Hacking Education

I spent a lot of time on this blog in the past month exhorting everyone to give teaching tools to the neediest public schools.  I did that because education is possibly the most important thing we can do for our world and our children.

But I also believe the the public school system in this country is badly broken. And it’s not just the public school system in the US. It’s the entire education system that’s stuck in the past. I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately, and I’ve come to believe that we need to completely reinvent the way we educate ourselves. And, of course, I believe that the Internet is the tool we can use to do that.

Yesterday, in an AFP article, Jimmy Wales told a story about:

a recent trip to a slum in India where he "met this young man on the
street who told me that he had used Wikipedia to pass his 11th grade
exams."

I’ve been helping my kids learn Chemistry, Physics, Calculus, and Advanced Algebra the past few years. These are all subjects I loved in high school and excelled at. And yet, I cannot remember much of what I learned 30 years ago. But a visit to wikipedia is all I need to refresh my mind and help my kids. Wikipedia is an amazing resource and yet the teachers in my kids’ school deride it as "not reliable". Well I’ll tell you this much, Wikipedia is more reliable than some of my kids’ teachers.

One of the problems with the traditional school model of education is that the teachers are so uneven. My kids have amazing teachers who inspire them and push them to go beyond their perceived limits. I am so thankful for them. But they also have lazy teachers who bore them to death. We’ve all experienced this problem. I even had it at MIT and Wharton, two of the top schools in this country. We need some way for the kids and their parents to take control of who educates them.

My partner Albert wrote an important post that touched on this subject on the Union Square Ventures weblog called Power To The People. In it he said:

To us, this appears to be one of the great constants of the
web. It is taking power away from
existing large institutions and pushing it out to smaller entities and often
all the way to individuals. In the
process it is building up new institutions (such as Google), but the net result
appears to be a distinct shift of “power to the people.”

The existing large institutions in the world of education are the public and private schools, the colleges and universities, the testing institutions that inform them, and the unions and political system that support them. I want to help take all of them down and build something better in its place. I am not a fan of home schooling, but I understand it’s appeal. I do not think I can teach my kids better than others. But I do think my kids and my wife and I need more choice of who educates them.

The tools to do this are right in front of us; peer production, collaboration, social networking, web video, voip, open source, even game play. I think we can look at what has happened to the big media institutions over the past ten years as a guide to how to do this. We will use a "revolution of the ants" to take down our education institutions and replace them with something better. We all have to start participating and engaging in educating each other. I try to do this at times on this blog. If I know something about how to calculate a burn rate, read a term sheet, or manage a portfolio in a down market, I write about it on this blog. In turn, someone reads it and education happens. Ideally, all of this content, and the content being created by my colleagues in the venture capital business will get indexed, rated, and made available in something akin to a curriculum on venture capital. It will be peer produced, open sourced, and it will be better than any class in any MBA school in the country.

The big educational institutions can fight this trend or they can embrace it. MIT, my favorite education institution, has embraced it. They have open sourced over 1800 of their courses. You can study an MIT class for free on the Internet. I’d like to see all of the education institutions in this country contribute curriculum to such a system. And of course, get curriculum from such a system.

You can commoditize curriculum but you cannot do that to teachers. I owe most of what I know to about a dozen amazing teachers I had over the 20 or so years between first grade and grad school. I remember most of them by name and I remember what they taught me. My high school calculus teacher inspired me to go MIT. My MIT Systems Design teacher inspired me to think about complexity differently. My Wharton Speculative Markets teacher got my head wrapped around markets and why and how they work. I would not be who I am without these special people. We need to massively increase the number of students these special people can reach and teach every day.

Again, we can look to the lessons of the media business to think about how to do that. These amazing teachers are superstars who should be available online, via web video, to millions of people. They should not be stuck in a lecture hall teaching less than a hundred kids at a time. We must move away from an economy based on scarcity and embrace an economy based on ubiquity in the age of the Internet. The leading online education companies have been playing this game for years now. And they are good at it. My friend Jimmy runs several lines of business for Kaplan, one of the top online education companies. He told me about a teacher who runs one of his online CFA courses. This guy is a superstar. His courses are fun and engaging. Taking his course is like reading a great columnist or a wonderful book. You want to get back to it because its so engaging. These teachers can make a lot of money and they should. They are the best at what they do. But our education system is not set up like a star system. It should be.

We also need to allow creativity to reign and walk away from the standardized model of education that we are stuck in. Sir Ken Robinson gave an amazing talk at Ted on this topic. It’s 19 mins long so I can’t imagine that everyone has time to watch it, but if you care about this issue, find some time in your day or week and watch this.

We also need to rethink educational testing. I’ve watched my oldest daughter go through the craziness of preparing for and taking the SATs, ACTs, and SAT2s. If you have access to the best test prep talent, you can max these tests. Money can buy scores. That’s wrong. We need some kind of more organic, more authentic system for determining aptitude. I think games can play a big role here.

In fact, I think games can play a big role in a new better form of education. The first time I really thought about this was when I read my friend Steven Johnson’s book Everything Bad Is Good For You. Steven points out that game play is teaching our children skills they could never get in school. Another friend, Bing Gordon, formerly Chief Creative Officer of Electronic Arts, points out that math geeks, economists, and statisticians used to get their first taste of math as kids reading baseball cards, they now get it playing Madden Football. And the amount of math they can get to is at least an order of magnitude more challenging.

As Albert said in the Power To The People post, my partners and I are seeking to make investments around this thesis.

The shift away from existing institutions in education, the
environment and other areas up for change will not be brought about
magically by the web alone, but by companies that use the web to create
the right kind of platform. We believe that these represent tremendous
startup opportunities over years to come and look forward to meeting
with entrepreneurs and teams working to give "power to the people."

We are also going to convene one of our Union Square Sessions events this winter to bring some of the leading thinkers and entrepreneurs who are already hacking education together to talk about where we should be concentrating our efforts right now. This is a big deal, and if we can do it right, it can and should pave the way for a better, more educated society in the coming years. I am excited about the possibilities.