Learning in hallways (with APIs)

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.





4 responses to “Learning in hallways (with APIs)”

  1. Matthew Leifer Avatar
    Matthew Leifer

    I think your idea sounds great if we view the purpose of education as the attainment of genuine learning. However, people go to university for credentialing in addition to, or in some cases instead of, learning. Employers are going to want a more or less standard credential with which to evaluate potential employees, especially when it comes to professions like doctors or lawyers. They are not going to want to evaluate people on a lot of different bits and pieces of information that come from different places and that won’t allow for easy comparison between candidates. Therefore, I think a lot of people are going to be funnelled into doing all of their education through a single platform.

    Nonetheless, your idea would be great for people who are learning in order to start their own business or just for the pleasure of finding things out.

    1. Ben Werdmuller Avatar

      Oh, accreditation is going to turn out to be a massive deal no matter what. I think we may actually find other filters being established, akin to standardized testing at a post-degree level.

      But my proposal actually says that you *can* (theoretically) use a single platform – but use a hundred different platforms to interact with it and do the learning from. So a single course begets hundreds of different ways to consume and learn.

  2. […] Learning in hallways (via APIs) […]

  3. Noah Mohamed Avatar
    Noah Mohamed

    I agree deeply with what’s being said here. The one most exciting thing for me since leaving University prematurely has been finding out the number of courses I can do online!

    I’ve been through God knows how many institutions, and can say that I’m close to done with institutional learning, although I have been swayed one or more times over and back again, owing to some of the job prospects and opportunities only attainable through a degree.

    But on catching and regarding myself, time and time again, I come to realise where the real content is at. And where I can make the real breakthroughs I want in terms of learning.

    And that for me has always been a primary focus, learning itself, with none of the associated pomp and glamour currently circulating around it, through Universities and the like.

    Lynda.com has proved an invaluable resource thus far for me, and I’m keen and attached to their teaching style which is detailed and concise.

    But really look forward to see where other’s take this whole online learning experience. Almost find myself being envious and somewhat frustrated at the years wasted, when my learning could’ve been far more effective online.

    Pray online learning changes peoples sincerity and attitude towards learning as much as it does the experience.

    Again thanks for the read! Really dig your site BTW! 😀

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