On the Digital Age

Teach me something that Google can't

Do you know a child of eight who cannot operate a keyboard? Now go back to 1990. Could any child of eight operate a keyboard? That's roughly one generation.

The children of today know the difference between an operating system and a software application. They can visualise the difference. They can enter the virtual world of a digital game and comprehend its abstractions. They can find most dates, numbers and facts in a few seconds and see little need to memorise them. They can do fabulous calculations almost instantly and puzzle over why anybody would want to do the same thing in their head. They have adapted to the Digital Age.

Meanwhile, the adults who attempt to educate them are still stuck in the late nineteenth century. They teach spelling, dates, capital cities and long division as if Google doesn't exist.

As a result, we have two learning systems running in parallel: a conventional one based in the classroom, teaching all the essential things that children needed to learn two centuries ago, and a modern open-source Internet system with unsupervised access to everything.

In short, we have a problem.

There are two possible outcomes. The education system shows its lightning-fast reflexes and adapts to the Digital Age, dropping all the irrelevant stuff from the curriculum and quickly absorbing digital learning. Or alternatively it snoozes gently for a few decades and drifts into irrelevance. Meaning the next generation will effectively be self-taught. Now there's an interesting experiment.

When looking at the information age, educationalists often seem to get stuck at the first hurdle, namely the mechanism of knowledge transfer, rather than its content. Most of the discussion of teaching in the age of technology concentrates on learning online. Yes, this is important, especially for developing countries such as India, where low cost online schooling will be of great value. But for most of the Western world it's a side-track. We need to be changing what we're teaching, not simply reviewing how knowledge is transferred.

Do we really need to learn how to spell silhouette, diarrhoea and encyclopaedia? In what circumstances will we be writing these words without a spell-check? The answer is very few, possibly none. Yes, it's useful to know when to use "their" and when to use "there", as the machines still get it wrong. But advanced spelling is now an irrelevance. The machines can do it for us.

And when are we going to divide 3152 by 57 without access to a computer or mobile phone? It's probably never going to happen. And if it's not going to happen, we don't need to learn how to do it. At least not most of us. I would still like to think that the engineer who designed the plane I'm flying on can do long division. But then on the other hand I'd also hope they didn't rely on their pencil calculations and checked everything on a computer.

It's quite a step to realise that many of the things we learned in the past we no longer need to learn in the future. They aren't necessary. We stopped learning how to use slide-rules when calculators came along. We stopped learning how to track mammoths when we domesticated animals (and unfortunately ran out of mammoths). The slide-rule experts and mammoth hunters must have been horrified at the time. That's the situation we're in now. It's a big step to think that we don't need to learn how to spell or divide big numbers, but it's broadly true. We've assigned those skills to machines, and when you delegate you need to do it properly.

Do we need to know the capital cities of the world's countries? It takes ten seconds to look them up. It's probably more useful to know that India has a border with China, or that Russia has an isolated enclave called Kaliningrad Oblast between Poland and Lithuania. Just like a computer, when I free up memory from one task I can assign it to another.

That's what should be happening across education. The irrelevancies need to be deleted. There are more important things to learn in this new era. For example, if I find two websites giving contradictory information, how do I assess which one of the two I trust? That's an important skill, one which would be very useful for children to learn. More generally they need to know how to interact with machines, because they're going to spend half their lives operating them; they need to know how to enjoy computer games without becoming addicted; and maybe if they're going to learn a second language it should be a coding language rather than something spoken in another country, as that's likely to be more useful, both for them and for society. It won't be long before the machines can do all the foreign language translations. And that will be an accomplished by useful people who write code.

I am not against education, quite the opposite. I'm against archaic education. To make my point, here's a list of important people from the early Digital Age: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Paul Allen, Steve Wozniak, Larry Ellison. There's a reason why Tim Berners-Lee isn't on that list. He's the one who didn't drop out of college.

In summary, education needs a shake-up for the Digital Age.

  • Some elements of education are core and need to be maintained, including social interaction, learning how to learn, morality.
  • Some elements have been delegated to machines and should be removed, such as advanced spelling, complex arithmetic, remembering dates and facts.
  • New elements need to be added: relationship with machines, information filtering, focus versus distraction.
  • Society needs more people who are able to bridge our cyber qualities (machine enhancements) with our human qualities, and stand comfortably with a foot in both camps.

I am confident that conventional education will fail entirely to make any of these changes and the next generation will be self-taught. They will make a fine job of it.


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