Toward a New Vision for Online Education

More than a generation into the age of the Internet, we see everywhere a vast information network ideally suited to the sharing of man’s knowledge, yet almost nowhere do we see it being effectively employed to teach people from start to finish how to do trades, vocations, disciplines, and professions. Why is this niche in our education system virtually vacant?

The Shallowness of today’s online Education

Oh yes, we see introductory courses, summaries, and overviews everywhere, but when one who seeks to learn a given field on his or her own digs deeper and tries to find more obscure or in-depth material to learn from, he or she often hits a wall and finds no resources that are easily accessible. For all the talk of MOOCs and the sum total of man’s knowledge base being at our fingertips, this is quit odd, and deserves much more attention.

There are quite a few reasons for this, of course, from the advantage people, such as incumbent gatekeepers, obtain from withholding key knowledge from the online masses, and the very simple reason that there’s a lot more interest in and demand for introductory courses or overviews than an in-depth advanced course.

Still, it is striking that programming, for example, has more or less all the resources needed to study and become a competent practitioner of the art available for free online, even if it can take some digging to find them. Considering that programmers, software developers, and the like are the very people who created the Internet it perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise that most occupations are not nearly as progressive.

Tying into some previous speculations of mine about barriers to entry being more important than is often thought when it comes to the nature, so to speak, of different occupations, it’s interesting to note that it’s also perfectly feasible to become a competent artist, including in traditional art such as oil painting, learning from free online resources, much like programming, so being progressive in the norms of training isn’t confined to higher-tech occupations.

The Extremely Not-Online Skilled Trades

And unlike in some of my other posts, when I’m hard on the upper middle class, the worst offenders here may be instead be the skilled trades. When one tries to find competent, affordable, honest people to work on one’s house, for example, it’s common for many of the tradesmen with the best reputations, who have no shortage of clients, to not even have a website!

Many of the more physical or hands-on fields of human endeavor rely on the passing of knowledge from master to apprentice in physical space, making little if any use of the possibilities of cyberspace. In addition to the hands-on nature of the work not lending it particularly well to online instruction to begin with, a big factor I think is implicit or tacit knowledge, the knowledge that is not written down anywhere or systematized but is part of the background of the masters’ work lives that their apprentices emulate (perhaps even unconsciously), not being easily transmissible through books or online courses.

How-to Videos and the future of Education and Training

The ever-booming “how to” genre of videos on sites like Youtube provides a much richer medium than a mere web page, written online course, or textbook, and has partially ameliorated this problem. As time goes on, more and more varieties of videos covering more and more topics, including more advanced or in-depth components of various fields, have been created and posted for the public to view free of charge.

So large is this impact that the rise of how-to videos is perhaps one of the biggest socially significant trends that charged hard through our culture in the 2010s that didn’t receive much press; even my own retrospective omitted it!

The effect of these videos and mass interest in them is that there is actually a very large number of more-or-less self-taught craftsmen operating now at the hobbyist level. While this is still well short of professional level in most cases, it’s not at all hard to imagine a scaling up of this kind of process; with improvements in the technique displayed in this kind of instruction, the next generation of how-to video viewers may well be able to raise themselves to a professional level of workmanship.

This might sound radical, but there’s no particular reason why with today’s (or at least the very near future’s) instructional technology and technique most professions, occupations, and career skills couldn’t become like, say, drawing a detailed realistic picture of a person and his or her environment is today, where studying under a master in person remains the best way to learn for obvious reasons but it can also be accomplished at a professional level on one’s own using free resources.

In Google’s Hands: all the Ingredients for an educational Revolution

This would be a revolutionary change in education and training, and it seems to me that the fundamentals give Google, possessing both the best search engine and the largest video repository, a decisive advantage over anybody else should they choose to lead it. Google says its corporate mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”.

With their resources the keepers of this implicit knowledge could be incentivized, i.e. paid, to contribute to a freely-accessible database with well-designed and well-organized online courses containing everything one needs to practice the crafts. Search by master, search by craft, search by topic, search by level, you name it, it could be there. Even in-person instruction could be offered as an enhancement of the online offerings, greatly enlarging the pool of potential apprentices masters have to choose from over what exists today.

I freely admit that there might be some factor I’m not considering here that might make such a program much less viable than I’m envisioning, but it seems to me that such an approach could create a much more skilled, much more fulfilled general population and a much higher quality of successors in what one might call the “core” group of the occupations, the people personally trained by a chain of masters stretching back to each craft’s emergence.

The Lethargy of Big Business

Talk about “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”! It’s honestly a bit surprising that Google has dropped the ball in revolutionizing education to the extent they have, instead ceding that ground to the likes of Coursera, Udemy, and even Zoom Video.

But then again, when was the last time Google dominated in any field with a product that was truly innovative? Probably the advent of Google Search itself. In innovation, even if not in revenue and profits, Google is almost a one-trick pony; it’s just that the trick it does is so useful for so many purposes most people don’t notice.

It’s also the case that large corporations tend to become ossified over time, resistant to change, closed to new perspectives. “Move fast and break things” becomes “move cautiously and please the guardians of the status quo”. Revolutionizing the education and training system is of course more along the lines of “move fast and break things”. Try as it might (and to a large extent, as opposed to e.g. an outfit like Amazon, Google doesn’t even seem to be trying that hard), no large corporation has more of that spirit than any number of small startups.

Protocols, not Platforms: applied to Education

So if not Google, then what? Small startups and big corporations aren’t the only places innovation happens. Moving fast and breaking things can also be accomplished through protocols; Bitcoin is the most famous example, but this category also includes the likes of email and the Fediverse.

If anything a protocol is more suitable for revolutionary applications than any platform, large or small. A large centralized platform can be easily coerced into making its revolutionary potential not so revolutionary, sabotaging its potential to upset the comfort of the status quo. A free, open-source, peer-to-peer platform, especially if developed anonymously, cannot be coerced or lured into compliance.

Online Learning Peer-to-Peer

Therefore, although Google might be the company best suited to develop this infrastructure fast, a more sustainable course would be to develop a distributed system. Imagine the kind of system I outlined for Google, only with each master, each course, having its own server, able to seamlessly interlink with others.

Drawing resources and materials from any number of other servers, the user would see them all well-organized into a coherent whole. This might sound like, and indeed probably actually would be, rather difficult, but the Fediverse’s social networking software (which runs on the ActivityPub protocol) organizes posts from many servers into one timeline. To the user it’s no different than if it were on one platform.

The same could be done with educational resources; even better, users could be provided with options to organize and display all the data in a way that’s to their liking, instead of being confined to what the originating server or (worse yet) a centralized platform dictates.

ActivityPub for Education?

For all I know there might already be software that’s designed to do something like this, but for a truly sustainable, free, and open system of mass peer-to-peer education such a network as I describe would be by far the best option.

Indeed, with all the talk of ActivityPub I see no obvious reason why such a peer-to-peer education and training network couldn’t use ActivityPub itself. Instead of having to go to a separate website to e.g. have an online discussion with your instructor or your peers you could just send them a direct message and receive replies back right from the comfort of your own Mastodon server!

The videos and resources could, with a bit of work and perhaps an extension of the Mastodon software, even be viewable right from your server in the coherent order they’re meant to be learned in! Such an extension might even replicate an online-course-style interface, enabling one to toggle between ordinary Mastodon mode and the other interface.

An Education from a Dark Web of Naturalistic Interfaces

And of course, this all works in harmony with my dream of a “ubiquitous dark web”. As far as I know Fediverse servers can communicate just fine over the Tor network, so if anonymity or a permissionless domain name system is desired that might be the soundest choice. The really interesting part is that it would be a choice available to people!

In the same post as the “ubiquitous dark web” I also speculated about interfaces that are less and less distinguishable from nature, replacing the artifice of the glowing boards we take for granted today with voice and the movement of the human body, replacing the artifice of the server rack with a distributed network of computing devices embedded in everyday objects like wands, staffs, paper sheets, watches, bracelets, armlets, glasses, and rings, some of which will project visual images.

Conclusion

The potential for such a revolution in our education and training system is very large, and not only because of hobbyists or interested people trying to hone their skills to a professional level, but because the higher education and career training system today is degenerating, and not just because of the prison-like conditions encountered by many college students in the name of stopping the spread of COVID-19.

While availing oneself of free online resources is, well, free of charge, it’s the norm for college degrees, and completion of trade school, to cost a five-figure sum, if not higher, and that financial burden is only getting harder and harder for young people to bear. To illustrate this point, $10,000, a common (even cheap!) price for a college degree, would yield at least as much profit invested in the stock market as one would get from the vaunted “college wage premium”.

Maybe “becoming a professional” isn’t the best way to spend $10,000. Hmm…

Image courtesy of Portfolio Visualizer.

While various institutions are reaping the bounty of these skyrocketing prices for now, over the longer term the trend is not the friend of the status quo; eventually something will give, and when it does, why not stand ready to replace today’s education and training system with a flexible, free, open, peer-to-peer system with a high degree of technical robustness designed for the transmission of as much knowledge, implicit and explicit alike, as possible?

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