The disruption of education: How technology is helping students teach themselves

By now, most of us have become pretty used to the ways that technology — both devices and social web services — have changed things we have always taken for granted, whether it’s communication or photography, or something as obvious as renting an apartment or hailing a cab.

But those same kinds of disruptions are moving into new areas, and education is one of them. From university classes via YouTube and startups like Udacity to the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, there are more ways than ever for children to educate themselves, even in remote villages in Ethiopia. Despite the inevitable criticisms such efforts get both from within the education system and outside it, it’s part of a powerful and growing phenomenon.

One example: At a recent conference on emerging technology at MIT, Nicholas Negroponte — the former head of the MIT Media Lab and founder of the OLPC project — talked about what his group noticed about the villages in Ethiopia, where some devices were dropped off. The Motorola Xoom tablets, which were distributed along with a solar-charging system, were delivered in boxes to two isolated rural villages about 50 miles from the capital of Addis Ababa, where Negroponte said the children had never before seen printed English words — not even packaging or road signs with printed letters.

Even with no teachers, students taught themselves

Although the OLPC founder says the group expected most of the children to spend their time “playing with the boxes,” in a matter of minutes they had powered up the devices and, within days, they were using a number of apps included with the system. Even more remarkably, within weeks, they had figured out how to “hack” their way around restrictions built into the software to change the laptop’s display background. Thanks to the tablets, they were singing ABC songs and even spelling words in English. Said Negroponte:

“Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android. Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera.”

Negroponte later admitted that this small test in two villages wasn’t enough to reach any hard conclusions about the success of such an effort, but, as several commenters at MIT’s Technology Review — and in a discussion at Hacker News — noted, this is not the first attempt to do such a thing: Dr. Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, launched a project called the “Hole In The Wall” in 1999 in the slums of New Delhi that provided a single computer to children nearby. With little instruction and no formal background in computers, they were able to learn a surprising amount.

In fact, Mitra’s experiences were one of the inspirations for the OLPC approach in Ethiopia, according to OLPC’s chief technology officer Ed McNierney. And, while the experiment has drawn a fair degree of criticism on a number of fronts — from those who believe the money for such projects should go towards teachers and schools instead of laptops, or from those who question whether OLPC can scale large enough to make a difference — Pando Daily founder Sarah Lacy says that she has seen laptops in use in places like Colombia and Rwanda, and they have changed lives for the better.

“I’ve actually seen OLPC laptops being used on the ground in countries like Colombia and Rwanda — and when you see lives so dramatically changed by something, it’s pretty hard to dismiss it as not world-changing enough.”

Education even finds a way around governments

A second example of how a seemingly innocuous technology like YouTube — especially when combined with a social network — can change lives comes from Time magazine, which wrote recently about an 11-year-old girl in Pakistan who was taking an introductory university-level physics class through an educational startup called Udacity. Unfortunately, just as Khadijah Niazi was about to complete the final exam for the course (along with 23,000 other people), her country’s government cut off access to YouTube, which Udacity uses to distribute short instructional clips.

In less than an hour, according to Time, a young man who was taking the same class in Malaysia started posting descriptions of each video and the test questions involved. Meanwhile, a physics professor taking the same class in Portugal tried to find a way around the YouTube blockage — and when that failed, she downloaded all of the videos and then uploaded them to a non-censored site that Niazi could access, a process that took four hours. The next day, the young girl passed the exam with flying colors and became the youngest ever to complete the Udacity course. As Time describes it:

“None of these students had met one another in person. The class directory included people from 125 countries. But, after weeks in the class, helping one another with Newton’s laws, friction and simple harmonic motion, they’d started to feel as if they shared the same carrel in the library. Together, they’d found a passageway into a rigorous, free, college-level class, and they weren’t about to let anyone lock it up.”

Udacity and the OLPC project are only two of the many startups and other ventures that are trying to change the way education occurs — not just in North America, but everywhere. There is also the Khan Academy, which started with Salman Khan using YouTube videos as a way of teaching his young niece about mathematics and now has delivered more than 200 million individual lessons. And there is Coursera, which is designed to allow any educational institution to offer online instruction. Although the latter ran into a brief regulatory roadblock in Minnesota, there are signs that these kinds of innovative efforts are being accepted: Udacity courses are now being approved for credit by some universities, including one in Colorado.

Whether it’s moribund educational institutions or governments or just bureaucratic red tape, what examples like these show is that the disruption of education continues whether such entities like it or not. Students will find a way to learn if they are given the opportunity, and technology and the social web are providing some powerful ways of doing that.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Vince Alongi and One Laptop Per Child