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Against the Yelp-ification of Education

Posted in Knerds on May 3, 2010 by

Why be limited by the arrow?

Josh Anish is the Senior Editor @Knewton.

The word local seems to be on the tip of every Internet-savvy person’s tongue lately. Google Local. FourSquare. Yelp (and its army of intimidators). The internet has infiltrated our neighborhoods. It can tell us to turn right instead of left, zig instead of getting hit by oncoming traffic.

Geo-targeting is all well and good if you’re looking for sushi (and I happen to agree with Yelp the eel and avocado roll at Yamato on my corner is the best for quite a radius). But the truth is that given my druthers, I would eat the best sushi in the world, not just on my block. I’m not sure where I’d find it, but I suspect that I’d have to board a plane and go to Japan. Airplane tickets, if you’ve looked recently, are ridiculously expensive. So every time I get the eel and avocado roll down the street at Yamato, I’m actually settling. Sure, the roll is unusually palatable but it’s far from the best in the world.

While it’s not terribly risky to settle for local sushi, education is another story. Food poisoning is nothing compared to ignorance.

I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the Internet will never be able to teleport eel from Tokyo Bay to my living room. (If it could, I would be the first in line.) What the Internet can do is beam the best teachers in the world to my desktop. And it can do so inexpensively.

DARPA first developed the Internet to protect communications networks in case of local catastrophe. In other words, if Cleveland got slammed by a nuclear warhead, people outside of Cleveland would be able to talk to the few survivors inside the city.

The distribution model still works today: I want the cheapest books and the best recordings and the most stylish Big and Tall clothing (surprisingly hard to find) and I don’t care where it comes from. The Big and Tall store on my block has a lot of XXXXL Bart Simpson T-shirts, but on Etsy I can find a saint who designs evening wear for men with long torsos, but oddly bony shoulders.

Now, one could make a Rousseauian argument that there is something about learning that requires a literal personal touch. That there is something Romantic about teaching that can’t be transmitted by a platform. I don’t buy it. The best learning experiences of my life have been transferred to me by people long dead. Last time I checked, I couldn’t touch Marcel Proust. Since he died the year before I was born, I can’t break bread with Martin Heidegger even though I reconcile the difference between being and becoming every time I make the coffee too strong. I could maybe lay a finger on Lenin in his mausoleum, but that would be weird, and I would undoubtedly get my ass kicked by several proud, anachronistic men.

So, now that that’s settled why not use the Internet to distribute the best instruction to students around the world?

Knewton is demonstrating to the marketplace that a live video classroom with a world-class team of teacher yields a superior, more efficacious learning experience. Students can interface with the best teachers on the planet and have their questions answered live by the leading minds in their chosen field. The distribution model has come to education via the internet; the upheaval will last a few years, but when the dust settles our students will be the beneficiaries.