Yawn — Online Courses — Yawn

Tech in the past two decades has realized a lot of promises that fiction has laid out. Video Calling, drones, self-driving cars, flying cars, AI, Virtual worlds, it is all very very real today. Most days I am like the protagonist in Mr. Robot going

It’s happening. It’s happening. It’s happening

But then there are certain areas where it has consistently failed us or rather failed to live up to their promise. Teleportation is not a reality yet and neither is a Robotic butler dog. But a more pressing disappointment is education tech. MOOC’s have notoriously low engagement rates. Almost everybody, from the least motivated to most motivated people gleefully admit to having never completed so many online courses that they started.

The problem is, you are trying to make something work in the ‘online’ domain which has failed in the real world. Lectures are a fairly recent invention (as most path breaking notes of such nature written on medium are bound to tell you about something that you thought existed long before the dawn of man). And they fail, even in the real world. Even with great teachers. I went to ‘decent engineering college’ (the one where it is relatively difficult to get in).

I remember the guilt, the guilt of not going to classes for even the good teachers. Teachers for whom I was paying a mere 20,000 rupees (~$350) per year.

The teachers knew their subjects well, they taught well and other students did learn from them but I was simply not drawn in, I was rarely fascinated by the revelations, I was rarely excited to go for a class.

The reason for this faulty system to exist is to solve the problem of scale. Before lectures and class room what existed was apprenticeship (No, not the Trump kind). Somebody interested in becoming a blacksmith would either be the son of a blacksmith (it also explains the surname smith) or seek becoming an apprentice with one.

You learned on the job. You learned by doing. You learned from mistakes. There was a purpose to a lesson, to go back and do something with it.

With an increasing demand for skilled labor, increasing world population levels the apprenticeship system could not sustain. And so the lecture hall was born, so the lab was born. While it kept elements from the original setup, it introduced the dreaded exam. It made failure a dirty dirty thing.

And here is how. The entire school, university system is a conveyor belt. Failing meant that the school, university did not produce enough. Producing enough is important because it means they can continue putting the same amount of students on the belt, not have to invest in a better process or at least be rigid about it. It is all about their comfort zone.

And this is where the system played the magic trick. Do we take the blame asked men with walrus moustaches? Certainly not, let’s shift the complete blame of poor outcomes on the student, our conveyor belt is A-OK they said. This approach introduced exams, it made failing a dirty word, it made economic sense for the university. The student pays for failing, by time, money and reputation. Teachers are golden of course.

So is there a better way to solve this? I think so. I think somebody or a lot of people need to attempt solving apprenticeship at scale. Internship at Scale. That is what I am working on these days.

One key aspect of this approach has to be tireless marketing, re-marketing, re-re-marketing, re-re-re-marketing of the idea and convincing the student that their time is not being wasted in class (I use the word class here for simplicity, referring to any coach-student interaction), that whatever they are being taught is actually being used in the real world. The student has to have a feeling of having walked away with something they can immediately use after every single class. Only then will they want to come to the next class and the one after that.

I am not suggesting that the student will revolt about their time being wasted, the brain inside their skull would. It would tune out, lowering the motivation to show up for the next day.

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