Strange Native
Strange Native


09. Toward a New Education

Low Cost, Scalable, Distributed & Above All: Personalized

Dec 29, 2011

Low Cost, Scalable, Distributed & Above All: Personalized

I spend a lot of time thinking about the future, trying to figure out where the next big wave of change is going to hit. I lived through my first in the 80s, with the personal computing revolution. That gave way to others in the 90s & oughts: webs 1 and 2.0. Here in the tweens we have a new wave sweeping the globe: the smartphone and tablet computing revolution. So, what’s next?

What wave of change will this infrastructure of high-bandwidth, computationally powerful handheld devices drive? My money is on an entirely new kind of educational system. One that is low cost, scalable, distributed and, above all, 100% personalized.

‘Well-Rounded’ is a Myth

It’s no secret that our current school system—created in the industrial era out of industrial thinking—is failing us. The question is ‘why?’ Yes it’s expensive and yes it’s fraught with inefficiencies and bureaucracy and yes it believes pizza is a vegetable. But its failures boil down to something more fundamental: the system assumes each student is more or less the same ball of unshaped clay and that—to be successful—we must all become ‘well-rounded’ individuals. These are terribly false assumptions.

A typical American education requires students to soak up information equally across four subjects: math, science, social studies and language arts, with some visual art or music thrown in as budgets will allow because ‘let’s not kid ourselves, there’s no money in art or music.’ Cue patronizing laughter.§ § I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Fine Art and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Interaction Design. Before that I spent five years touring with my band. I’ve done alright for myself because I devoted my life to art and music. We handle edge-cases such as special education and gifted education by siphoning students off into classrooms that move at a different pace. The model and the material don’t change, just the speed. That’s as versatile as our current system gets.

The result? Students are apathetic. They’re bored. ‘School sux.’ And it does. It sux hardcore. Being treated like a cog in a world that’s rebuilding itself around personalization and instant, contextual access to information and experiences makes our school system more irrelevant by the month.

An educational psychology professor, Donald O. Clifton, had a hypothesis: If I’m naturally poor at math, no matter how hard I work I’ll only ever be average. If, instead, I spend the same amount of time and effort developing my strengths, the benefits will be exponentially greater. After years of interviews and testing, Clifton discovered that his hypothesis was not only true, but that as an added bonus, subjects who build on their strengths instead of shoring up their weaknesses ended up happier, with a higher sense of self-worth and a deeper engagement with their work. Building on interests and natural strengths kills apathy and increases performance. Learning becomes useful, exciting.

To identify and build on a child’s strengths, education will need to become deeply personalized. I can’t imagine any conscientious educator that would argue against more personal attention for students. It’s something we can all get behind. Yet, we haven’t been able to figure out how to make personalization scale. That’s about to change.

The current generation of low-cost, connected devices, along with a few key platforms, will finally create the ecosystem in which a low-cost, personalized and scalable education can arise.

Public Vs. Private Is Irrelevant

Whether you support public education or a sweeping privatization of education, the ideal is clear: a great educational system is one that is high quality, low cost and available to everyone. Supporters of privatization argue that competition for student dollars will lead to innovations in organizational efficiency and educational quality. I agree with that. Competition does deliver efficiency, but it also delivers stratification.

A privatized system in which higher quality resources sit behind increasingly expensive paywalls and performance walls will always benefits the monied. Always. If we truly believe in creating a country where individuals can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, then we believe in equal education for all, regardless of age, wage, race, sex, or background. You can’t have one without the other.

The real problem is this: A private education will never cost $0.00, but $0.00 is exactly the price point much of citizenry needs it to cost. It’s exactly the price point it should cost. ‡ I’m a firm believer that a high quality education for everyone is the only way to continue our position as a world leader. Privatized education can’t deliver a great education to everyone. As far as the efficiencies and reach required it’s as much of a dead end as our public system has proven to be. But the ideal still remains: provide personalized educational content and coursework to anyone who wants it for as little money as possible.

Starting Somewhere: The Knowledge Commons

In order to begin solving for this new kind of education we first need a system that can amass, maintain, and deliver an incredible amount of knowledge content, while being freely accessible. There’s a model that exists for such a system: Wikipedia.§ § I should cite the web in general here, but Wikipedia is much better for this discussion because it has a much higher signal to noise ratio than the rest of the web. I truly believe the web at large is and will be the true knowledge commons which we draw upon to educate our population.

While it has been derided in the past for playing host to a number of content controversies, on the whole this knowledge commons has proved to be an incredibly useful and accurate resource for sharing and spreading information. You can find everything from an in-depth history of the Battle of Bunker Hill to a list of corporations currently in support of SOPA.

Wikipedia generates content with greater speed, higher accuracy, and lower cost than any publisher in history. ‡ It’s a guess, but a confident one. It is a central vessel through which collective knowledge is curated and disseminated. It’s organized and throughly linked, creating a frictionless flow between content and content sources. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone to Wikipedia to get a quick answer and found myself falling deeper and deeper down a rabbit hole of links to other interesting articles. It is a system optimized for following what interests you.

But something is missing: a higher level context. How might a student string the best content from the web and Wikipedia together to gain a real education in algebra, World War II, french literature, or programming computer vision algorithms? How do we turn the knowledge commons into coursework?

A Coursework of the Commons

To provide context, we need a platform that allows anyone to collect and categorize content. Plenty of web collection platforms already exist: Delicious, Pinterest, Gimme Bar, Svpply and Evernote are just a few examples off the top of my head. However, this platform would encourage collections that educate and inspire rather than entertain or impress.

To make an attempt at educating, it would need some distinct features. The sequencing of the content within each collection would be vital. With which piece of content should I start? With which should I end? Which content pieces are crucial and which are added insight? Assessment and achievement frameworks would be needed with each collection. Members should be able to construct and curate supersets around major subjects like biology by bringing together collections on topics like cell-division and scientific naming schemes. For a student, working through a superset might equate to finishing a year of school in the subject.

Khan Academy, Sophia Pathways, and Knewton are all attacking the curriculum problem in one form or another, but most are generating both the content and the content connections internally. It’s a good place to start as the value of online learning platforms is still being proven, but they’re resigning themselves to outmoded teaching and publishing models. They’re missing the real opportunity.

The most efficient way to source and maintain a coursework is by following Wikipedia’s model. Provide the right incentives and compulsion loops to drive creation as well as checks and balances to maintain quality content and you accomplish the end result at a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the time. Just as Wikipedia has amassed and maintained knowledge of the commons, so too can this platform amass and maintain a coursework of the commons.

The Personal Lens

“The rise of online learning carries with it an unprecedented opportunity to transform the schooling system into a student-centric one that can affordably customize for different student needs by allowing all students to learn at their appropriate pace and path, thereby allowing each student to realize his or her fullest potential…” 1

We’re getting smarter about data; both how we collect it and how it influences our experiences. The only way for a personalized system to scale is through intelligent use of data. It starts with a student profile that assesses what kind of learner I am. This profile would gauge what my strengths, interests and challenges are.

Once that’s established in an uniform way, my experience can be connected to the experiences of others like me, all around the world. Content can be recommended to me based on the success of others who share my profile. In turn, the content and connections I find success in can be recommended to others with similar profiles or interests. The success of one can lead to the success of many.

By building the platform around the student you can recommend learning pathways instead of dictating curriculum. It amounts to a zero-friction mechanism for students to study what they find valuable and build on their inherent strengths. It also enables some incredible new possibilities. An impoverished student, for zero cost, could follow the education of a wealthy student blessed with the world’s best tutors. An avid science student could follow in the educational footsteps of his favorite astronaut or nobel laureate.

Tying personal goals together with successful pathways to achieving those goals creates an ecosystem where students feel like they’re working toward something, not just taking exams in a scholastic vacuum. Learning becomes applicable. Visualizing the educational process provides additional motivation. By depicting the milestones passed and milestones ahead, you give students a sense of building accomplishments every step of the way. Such a system begins to tie into the powerful game mechanics that have made games like World of Warcraft so engrossing. ‡ Though earning ‘experience points’ alone doesn’t amount to a full game mechanic, it is one essential piece of the compulsion-loop puzzle.

Visualizing the totality of a student’s education gives them, their parents, their future employer and their nation a truer portrait of their skills. It shows their passions, their strengths and their weaknesses. Having such a wealth of data to visualize would help us move away from using diplomas as a stand-in for an education toward visualizing the shape and character of the education itself.

The Distributed Classroom

But weren’t we talking about the proliferation of inexpensive, connected, handheld devices? Yes, we were. Let’s get back to that.

With a personalized coursework of the commons available any time and any place, directed content and assessment can be provided outside the classroom setting. Students will be able to learn from anywhere: from the home, a public library, a place of business or from a public or private educational institution. Anywhere a sufficient wireless signal can be found, a personalized and contextual learning experience can be delivered. Awesome.

We’re nearly there, but as Devin Coldewey pointed out in his recent Techcrunch article: “Students must learn, true, but they must also be taught.”4 So what effect will all this have on the role of the teacher? One of the bigger challenges facing our educational system is a lack of human resources. There just aren’t enough great teachers to go around. There are a few brilliant individuals who manage to put up with the less than stellar paycheck and working conditions. But even when they do our current system tragically limits their reach: thirty students per period, six to eight periods a day. That’s two hundred and forty students a year if they’re running themselves ragged. Finding a way to scale the reach of our teachers is a daunting hurdle.

It is exactly the proliferation of inexpensive, powerful, connected devices that will finally change that. These devices will enable teachers to hold court in thousands of locations around the world, simultaneously. Apple’s iTunes U, a source of free, pre-recorded college lectures from some of the most esteemed universities in the world, has had incredible success on mobile devices:

“It seems that mobile devices have had a huge part to play in the surge in popularity of iTunes U, doubling its number of downloads in the past year… recent figures show that almost a fifth of the Open University’s iTunes U visits arrive via an iPad.” 2

In the hands of students, these portable, robust devices will allow teachers to live-stream their lectures anywhere in the world while receiving real-time questions and feedback from students listening in. Does that seem overwhelming? Well, imagine the time a teacher would save if he/she didn’t have to deliver the same lecture to six to eight classes a day. If the lecture were only delivered once, the teacher could instead focus on fielding student questions and providing one-on-one attention where needed. “When a teacher doesn’t have to be consumed with delivering content they can become a coach and a tutor to the students and help them on an individual basis.” 1


Courtney Cadwell, a teacher in the Los Altos School District uses a “blended” teaching approach, combining Khan Academy’s brilliantly composed online lectures with various in-person instruction and tutoring:

“When the Khan Academy aligns well with our 7th grade pre-algebra curriculum, I find myself using the Flex Model by allowing Sal Khan to deliver the direct instruction via his online videos as I provide support by way of one-on-one tutoring and flexible grouping based on student needs.” 3

Such a system relieves the redundancies necessary in a closed classroom model without making teachers redundant. Talent can finally begin to scale. In such an environment, the role of the teacher will shift from recitation to inspiration. As Dr. Christensen puts it: “…Rather than everybody having to put up with crummy teachers, everyone can learn from the best.” 1

A system like this benefits our best teachers because it’s a system that desires content shapers and connectors, not just content delivery drones. In such a system, tenure isn’t a privilege bestowed through bureaucracy, it is a long-lasting relevancy earned through incredible dedication to shaping and delivering knowledge.

At Long Last: A Conclusion

With primary education incubators like Imagine K12 and the overwhelming number of web-based education startups that have sprung up in the past couple of years, I have no doubt that the next wave in education is close. However, to truly reinvent the educational system these startups will have to confront inefficiencies across the entire bureaucracy. Industrialism in education has proved to be a corporatizing force, requiring us all to fit a particular mold. I believe technology is inherently an individualizing force, driving personalization and the empowerment of both individual students and teachers.

It’s tough to paint a detailed portrait of such a vast system in a blog post (even a long one) but I truly believe that our next educational system will be composed of the three core platforms discussed above: a content commons, a coursework commons, and a social profile serving to personalize the experience every step of the way.

Nothing is ever free and the system envisioned above is no different. There will remain facilities costs, teaching professionals to pay and IT infrastructure costs. Still, such a system would enable dramatic operational and bureaucratic efficiencies while providing clear, data-driven means for compensating teaching professionals and content creators commensurate with the value they generate. It is a system that empowers everyone to share what they know and for teachers to spend more time directly connecting with students.

Regardless of whether a single prediction I made above comes true, it’s clear that we will continue to bring more and more technology into the classroom and more and more of our classroom activities onto the web. The question isn’t really whether or not it will change the face of education. The question is, how quickly will we allow these changes to take place?


  1. Courtney Boyd Myers. Clayton Christensen: Why online education is ready for disruption, now. The Next Web. November 13, 2011.
  2. Paul Sawers. The Open University is number one on iTunes U, surpasses 40m downloads. The Next Web. October 3, 2011.
  3. Courtney Cadwell. Ideas for a Fresh Start. Los Altos School District Blog. August 19, 2011.
  4. Devin Coldewey. ‘If I Were A Poor Black Kid’ Inadvertently Touches On Sad Education And Tech Truths.. Techcrunch. December 14, 2011.

Additional References:

Related Startups:


  1. Excellent piece! I’ve had the pleasure of working with and being friends with the OpenStudy team. Great folks that are helping a lot of students.

    I’m very interested to see how things unfold and what changes come of it. I hope that whatever the case, it pushes education forward and is supported by technologies, peoples & incubators willing to think differently and passionately about it all.

    • Scaling great teachers digitally – I’m a programmer myself, so obviously digital solutions appeal to me. But I don’t believe that a great teacher can scale to thousands of students merely by being a resource for “answering questions”. In school, at least, a great teacher is someone who actually knows who you are, watches out for you, helps you personally with whatever problems you have with the learning. Most normal people cannot have more than 200 such connections at a time (there is a great deal of research about this too). I really think the solution to the dearth of great teachers at school level is to do a better job of recruiting and retaining more of them, through whatever means necessary (more money, better benefits, more recognition, praise and training, Nerf guns in the teacher’s lounges, whatever). I agree with recording lectures to be reviewed at the students’ leisure, and even reversing the “lecture/lab” time ratio (as one commenter suggested). And schools should embrace commons knowledge and coursework more

  2. Really great article. My dad is an educator, and my sister is a 3rd grade teacher, so I’ve been thinking about this a lot of late. I believe your thoughts are right on, and the biggest barrier in my mind is understanding how we can innovate our current system. There are many visionaries exploring how to do education differently (i.e. your provided links) but until we find a way to empower teachers where they are, the going will be really slow. Our government has shown for years they don’t understand technology or education, so innovating at a federal level will take time and a lot of money.

    Also, I agree to a point that education should be personalized – but we in order to continue to collaborate and communicate effectively we all need to operate from a common framework. Just because I don’t enjoy coding, it doesn’t mean I can ignore it when I design a website. In the same way, a writer still needs to understand the basic framework of mathematics. These are basic human competencies that we should all have – do I think it takes Kindergarten to graduation to get there? Probably not…

    Also – I agree that a certain amount of infrastructure is needed still. School buildings afford students an opportunity for social interaction and development that is critical regardless of whether you want to be a painter or an engineer.

    Anyways, loved the article and your thoughts, and the links you included are invaluable. Look forward to reading your thoughts on this in the future as well.

  3. Great post and amazing to see how many related startups there are.

    Educational content will inevitably become more widespread and easy to access at lower costs. It’ll be interesting to see how technology helps us to learn from experience and action (not just from digesting content).

    I think that’s actually one of the biggest problems with education today, too much lecturing not enough hands on experience.

  4. Russ! You BLEW ME AWAY with this post. My co-founder, also a world class designer, Victor Mathieux (@victormathieux) shared this with me on twitter. THANK YOU for taking the time to write this long-form. This is the sort of “boil the ocean” effort that it’s going to require to deal with a topic as vast as disruptive innovation in education.

    Would you consider coming to the next DisruptEd meetup in Silicon Valley? I helped start the movement a couple months ago and it’s blowing up. See and

    Would be incredible to have you there!

  5. I’ve been slowly collecting stuff on this sort of topic as it’s an interest of mine. I love teaching, but I hate school, and I think that the future of education lies in resources rather than strict curriculum, and responsive plans to students abilities, potential, and interests. So, a few odds and ends you may find interesting.

    – I read an article about a couple teachers at a smaller school that flipped their school days. Lectures at home, homework at school. They recorded lectures for students to watch overnight, then did the homework together in class. Students loved it, teachers and parents loved it. This is a huge duh. Offload the repetitious elements. Do it once, then copy/paste. Use human contact time for dialogue and collaboration on the work.

    – I think curriculum is still important, but I agree in your statement that what we have is too rigid. We need responsive curricula rather than ones etched in stone pathways. The opportunity of building curricula digitally is that we can pool them all together to identify frequent desire paths, and then be able to fork at meaningful points to customize for the specifics of the individual. There are metaphors and tools for this already in the digital world. In other words, I think I want a GitHub for curriculum.

    – As for access to people afforded by the structure of school, I think that Diana Kimball is onto something by taking the latent digital social norm and formalizing it a bit. She started an online mentoring framework for people to publicize their availability to be mentors. She created it by writing a brief and hosting it on GitHub. I think this speaks to getting one-on-one help. Hell, you could even charge for access to make it worth one’s time. And it’d be cheaper than school.

    – In the light of rethinking education, how about a New Liberal Arts?

    – I remember reading somewhere that the portfolio is the new resume. I think that’s awesome.

    – Austin Kleon’s “you don’t have to go to college” tag is awesome, too:

    – When I was in college, we had to take some science courses. They were two components: lecture and lab. The lecture was taught by the faculty member, lab by grad students. I think this is a great structure, but it’s all backwards. Lectures should be recorded and watched on the students time, and the length of the lab time should be doubled with the faculty and a lab assistant. I think this metaphor could be applied to almost anything: the thinking and the doing. The listening and the questioning. etc etc.

  6. Chris Armstrong

    Really inspirational article, thanks! I totally agree that the web is the best source of knowledge we have, what it’s missing is a good tool for clipping all those bits of knowledge together and giving them structure and narrative. This could effectively provide teachers and students with a wide choice of free textbooks, of which the more effective ones would rise to the top.

    As others have commented, I think there’s still a lot to be said for the social benefits of a common learning location and shared experience… Having a ‘place of learning’ to go to everyday and dealing with teachers and classmates helps you learn how to deal with people (both reasonable and unreasonable), however that’s not to say that that shared experience/location should look anything like it currently does.

  7. Absolutely amazing article. I think there’s some real educational potential if somebody could somehow harness the addictiveness of gaming and rewards. It occurred to me that basic ‘learning’ algorithms ala or Spotify – for example, “if you like this then you might also like this” / “related artists” could surely be easily applied to educational content?

    There’s a great This American Life where the final act is about a Brooklyn Free School, I really recommend it ( / – Although I think complete self learning is not feasible en mass since so many students do require guidance, I think there’s a really exciting middle-ground that could be found between a planned curriculum and a free school / ‘tailored’ education that would allow students to largely carve their own learning.

    My main concern with digital tablet learning like this though would be it replacing basic pencil and paper. My partner worked in a school and already had literate 15 year olds who could type perfectly but struggled to write by hand. Scary!

  8. I completely agree with your premise that education needs to change in order to adapt to the needs of the world today. But I disagree with many of the specifics you suggest.

    1. The suggestion that making students “well-rounded” is not a desirable thing to do and that everyone should just do what they like to do or are good at. To this I would say that not everyone’s true talents are readily apparent at a younger age. And exposing children to a wide range of knowledge, many subjects and fields ensures they have a greater chance of discovering their talents. I know it sounds terribly unscientific and anecdotal but it’s like your parents making you eat your vegetables when you were a kid, thereby making your palate more “well-rounded”

    2. Repetition is evil – Repetition isn’t always evil. The end goal of math shouldn’t only be “plug and chug”, but there is usually a certain amount of it in the beginning. For a lot of people (like myself), who aren’t naturally gifted at math, repetition, drills and working similar problems over and over made the basics, muscle memory. I learned long division by this method in India, and was surprised, when I moved to the US in grade 4 that kids had so much trouble with it. And when the next step in any problem was automatic, it enabled my brain to focus on the question of why I was doing it (like the “wax on wax off” scene in Karate Kid)

    3. Scaling great teachers digitally – I’m a programmer myself, so obviously digital solutions appeal to me. But I don’t believe that a great teacher can scale to thousands of students merely by being a resource for “answering questions”. In school, at least, a great teacher is someone who actually knows who you are, watches out for you, helps you personally with whatever problems you have with the learning. Most normal people cannot have more than 200 such connections at a time (there is a great deal of research about this too). I really think the solution to the dearth of great teachers at school level is to do a better job of recruiting and retaining more of them, through whatever means necessary (more money, better benefits, more recognition, praise and training, Nerf guns in the teacher’s lounges, whatever). I agree with recording lectures to be reviewed at the students’ leisure, and even reversing the “lecture/lab” time ratio (as one commenter suggested). And schools should embrace commons knowledge and coursework more

  9. Great post! Thank you so much. I want my teenage boys to read this and give me their thoughts on it. Also, I love the ‘Don’t Fear the Internet’ videos. -M

  10. I highly recommend reading the works of a few theorists (Jerome Bruner, Paulo Freire, Nel Noddings) and a few practitioners (Deborah Meier, Ron Berger) before dipping your toes into waters of education reform. I am surprised by your willingness to pose reforms for a field in which you do not have expertise; especially after stating that you do not believe in the power of being well-rounded. Many people think that because they went through schooling they understand the process of education, learning and teaching. This simply isn’t true. Just because I use websites doesn’t mean that I understand CSS, HTML, Javascript, etc…