Inkling: A Platform for Educational End Runs

The new edition of the Culinary Institute of America’s The Professional Chef, a common textbook in the field, is being sold only as a $50 iPad app. From what I understand it’s not just scanned pages. It’s got videos, built-in quizzes, and other intelligent features.

A company called Inkling, which allows creation of interactive iPad-based learning tools, is behind the platform technology. Their website had this to say about getting the digital textbook format right:

There’s no such thing as a page. There’s a 1024 by 768 screen that can change in response to your fingers. There’s a display instead of ink. There’s memory instead of paper. There’s a world of new opportunities, and whole new set of constraints.

This is an interesting approach and I think it has something to say more generally about how to approach technological changes: don’t just bring the assumptions and limitations of the previous technology into the current technology. Learn the limitations and possibilities of the new, and make the thing that best meets your goals with those opportunities and constraints.

I can think of a lot of skills that can be taught in this way. Skills that don’t have highly formal credentialing are probably the easiest — cooking, fixing a car, operating hardware or software. Eventually these textbook apps might end up being able to replace not just the books, but many of the teachers as well.

What Is An Educational End Run?

Most people recognize our educational system is broken. On the government side, we have failed to produce quality, and on the private side, we have failed to produce affordability.

I certainly hope that federal and local governments can get their act together and start producing better education results. And that overpriced universities will start lowering their tuitions. But I’m not holding my breath for these things to happen any time soon. Governments are slow. And so is academia.

Meanwhile, technology is progressing very rapidly. So if I had to bet, I would say some combination of non-profit initiatives, private entrepreneurship, and technological innovation is going to come along and solve our education problems while governments and universities are sitting around arguing about incremental improvements.

This is the idea of an “educational end run.” The notion that technology is going to bypass our antiquated education system and skip straight to delivering results. After all, education is just the transferral of knowledge from one individual to another. If today’s information technologies can’t vastly improve that process, we are simply not trying hard enough.

As a professional tutor, I think about these issues a lot. In effect, my job is birthed out of the failures of the educational system. Much of what I do is teach kids things that they should’ve learned in class but didn’t because of incompetent teachers, incomprehensible textbooks, or just the inherent problems of learning in large classrooms. Tutoring is a growth industry and represents an expensive and low tech version of the “end run” described above. When I teach a kid how to do algebra, I am bypassing the teacher, the curriculum, and the textbook. I am putting the knowledge directly in the kid’s brain, and at the end of the session, if I have done my job, they will have learned. If learning is the goal why not stop there? It is assumed that tutoring supplements and enhances a student’s learning process. But at what point does my tutoring actually become a replacement?

There are obvious limits to my reach as a tutor. As a human, I can’t be in a million places at once.  I can’t remember perfectly every detail about every student. And I can’t always be there to follow up with kids and make sure they are retaining what they’ve been taught.

But technology provides ready answers to almost all of these questions. And I am not talking about speculative future technologies. I am talking about today’s technologies. All that’s missing is will, commitment, and perhaps some educational theory. Societal norms may also stand in the way. But certainly the obstacles are not technical.

You may have heard of Khan Academy. Khan Academy is not the only innovative educational initiative out there. But it has generated a lot of hype recently and is a great example of what an educational end run might look like.

I have to admit, when I first visited the site I was unimpressed. It appeared to be nothing more than a glorified Youtube channel in which a charismatic but far from perfect tutor (Salman Khan) posted amateurish looking videos on various subjects. While I admired the effort involved in the creation of thousands of videos, I couldn’t help wondering: “In 2011, this is the hottest new idea out there? This is what Bill Gates is giving large sums of money to?”

Today, I stand corrected. I may have judged the site too quickly. Yesterday, Stephen Kolowich published a great article that addressed some of my concerns.

“I think too much conversation about Khan Academy is about cute little videos,” Khan said. “Most of our resources, almost two-thirds of [the staff], are engineers working on the exercises and analytics platform. That, I think, is what we’re most excited about.”

The videos are only the beginning. The site also has practice problems associated with every video. As students complete these problems, the site collects detailed data about the student. A team of engineers then crunches this mountain of data to try and learn as much as possible in service of improving and tailoring the learning experience.

“Using [advanced] math and computer science concepts, the Khan engineers have trained the website’s exercise platform how to predict, with startling accuracy, how likely it is that a student will correctly answer the next practice problem — and whether that student will be able to solve the same type of problem a week, two weeks, and a month later.”

Even more exciting, Khan Academy is working on the very hard problem of determining whether or not a student is actually learning, and not just shallowly regurgitating a memorized series of steps:

“The Khan engineers are also working to tweak the exercise platform so it does not confuse genuine mastery with “pattern matching” — a method of problem-solving wherein a student mechanically rehashes the steps necessary to solve that type of problem without necessarily grasping, conceptually, what those steps represent.”

There is even discussion of new methods of “credentialing” or certifying what students have learned. The creation of new independent credentialing bodies has the potential down the line to be the final nail in the coffin of our old educational paradigm.

At the end of the article, Carol Twigg, CEO and president of the National Center for Academic Transformation, plays the role of skeptic. Despite being an educational revolutionary herself, she expresses doubts about Khan Academy’s potential for success.

“‘The idea that you can just put stuff out there, and that it will magically be effective and used effectively — there’s just no evidence of that,’ Twigg says. Collecting evidence requires integrating with college classrooms, which requires scale and support, which requires money, she says. Lots of it. ‘Sixteen million dollars is not chump change,'” says Twigg, “‘but you need to be able to support and sustain it.’ Nonprofit projects in higher education do not have a great track record on this, she points out, not even the most highly regarded ones.'”

Upon reading this quote I was snapped back to the realization that conversations about education are still very much stuck on this issue of “integrating” with current educational institutions. Perhaps I am being too radical and too eager to jump ahead when I suggest that integrating hardly seems like it should be the goal. Today, we have such powerful technologies that a more full scale reinvention seems possible.

But maybe that’s just me.

Education Gets Less Scarce With Increased Free Offerings From Stanford’s Computer Science Department

I hope for some day in the near future when students won’t have to go into debt or compete at meaningless SAT exams to get a Stanford-quality education.

“Stanford University is offering the online world more of its undergraduate level CS courses. These free courses consist of You Tube videos with computer-marked quizzes and programming assignments. The ball had been started rolling by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig’s free online version of their Stanford AI class, for which they hoped to reach an audience in the order of a hundred thousand, a target which they seem to have achieved. As well as the previously announced Machine learning course you can now sign up to any of: Computer Science 101, Software as a Service, Human-Computer Interaction, Natural Language Processing, Game Theory, Probabilistic Graphical Models, Cryptography and Design and Analysis of Algorithms. Almost a complete computer science course and they are adding more. Introductory videos and details are available from each courses website.”

Full article here. At the very least, I hope innovative programs like these will start having some downward impact on inflated higher education costs.