All the world’s information available at your fingertips. That was the promise of the web and the online education boom seems to be bringing us ever closer. Want to study computer science? Physics? Photography? Udacity, Khan Academy, Coursera, CreativeLive are just some of the virtual classrooms where you can find world class instruction. And it’s not only these dedicated pure-plays – visit YouTube and if there’s a skill to be taught via video, there’s one (or 1,000) waiting for you. YouTube has been such a boon that TED Curator Chris Anderson believes we’ve entered a magical period of “crowd accelerated innovation” as the result of online video. In his words:
Online video has given every community global reach. It has allowed talents to be shared digitally that could never be shared before. You can track innovation online by looking at the moment a community was first able to share its talents digitally. For writers and software programmers, it happened as soon as the Internet connected them. Photographers and musicians followed soon after, when even the low-bandwidth web could just about handle GIFs, JPEGs, and MP3s. But the vast majority of communities had to wait for online video. It was the technology that allowed any talent to be shared digitally.
My work at YouTube convinced me that Chris Anderson is correct but still, something about this nirvana gave me pause. It crystalized while reading this statement by my former boss at Second Life.
Aha! That’s it! It’s never been easier to learn a new skill. Never been easier to find and follow someone else’s ‘best practices.’ To mimic the well-worn path of someone who came before you. And that’s the potential trap – breakthroughs come not just from following instructions to minimize the time spent learning, but sometimes from the struggle, from pushing not down the riverbed where water has already flowed, but carving into hard earth.
Is it possible that it’s never been easier to be, well, average? If everyone is learning the same information and studying the same approach, yes the floor rises – we’re all more educated – but what about the ceiling? Who will push outside of the boundaries? Who will remember that in addition to acquiring a skill, education is about learning how to learn. Does expedient, always-available instruction make it too easy?
The best counterargument I can construct is that most adult learning is purpose-driven. You are learning a skill as a component of trying to accomplish a task. Get a better job, build that mobile app, fix the screen door. Skills learned as a necessary stepping stone, not an end goal. Perhaps the gamification of education actually creates false incentives, making badge acquisition the goal instead of solving a real problem?
At the end of the day no one, certainly not me, would argue that pervasive access to content we can mimic is anything but a public good. But continue to challenge yourself. Don’t just become an expert, try to do it differently. Color a bit outside the lines. And you might just find yourself creating the best practices copied by the next wave of learners.