/ Motivation

Fixing Education: Motivation and Freedom

Public education, at least in the US, only ever exposes you to one way of learning—top-down hierarchy, and assignments. While some people thrive in this environment, I am not one of them. After college, I was thrown into the world with a 2.1 GPA, no real skills, and no idea of what to do next. And I am not alone in that.

Since the system didn't work for me, I assumed I didn't like learning, and that "tougher" subjects like math and physics just weren't right for me. I bounced from career to career—UPS unloader, Pepsi warehouse manager, US diplomat—before realizing I could learn what I wanted to, on my own terms.

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I've detailed the how elsewhere, but the most interesting part of the story to me isn't how I learned, or even the outcome—it's how I flipped from learning being a chore to it being enjoyable. The key parts were freedom to explore, and being able to work on interesting problems (such as predicting the stock market).

In this post, I share the changes I believe we need in education. My points here will not apply to everyone, since education is not one-size-fits-all, but I do believe they're true for many people. Let's dive in.

Encourage motivation and exploration

This core problem of how to motivate students and give them freedom to explore is one that hasn't been addressed much in education (although that's changing slowly). Even online education, which can experiment a bit more, is still more or less locked into content delivery mode, with the innovation being around the mode of content delivery (video, interactive code, etc.).

To encourage motivation, you have to allow students to select both what they learn, and how they learn it. Someone who truly wants to learn can tackle the most boring math textbook, and come away understanding the concepts. An unmotivated student, however, may get turned off from being forced to read the book in the first place, the size of the book, or any other negative aspect.

When I started Dataquest two years ago, we were almost entirely about content delivery—we had interactive data science tutorials that asked students to write code to solve problems. Over time, we've evolved to helping students apply their knowledge by building more open-ended projects in the browser, then getting them reviewed. As students move up the stack of capability, learning becomes less and less content based, and more project-based.

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This way of learning allows you to become more independent. When you're writing your first Javascript application, you probably need to learn programming concepts and other basics first, which requires a lot of introductory content. However, once you've written 20 applications, and you're writing another application that uses Service Workers, a concept you haven't heard of yet, you might need the documentation and some feedback from a peer. As you gain skills, not only does how much help you need change, the type of help you need also changes.

Move to project-based learning

In "real world" work, you're basically just creating a series of projects. Each project is scoped to a certain amount of time, and is judged on its quality at the end. While you're building the project, you consult many resources to learn all the concepts you need. Because this is what real world work is like, it makes sense to learn using projects as well. The larger the gap between how you learn, and how something is done in the real world, the harder the transition will be.

Creating projects is also very motivating. Think of my earlier example about predicting the stock market—that's how I learned statistics. I found something interesting to me, and worked backwards to learn what I needed to complete the project.

I believe the ideal online learning environment is similar—you'd be able to learn some basics, pick projects that interest you, and only get the help you need to complete those projects. The help could be feedback from a mentor, documentation links, content, or anything else. This learning doesn't have to ever end — you can just keep tackling different areas of interest to gain skills.

Unfortunately, there are several challenges to building this style of learning. The foremost among them is there is no silver bullet for education. If you're in ride sharing, for example, you can make an app that connects riders and drivers, raise a lot of money, and say hello to hypergrowth.

In education, however, students have so many different goals and preferred methods of learning that building a new product takes a lot of time. You have to write and revise content, design a platform that supports that content, understand your students and how they learn, and then layer on all the other help methods I described earlier. Most of all, you have to be able to market what you're doing to outcome-driven students effectively. It's telling that most of the largest edtech companies (Pluralsight, Lynda, Coursera, Udemy) teach essentially the same way, which is very similar to how in-person classes are taught—structured courses with instructors talking at you.

Other challenges to building project-based learning include:

  • How to help students explore what interests them
  • How to figure out what help a student needs at what time
  • Designing engaging and effective projects
  • Figuring out how to match students with projects at the right skill level

This list is admittedly daunting to solve, but the impact would be huge.

The future

True lifelong learning could ensure that nobody ever has the wrong skills, or gets stuck in a career they dislike. Being able to motivate students that the traditional system is incompatible with could also help millions of people worldwide who don't have many opportunities post-school. This is a critical problem, especially when rising tuition costs only magnify the problem of unequal access to educational opportunities.

Despite the challenges, I believe there's a great opportunity in the next few years to build more engaging online learning experiences. Online education is still very new (the year of the MOOC was 2013), nontraditional credentials are becoming more and more accepted (especially in tech fields), and internet access is increasing rapidly.

Sooner or later, online education is going to offer a fundamentally better experience than in-person education—the question is just when.

If you have any thoughts on this post, or if you have strong opinions on education, I'd love to chat (especially if you disagree). Shoot me an email at vik@dataquest.io!