Learning in hallways (with APIs)

November 18, 2012 | 4 comments

I can’t let Clay Shirky’s piece, Napster, Udacity and the Academy, go un-commented-on:

Open systems are open. For people used to dealing with institutions that go out of their way to hide their flaws, this makes these systems look terrible at first. But anyone who has watched a piece of open source software improve, or remembers the Britannica people throwing tantrums about Wikipedia, has seen how blistering public criticism makes open systems better. And once you imagine educating a thousand people in a single class, it becomes clear that open courses, even in their nascent state, will be able to raise quality and improve certification faster than traditional institutions can lower cost or increase enrollment.

You can – and should – read the whole piece here.

I completely agree with it, and I think that startups like Udacity will broadly be a good thing for the world. (Of course, it’s worth mentioning that this is a movement that OpenCourseWare started a long time ago.) Having said this, there are a few important tenets about learning that I think aren’t necessarily captured by the Udacity model.

  • There are different kinds of learners.
  • Learning with your peers is important to some people – and learning alone is important to others.
  • A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work when it comes to education.

I went to public (state-funded) schools, and a public university. I can’t claim to have experienced the one-on-one education that you might receive at Harvard, for example. But it’s nonetheless true that education has traditionally been, at least a little bit, tailored; you could always go to your Director of Studies if you had a problem, or talk to your professor about substituting work or taking a different focus.

In the modern web age, by which I mean from about the iPhone onwards, we’re used to cookie-cuttering users. Everyone gets the same interface, in the same design, with the same content types, because that design is good, it’s efficient, and don’t you love good design anyway? We’re all supposed to write a certain way, consume a certain way, look a certain way.

Applying this principle to education will be disastrous.

There’s a lot wrong with education right now, particularly in countries like the United States and Britain, where class systems are enforced through high fees and barriers to entry. But in a knowledge economy, we should be emphasizing creativity and individual strengths, rather than attempting to make learners fit an ever more rigid, dehumanizing template. (We should be doing that with users of our applications too, of course.)

But as I said at the beginning, I don’t think this is a bad trend. It’s also an inevitable one. Educational content will be open, it will be delivered en masse, and you will be able to access it from anywhere in the world. It will be a great thing.

The trick is how you consume it.

You can use Udacity’s interface, if you like. But just as I have the freedom to take three classmates to the pub (I went to university in Britain, remember?) and talk over our notes there, I should have the freedom to take some of my classmates and discuss on Facebook, or a collaborative Google Drive space, or on some other custom platform.

And that’s where the technology focus becomes really interesting. Web applications have APIs: Application Programming Interfaces that let other applications talk to them programmatically. The same API approaches that allow people to build third-party Twitter apps or to sync Instagram with Facebook could allow people to take streams of learning from the learning service – let’s say Udacity – and pull them into the platforms of their choice. Other commercial applications, or freely-available open source projects, could take that learning and allow you to interact with it individually or in a group. And then you can use the app or method of your choice to submit your work back to be evaluated. And if everyone’s using the same APIs, then everyone benefits: learners get to pick and choose their courses, and the educational providers get to participate in an open marketplace that’s as big as the web.

In this model, the raw course is always the same. But suddenly there are a hundred thousand lenses that you can apply to it, so if you’re a visual learner, or a group learner, or a solitary text-based scholar, you can find the interaction method that appeals to you, pull in relevant third-party information and conversation to augment your learning, perhaps even talk to third-party tutors in other countries (or next door), and have a much deeper, richer, more personalized experience than you could ever have had before.

My worry with the new educational startups is that they’ll try and lock themselves down, in the way that Twitter and Facebook have locked themselves down. If, on the other hand, they can open up and embrace what the web really is, there’s the potential for a real revolution.