The End of School: Technology is Liberating Education from the Classroom
The modern school is an institution whose time has come. What the future holds is not perfectly predictable, but we do know that it will be better.
Everybody recognizes that the current structure of education isn’t working. Whether it’s the despicable levels of bullying and abuse in K-12 or the monstrous costs of higher education that outpace inflation, everybody can recognize that something is wrong.
Most discussions on the future of school focus on education reform. Authors and policy analysts ask questions like, how can we change existing institutions to improve on their outcomes? We get discussions like those around federally subsidized student loans, funding for schools, school vouchers, the viability of charter schools, and what ought to be included in exam standards for coming years.
These questions, while valuable, miss the broader point of education and the marketplace today. We sit at a pivotal moment in the history of schooling and education. Thanks to a number of market forces, primarily led by leaps in technology and its relation to education costs, it is finally possible to realistically remove education from school (as we know it) for the population at large.
Once upon a time, unless you were aristocracy or a member of a philosophical class, the most common way for you to get educated was not to craft your own curriculum with the help of a mentor or coach but to go to school. Assuming you weren’t needed to keep your family alive by farming, collecting food, hunting, or working a factory, you went where other children in your class went: to school. The idea behind the community school was economies of scale. It was easier to have one teacher teach 20 children at once rather than split up time and resources among those 20 individually.
This eventually morphed into the public school of today. With the influence of Prussian industrialization of school and the shift from local schooling to schooling and then federal schooling in the United States, we ended up with the schools of today.
But these are outdated institutions working on assumptions that simply do not make sense in the 21st century. The mass popularization of the Internet for signals and education fundamentally changes how we ought to view education, schooling, and credentialing.
These changes will drive at least four major shifts in education.
If you wanted to learn something in the 20th century, you would had to have gone to a library, a university, a college, or a school. Before that, the lucky few could apprentice experts, but the scalability of that model crashed at peak industralization in the US.
Today, if you wanted to learn something, the iPhone in your pocket has access to more educational resources of every variety than all of the libraries of the Ivy League in 1960. As my friend Steve Patterson (a non-academic philosopher) points out, education has never been more simultaneously centralized and decentralized as it is today. Resources, books, lectures, theses, and every imaginable type of educational opportunity exists on the Internet today — even coaching and mentoring by educational professionals.
Everything from Google Books and Amazon to Duolingo and Udemy to the opportunity to build a relationship with a world-class expert hundreds of miles away exist only because of the sheer decentralization of the Internet.
This blows the gates off of the educational behemoths. The clever individuals in these Old Guard realize that they have to step up or get out of the way and have begun to offer content online, but others have resisted, defensively pointing out the value of in-class learning and instruction. In time, this, too, will be easily replicated with Internet-based resources.
Indeed, it’s this access to resources and students that empowers competitors to traditional classroom time, like coding bootcamps and non-traditional schools. Educators and experts who see this realize that their goal is not just to create this content but also to curate it. The paradox of choice makes sifting through the entirety of human knowledge online difficult and increases the value of educators and experts in this regard.
Lower Barriers to Entry
Putting the entirety of human knowledge in a central place available to anybody with certain technology is only beneficial to the public at large if the cost to access that is sufficiently low. Thanks to Moore’s Law, the cost is sufficiently low. Any owner of a smartphone or a high-speed Internet connection can access these resources.
This is significant. The low-income day laborer who has a smartphone has access to more educational resources than Louis XVI, the Sun King of France. His phone or his laptop can be connected to a greater sum of human knowledge than the Library of Alexandria.
As the pace of technological innovation accelerates, so will the cost of quality processing speed continue to drop. It’s not just conceivable that virtual reality will be in the hands of every American in the next few decades — it’s expected.
AI-empowered educational resources will be in the hands of working-class Americans in my lifetime, curating content and learning while the student learns, removing much of the need for in-person, human-based educators at early stages of the game.
Individualized Locus of Control
The locus of control, or who decides what gets to be learned and when, in education has traditionally been left up to educators and regulators. Students learn according to a schedule that is largely determined by the year in which they were born. At a certain age, they get to differentiate based on abilities and on interests but are still primarily passive agents of schooling.
The end of school changes all that more than anything else. When it once made more sense to put people in a classroom and teach them at once, technology, driven primarily by high-speed Internet access, makes it feasible for individuals to drive their education. This doesn’t simply mean that sitting down in front of Coursera can replace years in a classroom, but it means that the individual now has access to educational resources that were once only available to trained specialists and people kept in schools and universities.
Even more, access to educational mentors and coaches is lowered with the networks to which the Internet opens up access. It’s not unreasonable to expect a young person (or even a life-student) to be connected to an expert in a field hundreds of miles away and to build a relationship based on shared interest in a subject matter and the expert’s ability to craft a curriculum and to organize resources for the individual. Although the individual may be the locus of control for that educational experience, the expert can recommend and craft curricula so that the individual does not get overwhelmed at the number of resources available today.
Control of what is learned, when, and how is liberated from the hands of administrators and regulators once we realize that experts don’t have to be accessed only in classrooms.
Increased Marginal Benefit
None of this is to say that education will matter less in the future — it will matter more, and it will be easier to come by. As the pace of technological innovation increases so will the need to learn the skills and the thinking necessary to deal with it. Both hard-skills and liberal arts will be more valuable as we move into a more-and-more fast-paced world every day.
The corollary to all of this work on the decreasing costs of educational resources is that work resources also decrease in cost. The death of hard work for the common man is a good thing. It frees up time and resources that were once used on drudgery, like washing clothes, to be spent on education and creative pursuits. As drudgery is displaced and replaced by machine work, human beings are liberated from the unfortunate situation of not being enabled to pursue their own ends outside of necessities
Learning about Aristotle’s theory of the good life is not that helpful if you’re going to starve to death tomorrow.
The value of education thus increases. Education as a continual process of acquiring and discovering the resources — mental, physical, psychological, and intellectual — needed to flourish becomes more important and more valuable. More individuals can become entrepreneurs if the cost and risk of launching a business is lower. More individuals can become philosophers if the cost and risk of pursuing a life of the mind is lower. More individuals can become artists, chefs, artisans, scientists, etc.
The pace of this technological progress places a burden on the individual to keep up, but the payoff of the burden is higher than it has ever been before.
That’s a pretty cool place to be. The end of school is just beginning — it’s something we should welcome, not something we should fear.