Monday, May 28, 2012

Big data facilitates new era of knowledge, education, and thinking

Big data and the internet continue their sweep across modern life by facilitating a new era of education, and possibly, thinking. As traditional educational institutions have become financial institutions intent on merchandizing their brands, students are finding other means of accessing educational content.

At present
Some of the newer models include MIT OpenCourseWare, the Khan Academy, Coursera, and Codecademy. These free or low-cost education services confer the direct benefit of their programs, and advantages by using the large numbers and real-time aspects of the internet to obtain and incorporate immediate feedback from growing student populations. This is leading to a better education product, and a mechanism for learning about learning.

The near future
A next stage could add course-level (rather than degree-level) accreditation and a basic algorithms interpretation layer à la Google Translate, Spell Check, and Ngram Viewer. Simple machine learning algorithms applied to large data sets could allow an expansion from quantitative testing to semantic testing (and more importantly, semantic living, in the sense of a broader intellectual life). Core knowledge elements could be identified in data corpora and reviewed for comprehension in student-produced material.

The farther future
Taken to its logical extreme, what if distance learning were to completely replace local educational institutions? Are there risks of homogenization of thought if everyone is taking the same classes from leading worldwide professors? Does personalized learning, via sommelier-assembled curricula, increase inherent biases that might otherwise be countered by institutional education? Does the U.S. need 5-10 philosophy/etc. professors at 5-10 universities per state? Clearly there are systemic aspects, and costs and benefits, of a more radical reinvention of education. These can be managed effectively through the lens of overall goals, perhaps the most important of which is extending the depth and capacity for thinking, both within individuals, and to more individuals.

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