Educational techniques that entertain

Firms are initiating a teaching revolution by creating services and programs that aim to make education more effective and widespread

Image Credit: Corbis
American educator Salman Khan of non-profit educational organisation Khan Academy uploads fun educational videos on YouTube, giving students a chance to learn at their own pace
GN Focus

The beginning of the ascent of man was far later than the moment Homo erectus stood up on two legs or when the first tools were scraped from stone. Humans truly began to progress once they discovered they could specialise. What Adam Smith described as the division of labour has been the very basis for our technological and socio-economic development.

The world today is a complex web of specialists. There are no Renaissance men any more; it is almost impossible to be one. There is far too much information, far too much expertise. Everything is detached, yet incredibly integrated and efficient. Your computer mouse was likely assembled in a factory where nobody knew how to make one fractional mouse part that came from another factory somewhere else.

Efficiently allocating someone to a vocation that best suits their strengths and interests has therefore become more difficult. We are at a stage where those interests and strengths must be defined far more clearly — for in a world of such choice, with the current system of education, there is no way of telling beforehand if you would be a better endocrinologist or radiologist. You always hear the corporate phrase ‘people are our greatest assets’ and it is a genuine one. We have come this far by splitting people up, then having them work together to great effect.

But now there is a new juncture in our advancement and the strategy to move forward is threefold — (1) render educational content widespread and accessible; (2) make teaching a more personalised experience; (3) define the capabilities of students meticulously. It is time to innovate in education and fine-tune the division of labour. Three organisations are doing just that.

Knewton: defining capabilities

Knewton, an adaptive learning company, has created a teaching software program. However, this particular program is designed to completely change how children are taught, and will leave you wishing you lived in a time where Knewton was the standard platform. A team of educational experts, psychologists and techies have banded together to create a hotchpotch of algorithms that learns about the student as he or she goes through a curriculum.

Educational material is delivered in a way that responds to activity or performance as they use the program. For example, if you tend to take longer at geometry questions or get a lot of them wrong, the program will automatically slow down the acceleration of content — making each additional question less difficult to allow you to adapt. Students end up getting past hurdles they might have succumbed to before — stunting the entire linear progression of learning a particular discipline. It can also gauge your level of interest (based on activity) in the subject and make  recommendations for further learning based on your aptitude and your interest.

There is a network of interrelations between disciplines — some early math topics might be good groundwork for engineering courses, for example. This knowledge is built into Knewton so it guides you toward your best fit. The company is working with publishers such as Pearson to incorporate all their educational content into the platform itself to make it a one-stop shop of sorts. There are prep programs for standardised tests such as SAT and GMAT. Imagine having gone through secondary education entirely with Knewton. The end result would not only mean the very specific knowledge of where your skills lie, but where your subconscious interests might as well — based on an entire childhood of data.

Khan Academy: personalising the curriculum

American educator Salman Khan is a former hedge fund manager who holds four advanced degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), perhaps the most scientifically progressive institution on earth. The Khan Academy was born when he needed to tutor his cousins who lived in another city in math. The most convenient way happened to be to deliver the concepts by using an electronic pen and pad as a blackboard, commentating along the way, and posting the video on YouTube. Before he knew it, random people were watching the videos and posting comments such as “this is the first time I smiled doing a derivative.”

It turns out that Khan had  a gift for teaching. More profoundly, his cousins told him they preferred the virtual version of him over the real thing. It brought him to realise the idea of a ‘flipped classroom’.

Conventionally, kids receive a ‘one size fits all’ lecture in class, not taking into account the speed at which each individual student learns. They are then made to do homework — the practical application of the lectures — on their own at home. With Khan Academy the one size fits all lecture is absorbed at your own pace at home since you have the ability to pause and rewind video. Classroom time is then spent with the teacher helping students as they go through problems — essentially bringing homework into class. There are now more than 2,000 videos personally uploaded by Khan on the website. There is also a web program with accompanying problem sets on which Khan Academy intelligently tracks your progress (similar to Knewton).

The ‘gamification of education’ is also incorporated — learning is incentivised by offering prizes and badges; and there is a social element as you compete with other students.

Datawind: increasing the reach

Content is pretty much free and available to everyone now. If it isn’t Khan Academy, it is websites such as Udemy or Udacity (where university lectures and vocational courses are available). At Udacity you can learn how to build a search engine like Google from scratch, courtesy of a lauded Stanford Professor. In MIT has made courseware of past years free and available for all. Then of course there is YouTube itself. The missing link therefore is the medium, and this is especially true in the developing world.

Datawind is a UK-based company that introduced the world’s cheapest tablet — priced at a comparatively paltry Dh128. Named Aakash, the slate was an initiative of the Human Resource Development (HRD) organisation, which is part of the Indian Government. Datawind won a tender to produce the tablets, but following problems with the functionality of the first few thousand units, a fresh tender invitation for manufacturing is set to be issued.

Whatever the case with current haggling over the project, Datawind enabled an important concept. Several NGOs have lofty ambitions to meet the needs of clusters of impoverished people by the millions. Feasibility issues have always made these projects somewhat directionless. Initiatives such as One Laptop per Child have a farther reach as a result of this model. Such is always the effect when social projects are migrated into the private sector, under the capitalist mechanism.