I went into education because I learned from my friends at Google how important it is to aim high. Ever since I started working at Google, I have felt I should spend my time on things that really matter when they are successful. I believe online education can make a difference in the world, more so than almost anything else I’ve done in my life.
Access to high-quality education is way too limited. The United States has the world’s most admirable higher education system, and yet it is very restrictive. It’s so hard to get into. I never got into it as a student. There are also fascinating opportunities that exist today that did not exist even 20 years ago.
The conventional paradigm in education is based on synchronicity. We know for a fact that students learn best if they’re paired one-on-one with a mentor, a tutor. Unfortunately, we can’t afford a tutor for every student. Therefore, we put students into groups. And in these groups, we force students, by and large, to progress at the same speed. Progression at the same speed can cause some students — like me, when I was young — to feel a bit underwhelmed. But it can also cause a lot of students to drop out.
A lot of students, when they aren’t quite up to the speed that’s been given to them, get a grade like a C. But instead of giving them more time to get to the mastery it would take to get an A, they get put into the next cohort, where they start with a disadvantage, with low self-esteem. And they often end up at that level for the rest of their student career.
Salman Khan, whom I admire, has made this point very clearly by showing that he can bring C-level math students to an A+ level if he lets them go at their own pace. So what digital media allow us to do is to invent a medium where students can learn at their own pace, and that is a very powerful idea. When you go at your own pace, we can move instruction toward exploration and play-based learning.
When I enter a video game, I learn something about a fictitious world. And in that video game, I’m allowed to go at my own pace. I’m constantly assessed — assessment becomes my friend. I feel good when I master the next level. If you could only take that experience of a video game back into student learning, we could make learning addictive. My deep, deep desire is to find a magic formula for learning in the online age that would make it as addictive as playing video games.
So the “gamification” of education is a good thing?
I\’m hesitant to say that gamification is a good thing, because it comes with many superficial things. And I don\’t wish to replace a master\’s degree in physics with mastery in Angry Birds. That\’s obviously not good enough. But on the other hand, when you play Angry Birds, there is no lecture, there are no office hours, there is no final exam. You get in, and many of us get addicted. So you could take the addiction and excitement and personalization of Angry Birds back into mainstream learning and marry the best of both worlds — go after very deep academic topics but do it with playfulness, with student choice, with student empowerment, and with active exploration. Then, I think we can change everything.
I’ve read that you feel the high points of your life are when you feel stupid, because you\’re confronted with something that you don\’t understand and you have an opportunity to learn. Is that true?
Yes. It\’s true that for me the biggest moments are when I have a new insight. And one of the reasons why I love to venture into new territories is because I don\’t know what the solution is, so it affords me a chance to explore and to learn something new. With the desire to learn comes the acknowledgement that I don\’t know, otherwise no learning would take place. And in the presence of ignorance, it follows logically that I will make poor choices, make mistakes that in hindsight could have been easily avoided. Those are called failures. So failures are an essential component of the process of innovation. If there are no failures, I\’m not really innovating.
Therefore, failures make me very proud. I\’m actually happy to fail, because it gives me a chance to learn and iterate and avoid the same mistake in the future. I honestly believe that if we were to embrace failure as much as success, and celebrate failure as much as success, then we could shed the fear of failure. And if you shed the fear of failure, then you\’d be much more able to make the right choices.