Reverse-Academy - Reinventing Education

(I wrote this article in late 2014 and then presented the idea at the Startup Weekend Toulouse event in 2015)

Conventional teaching methods are heavily challenged by the emergence of Internet-based solutions, leveraging their ability to spread course material to a large number of students. This is why “real” Universities are losing ground to their virtual counterparts, and their Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC). However, even these MOOCs follow a rather conventional teaching philosophy, inherited from the 20th century.

The Internet has reshaped the demand in terms of knowledge. Generic facts about science and history are easily available from a few clicks on a smartphone. So why teach them? Well, one thing that the Internet cannot yet easily provide is “the big picture”. Learning facts about science and history lets us progressively perceive the consistency of the world, enabling us to understand its logic and to draw predictions about what will happen and what to do next. The Internet has not killed the business of education; in facts, quite the opposite. Because technology evolves at a fast pace, a lot of jobs are being destroyed and many others created. This fast evolution generates a strong need for training people of all ages. But teaching has to evolve too. Although there will be more people to train, the ever-increasing availability of knowledge will shift the center of gravity of education towards more practical and specific training. The conventional model of teaching that we know from our days in school will have trouble adapting to this evolution.

What I call a conventional teaching model is described on the following picture:

Traditional Education

The MOOCs do not heavily challenge this model, in the sense that they only changed how the three first blocks are implemented. The process is still the same, and still has a number of flaws:

  • The teacher has to elaborate a very generic course to reach a maximum number of students. A “one size fits all” approach that scales well, but does not adapt to each students needs. Because the course is not customized for each student, a lot of waste is generated: those above average might only need to hear a fraction of the course, while those below average might not be able to follow. Also note that generic knowledge is the most easily accessible one on the Internet. What is more difficult to access is specific knowledge, that too few people control for it to be available online.
  • Because students do not immediately see the benefit of learning (the fourth block), it is very hard to get their attention and motivation. Teachers have few levers to fight this. They often resort to various threats (“You’ll get a very difficult test”, “you won’t get into college”, etc…). Rarely do teachers tell students that they need to learn something to address real problems (it seems they would not believe it).
  • The teacher has to think in terms of how he can evaluate his students’ knowledge (third block). He has to come up with tests that may have nothing to do with reality, as long as they can easily measure how much a student has understood. A secondary effect is that teachers tend to select the knowledge they will teach based on how easily it is to test it (instead of how useful it might be in the real life).
  • Perhaps the biggest problem: because a lot of time will pass between the course and the moment a student will stumble upon a real problem, chances are that he will have forgotten 90% of what he originally learned. I am sure that everybody can draw countless examples of forgotten knowledge from their own experience. Because time passes and knowledge is rarely put at use, it just ends up fading away.

How can we rethink the way to teach to address the issues of the “conventional model”? Here is a proposals for a new process:

Reverse Education

This process offers a number of advantages with respect to the previous one:

  • The process is project-driven. That is, “real-life-driven”. Knowledge is associated to a short-term goal that serves the interests of the student: there’s never doubt about whether what is taught is useful or not.
  • The teacher elaborates a course that is tailored for the students needs. The number of students in the group is small, so no one is left behind.
  • There is no evaluation other than checking that students can or cannot solve their problem and progress with their project. So, no test contaminates the process of teaching.
  • The application of the knowledge on a real problem is immediate, so it sticks much better in the students minds. Anyone can tell that one remembers better something that has proven useful in one occasion.

Wouldn’t this model cost a fortune to implement? Why don’t we have this process already if it is so easy? Here are some answers to these obvious questions:

  • The model would indeed cost a fortune if the teachers were dedicated teachers sitting in conventional universities. But this would not be the case if they were in fact more like “mentors” who would simply rely on the large volume of unstructured and unsorted material available online. In other words, the teachers would be more like very educated people (who see the “big picture”), who would aggregate teaching resources like tutorials, blog posts, videos, MOOCs that are available online (for free, or not) in a consistent manner for dedicated groups of students. Mentors would in fact dedicate a rather small amount of time per group, and would not be required to know everything about what the students will learn.
  • This model is not compatible with how schools and universities work today. Teachers are specialists, not generalists. They know very well their domain of expertise, but they are not confident outside of it. The “mentors” I’m thinking of are more like entrepreneurs. They have to know about a lot of different subjects, but don’t need to be experts at all of them. The reason why this model has become feasible is that mentors can now rely on the huge amount of teaching material that has been generated by specialists. Their added value is not to know everything about this material. Their added value is to know when and why to use it, and where to find it.
  • It is hard to get students to want to solve real problems. Students more likely want to have fun, party, and do anything but learning. So, a strong incentive has to be put in the balance. I can think of a few. First, the fact that there would be not meaningless incentives (such as tests) is a good motivation. Second, why not put money, or even jobs in the balance? Because the projects will have some amount of value, they might turn into businesses. For example, the school could provide means of manufacturing and selling products in small series. You could also imagine that established companies looking for young talents could propose some projects for students to take on, in exchange for an award prize.

The model of school I propose looks like a online teaching platform in certain aspects, and like a startup accelerator in others. It would certainly centered on education, but would be driven by projects. I can picture a front page on the website saying “Look what our students have produced this year”, featuring links to websites, apps, products, books, plays, etc…

Let’s take an example to illustrate the new model: Let’s say a group of students wants to create a cool 3D car video game for smartphone. Creating such a product involves a large number of skills. It is unlikely that one person actually has all of them, not even a mentor. However, because he sees the “big picture”, the mentor knows exactly what he needs to learn to make such a product. So he writes a customized course for his students:

  • Smartphone applications development
  • Car physics
  • 3D engines
  • Virtual world design
  • Marketing of games

Note that some of this very specific knowledge is based on more abstract, generic knowledge. For instance, “Car physics” is based on Physics and Mechanics, which are themselves based on some amount of Mathematics. These more abstract disciplines can as well be involved in the main course. The point is: however abstract the knowledge is, it can be taught in a project-driven way, thus making the teaching much more effective.

For each of these subjects, the mentor can guide the students to a list of material available online and give them objectives in terms of progress of their projects. For example, an objective of learning about car physics would be to create a piece of code that properly reproduces the behavior of a car (accelerating, braking, turning, suspensions, etc.). Because the course is so tightly linked to the project, it is straightforward to evaluate if any project has been accomplished. Of course, iterations are needed for this to work. The students should not be left alone for six months, only to realized they gave up after two weeks because they couldn’t get passed the first step. Instead, the process should follow an “Agile” process. The students would work continuously on just a few chosen aspects, during “sprints” of, say, two weeks, in between which their mentor will check on their progress.

Now comes the entrepreneur’s question: how to make a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) out of this idea? This is a difficult question, because it is difficult to attract students to a new school, that has no established reputation. Here are a couple of ideas to “start small”:

  • Start by creating a set of courses on a small number of “sexy” projects, such as video games, drones, robots, etc. These first courses can be provided for free without mentoring, just to advertise the concept. (In fact, all the created courses could arguably be all provided for free, and only the mentoring would be charged).
  • Involved “sponsor companies”. These companies would provide an incentive for students to join (money, jobs). In France, Universities and “Grandes Ecoles” are often criticized for not being closer to companies.