It can be achieved in a variety of ways including the modification of existing knowledge or by synthesizing new information.

People learn through a sensory connection with the information presented to them. Human conversation with a few added visuals is the most common method used today to teach students. Even though some exciting things are happening around the fringes, little has changed in the past thousand years. At the same time, our ability to mold, fashion, and gamify information in new and interesting ways has exploded around us.

As we think through the possibilities of how information can be fashioned, shaped and presented, we begin to see thousands of new possibilities:

  • Learning through a movie
  • Learning through an app
  • Learning through our accomplishments
  • Learning through an experience
  • Learning through a game
  • Learning through music
  • Learning through podcasts
  • Learning through virtual world experiences
  • Learning through smells, tastes, and sensory involvement
  • Learning by using a combination of all of the above

However, finding new and interesting ways of presenting the information is only part of the equation. Creating a process for turning it into a long-term, usable piece of knowledge is just as important as our initial exposure to it.

2.) Retention – Once the initial learning has taken place, how long does it stick around?

We have all heard stories of college students pulling an all-nighter to cram for a final exam. As they do this, they have one goal in mind – to pass the test.

For them, the immediate hurdle is to complete the course with a passing grade, and whether or not anything penetrates the neurons long-term is strictly secondary. But having the information somehow take root in the cranial cavity is just as important as learning it in the first place.

There are many techniques for improving retention that I won’t go into, but devising a process that insures greater retention, and the ability to demonstrate its effectiveness, should be part of the overall competition.

3.) Certification – The final piece of the equation should be certifying that a quantifiable piece of learning has taken place, and assessing its level of influence. Traditionally, the certification of learning has involved some form of testing, but far better systems will likely emerge in a competition like this.

One possible solution I’ve written about in the past is confidence-based learning. Some experiments in this area have demonstrated a far greater retention and a significant reduction in learning time.

Distinguishing between a person guessing correctly, and one who answers correctly with confidence, can have a major impact. This assessment process not only validates knowledge but also the confidence with which it is presented.

Again, there are hundreds of possible solutions and any competition like this should somehow find a way to certify that the person has indeed gained new knowledge from the experience.

Judging the Results, Picking a Winner

Unlike some competitions that specify the criteria for winning, this should be a contest with enough latitude to allow for some very creative entries to be presented.

The judging process should involve actual students, taking the courses, going through the process, and rating their experience, with official judges on hand to determine the winners.

Possible judging criteria might also include:

  • Overall learning time - Speed of learning, start to finish
  • Degree of engagement - Was it an enjoyable experience? Would you do it again?
  • Repeatability - Can it be repeated with other subject matter such as courses in psychology, computer science, mechanical engineering, etc.
  • Cost-to-benefit ratio – Can this new form of learning be replicated efficiently?
  • Intangibles – Does it require some new piece of equipment? Does it require the learning take place at a certain time, place, or under certain conditions? Or is there any piece of the process that will slow implementation?

Rinse and Repeat

Once the first competition has been staged, thinking about the second one would need to begin.

Finding a new way of educating the masses should be an iterative process, using the results of the first competition to establish a higher bar for the second year, and so on.

Within five years, with the right sponsorships and participation, this kind of competition would radically rewrite the rules for teacherless education

Final Thoughts

If we work within our existing system for education, the best we can hope for is a few percentage points improvement. The system itself becomes the limiting factor.

By creating a new system, we remove those limits.

Since we can’t envision the best possible way to educate people in the future, we need to unleash the creative minds of the world, and somehow incentivize them to participate.

My hope in writing this column is to inspire others to move this conversation forward. I certainly don’t have all the answers, and perhaps no one does. But with a little work, we might be able to create a process that can uncover those answers.

So let me know what you think. The conversation starts here.


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Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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