How Can We Take Education from the Industrial Revolution to the Oculus Rift?

November 7, 2014


Last week’s DevLearn 2014 was another amazing conference, characterized by progressive approaches to age-old problems in the educational space.

One of the most impacting takeaways, however, was how little education has changed in the last 150 years. In his opening keynote session, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson outlined the history of the traditional education system in America.

Most notably, he delved into the origins of the system during the Industrial Revolution, and its purpose as way of turning the farming families of the country into skilled laborers who could work on the assembly lines of new factories taking over the American landscape. This model of education is still the basic structure we use to educate our young people today.

The world has produced a number of innovations over the last 150 years that could help reform education, especially in the technology space. So, over the course of various lectures and discussions, I’ve begun to think about how technology can help improve our educational system, and more specifically, how massive open online courses, or MOOCs, may be a real solution for taking our current model of higher education out of the dark ages.

The traditional perspective, namely the idea that our education system works simply because that’s the way we’ve done it for a century and a half, is probably the biggest pushback to using MOOCs to facilitate education. I’d like to use an analogy from the business world to demonstrate why age isn’t the only reason the higher education system is antiquated.

Imagine if every US state boasted four distinct computer manufacturing companies. Each company employs its own research and development staff, separate design teams, engineering departments and sales forces who would solely target that state’s residents. It’s doubtful that computers would vary much from state to state in terms of function, quality and purpose, sans a few insignificant quirks and variations. This is a ridiculous proposition within a free market system, and would thus could never result in a sustainable infrastructure for the computer industry.

Now, lets apply this analogy to just one college course, say, a literature class. In the roughly 4500 colleges and universities around America - not to mention the thousands of universities around the world - there are professors creating curriculum and teaching students English 101. By and large, these professors are similar curricula, teaching basically the same information.

Countless hours, days and weeks are being spent to create the same thing in slightly different ways. With the Internet, increased speed of communication and quality of video content, how could we ever accept this as a logical solution to teaching one subject to millions of students around the country, not to mention world?

A much more logical and efficient way to teach this course could be to record the most brilliant literature professor in the country and distribute the entire course to students via a MOOC. Now all of the time that was being spent by the thousands of other educators can be better spent working more closely with the students to hone their skills, answer their questions, and create a more engaging in-class experience.

Taking the idea and implementation of MOOCs one step further into the future, imagine what will happen when 3D consumer tech like the Oculus Rift becomes widely available. Major universities may boast some of the most brilliant educators, but they address hundreds of students in a hall with poor sound and visibility.

Essentially, if you’re sitting anywhere other than the first 20 rows, you can barely see the educator and have no hope of reading what he’s writing on the chalkboard. If that same lecture were recorded and then distributed online, each and every student would be sitting front and center as they viewed the lecture from their Oculus Rift.

If our goal is to make education more efficient, productive and engaging for both students and educators, then we need to work to make future scenarios like these seem more realistic.



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