Most People in Education are Just Looking for Faster Horses, But the Automobile is Coming

Note: If you like what you read, you can go here for the MoonshotEdu podcast episode that addresses this topic.

Remember the famous quote often attributed to Henry Ford (although we don’t know if he actually said it), “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Most people in education are looking for faster horses. It is too challenging, troubling, or beyond people’s sense of what is possible to really imagine a completely different way in which education happens in the world. That doesn’t mean, however, that the educational equivalent of the automobile is not on its way. I am confident that it is very much on its way. It might even arrive earlier than even the futurists expect. Consider the following prediction.

According to this article in the Business Insider, the futurist Thomas Frey predicts that the largest Internet company in 2030 will be an online school. Yet, when you look more closely at his prediction, it is not that the largest company will be an online school, but that it will be an education-based company. I am not an economist and lack the business acumen to agree or disagree with his assessment of “the largest.” I will, however, comment on the more general prediction that there will be a single, massive Internet-based education company in 2030 that is a leading voice and holds a dominant position in the education space.

This is more than possible. He is probably right. For Frey, this relates to the growth in artificial intelligence and machine learning, two trends that are clearly going to play increasingly larger roles in education this year and well into the future. Frey paints a picture of a future where robots take adaptive, individualized, and personalized learning to a new level; taking over the facilitation of massive open online courses and delivering better learning outcome results than teachers of the human sort. These robots will master the science behind the age-old principle of good teaching, “know your learners.” By mining rich and ongoing data about each learner, these robot teachers will be able to adjust the time, pace, pathway, and experience of learning to optimize outcomes, allowing students to master concepts and content in a fraction of the time that it takes today. That is how Frey sees it. These robots might not replace most teachers, but such a vision suggests that they will, at minimum, teach alongside and supplement what teachers do.

I love this prediction. It is informed, provocative, rooted in changes that are already well underway in several sectors, and it serves as a great discussion starter and source of reflection for those of us in education. It forces us to go beyond the faster horse mentality. Every technological element that Frey describes already exists and there are multiple education (or non-education) companies investing in educational applications of them. Some of these technologies are already deeply embedded in various educational systems and applications. Yet, even Frey tempers his prediction by noting that these will likely just be supplements to human teachers.

We are largely just looking for better horses in most education reform and quality improvements. We talk about how to improve retention rates in school instead of diving right into how we can re-imagine education where concepts like retention rates become irrelevant. We talk about how to get as many people as possible to earn a college degree instead of talking seriously about how we can create an model where we have the most informed and educated population in the history of the world. We talk about GPA as a good predictor of school performance thus focusing upon how to increase GPA instead of asking whether the entire grading system itself is helping or hindering what we do in education.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking faster horses in education, but that will eventually reach a limit. Horses can only go so fast. Switching from faster horses to faster humans for a second, it is certainly true that we have succeeded in creating a generation of faster humans. The 4-minute-mile barrier was broken, but there is going to be a limit when we are talking about human legs and anatomy, at least until we change the rules of the race, allow new technologies, or something else more drastic than most people might be thinking. Humans can go much faster than a 4-minute-mile. Just put them in a jet-propelled car that goes over 700 miles per hour.

There are limits to the current models of education. Tackling some of the priorities that people seem to have about learning and education in the 21st and 22nd centuries calls for automobile-level changes. We might not like Frey’s predictions. We might have moral concerns. We might want to fight for our fondness of the current system. We might want to protect our own jobs and how we do them. Yet, there are plenty of people in the world who don’t have those inhibitions and they will be working to move from faster horses to educational automobiles. I have no reason to doubt that more people will eventually embrace the innovations that come from the efforts of such people.

Frey might not have it right in terms of the specifics. Yet, I suspect that he does have it right on at least a few.

  • Many education transformations will happen in organizations not bound by current educational policies. That means companies like MOOC-providers who don’t have to worry about the regulations and restrictions of K-12 and higher education institutions. This can just. I just don’t know if it will.
  • Many education transformations will happen in organizations not dominated by faster horse people. Again, that probably means different types of organizations than what we typically think of as schools. This too can change. I just don’t know if it will.
  • Technologies attached to machine learning, artificial intelligence, and new forms of adaptive learning will play a key role in these educational transformations.

Note: If you like what you read, you can go here for the MoonshotEdu podcast episode that addresses this topic.

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