April 30, 2014

A smart way to reform education

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 1:16 pm

Many people regard the public school system as a daycare center for parents who need to work. But when it comes to education, there is lots of room for innovation. Using technology like mobile apps, we are in a better position to measure and improve educational outcomes than ever before.

When done right, the results can be amazing. We can go from expecting a typical bell curve to achievement and understanding from nearly every student. Here is a full overview of how to do that:

  1. Give every family a parental-control iPad if they don’t have a computer at home.
  2. Deliver the lecture part of each class via an engaging multimedia presentation bought from a marketplace of these things. Instead of a boring teacher or one teacher teaching 20 students, a great presentation would be repeatable by thousands and millions of students, and every year can be improved. It could also be critiqued and fact-checked by reviewers in the market. The market would update them like textbooks.
  3. The next day, the school day would start later, so kids could get a good sleep (health and cognitive reasons) and a good breakfast (nutrition reasons), the latter can be delivered in school, for kids to come on time and socialize.
  4. After breakfast and homeroom, the Tests would begin. Every day, the tests would be testing for real knowledge that would be obtained from the previous day’s presentations. They would test two levels: minimum adequate comprehension, and solid comprehension. This would replace homework and the method of solution could also be analyzed.
  5. Students who did not score high enough to demonstrate minimum comprehension for that day would be quickly identified by their test scores. They would be scheduled for smaller remedial classes later that day for that subject. That means the main time they spend with a teacher would be more individualized and tailored to where they are struggling as actually determined by their attempts on the tests.
  6. For a student who scores well on all or most tests, the day would be quite pleasant and free of remedial classes. They could do any number of things - and if they have to remain in the school, fine - there will be plenty of entertainment and socializing there. That is their reward for learning and comprehending the previous day, proportional to how many subjects they were able to do.
  7. Right after the Tests, all students would still have to take classes which aren’t only comprehension focused such as Gym and Debate etc. But there are very few of those.
  8. The students would themselves choose how to schedule their time to study for the next day. It could be a study session with friends or a private study session. No one would force them to sit through a lecture.


  1. Insane amounts of homework from multiple classes are replaced by Tests which are already scored in terms of difficulty, cognitive load, and how much time they take. So the school is fully aware of how much load they are putting on the students. Currently there is homework creep.
  2. Instead of struggling privately and spending money on private tutors many low-income families can’t afford, the students would get individual attention after their performance was analyzed in a Test setting. Home would be reserved for a lot more self-motivated learning, mimicking the real world.
  3. The kids would have freedom and responsibility to set aside their own time to learn, and incentive to learn that they do not have when told to sit down and shut up for 5 hours a day. It would also lower incidents of diagnosis of ADHD, especially in restless younger boys in grades where psychological development and aptitude feedback is crucial to get right.
  4. Lectures are boring and too variable in quality. An uncommonly great teacher may only be able to reach 20 students while the rest get mediocre or bad lectures. There is no reason to keep things this way when technology can replace lectures with professionally produced multimedia at home. Animations and stories teaching algebra and calculus for example.
  5. If you go to the bathroom or zone out during a lecture, you are faced with big dilemmas, having to copy notes from classmates. Here you just rewind. A kid can even pause the lecture for 2 hours and go play basketball or watch another one, finishing this one when they want. Truancy would be greatly reduced.
  6. Note taking would not be compulsory and you wouldn’t be training kids to be 2nd century Roman scribes. Instead you’d be ingraining habits about learning online which they will carry for the rest of their life. For 99% of us all the material is already written clearly online. Note taking should be optional.
  7. It would actually be cool among kids to be educated because these kids would get access to programs the remedial kids didn’t. So we would foster a desire and self motivation in kids to learn. Both teachers and kids would be motivated in their remedial classes to prepare kids for comprehending lectures of the next day. Going to a remedial class means that the next day’s tests are likely to be guaranteed pass. If these remedial classes get the kid to eventually start consistently scoring above Adequate, into Solid Mastery, both the kid and the teacher are rewarded.
  8. Which brings me to granularity, measurability and accountability. The interaction of teachers and students would be in a smaller classroom setting, and more effective. Struggling would be caught early. Each subject would be broken down into very granular modules (one a day). A kid falling behind would be seen a mile away.

This is an example of actually refactoring the system to take advantage of existing technology and aligning the incentives and delivery mechanisms of the system with what what technology has made possible. It has been possible for 15 years now via internet and 40 years via VHS. It’s about time this has been tried.

An app to facilitate this would have additional benefits over regular textbooks and infrequent exams:

  • It could enable instant scoring of quizzes, which until now was not possible, by having students take the quizzes on their phones, or scanning a multiple-choice result. This would allow instant decisions about who needs additional help that day.
  • If a student puts the app in the background (e.g. to look things up on the internet) this could alert the teacher, and thus prevent “cheating”. The teacher could have some whitelisted sites inside the app which the students would be allowed to use as reference on quizzes.
  • The daily quizzes could double as attendance, proving not just that the student was there, but how they did.
  • There would be a feedback mechanism between a marketplace of study material (videos, lectures, articles, etc.) and how well students do the next day. Unlike textbooks which are updated once a year, we’d have teachers and students across 1,000 classrooms testing and refining each module for each day, resulting in measurable improvements over time.

But the question is more about bureaucracy. Given the way public schools are run today, would a principal and teachers ever be willing to try something new? It may be impossible to reform the system so drastically all at once. And what would we do with all those kids and their free time? Wouldn’t this lead to more bullying and abuse as maturing 11 year old kids are stuck in a building for 8 hours a day?

I used to believe the only avenue for trying this system are private and charter schools, but now I see that many public schools are open to testing out such new apps and ideas to flip the classroom, on a smaller level. Luckily, my company is in a position start making these kinds of apps in a couple years!


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