Ken Robinson: The Post-industrial Education will be Network-based

This video from Sir Ken Robinson presents a modern critique of public education.  “The Problem”, as he puts it, is that the modern system of education is out-of-date.  It was conceived in the 19th century to serve the Industrial Revolution, and as such it is predicated on a factory metaphor.

The realization that we are now (in the United States) in a post-industrial revolution — i.e., the Information Revolution — helps reveal the deficiencies of the industrial educational model in an largely interconnected society.  A new model is called for, that is conceived as a network, rather than an assembly line.

To understand a model of education that is suited to a post-industrial economy, we must understand the types of interactions that take place with regard to sharing knowledge.  There are three types, and the first isn’t really “inter”-personal at all:

  1. Self-learning.  This is the type of learning mythologized by Matt Damon in the movie Good Will Hunting.  The disadvantage is that students will make lots of mistakes — i.e., their learning will be inefficient.  The advantage is that the knowledge students discover for themselves is likely to be more profound and longer-lasting, and prepare them to create new knowledge thru research.
  2. Learning from a teacher.  This is the model that most US students become familiar with in their K-12 experiences.  In this model, the teacher identifies the learning objectives, designs the exercises, and assesses student progress.  The advantage is that a good teacher will discover what is most efficient and effective, thereby accelerating student progress.  The disadvantage is that teachers are expensive, especially when learning is inefficient despite following the teacher’s lesson plans.
  3. Peer-to-peer learning.  Particularly at residential colleges, students will often form study groups where they learn from one another.  The advantage is that peer-to-peer interaction often helps students of all aptitude levels.  The disadvantage is that group work might be perceived as violating the frequent admonishment to “do your own work” or risk being accused of cheating.  Moreover, where student grades are based upon relative performance, there are disincentives to assist each other.  Lastly, peer-to-peer learning can be inefficient without expert leadership, and getting several people together at the same place and time can be problematic.

All three of these types of learning are typically expected in many college classrooms.  However, they do not all relate to advances in information-communication-technology (ICT) in the same way.  For example, in peer-to-peer and self learning, costs are coming down rapidly.  Ironically, in Higher Education (which is dominated by the teacher-led model), costs continue to rise.  This may be in part because teacher-led instruction has hardly been changed a whit by ICT.  Although more lectures than ever are posted on the internet, most models of on-line instruction involve minimal interaction between the teacher and the on-line students — at least compared with traditional classes.

Traditional teacher-led instruction already uses a broadcast model, where one expert is delivering a monologue.  While it’s now widely recognized that the Internet multiples the potential audience by thousands of times, the basic broadcast model is not necessarily changed.  The economics of this model of teaching places students in direct competition with one another.  That is, the addition of one more student to the class diminishes the attention that other students can receive from the expert.  The only consolation is that once a class gets pretty big (say, more than 40 students), the marginal loss to each existing student by adding another is very small, because few students were genuinely expecting quality interaction with the teacher anyway.  Thus, the economics of on-line courses dictate extremely large classes, where the cost of adding additional students is small and the loss of quality in the experience is minimal.

However, the rapid expansion of ICT has resulted in an explosion of self-learning by making instructional materials extremely inexpensive.  Students now have unprecedented access to archival material, including instructional videos such as those published by Khan Academy, and on-line courseware such as MITx.  Unfortunately, self learning does not result in the credentials necessary to communicate mastery to society.

Peer-to-peer instruction has similarly exploded, and not just via Skype or other technologies that allow distance tutoring, but through websites such as or that allow students to share solutions to homework problems.  Moreover, the videos on Khan Academy do not exist entirely unto themselves — they also invite comments from viewers that can ask questions, write comments that provide answers, or clarify aspects of the video that are unclear.

It is in peer-to-peer learning that Higher Education might find the greatest potential for improvement, albeit at the expense of narrow, albeit cherished, ideals of academic integrity. This is because peer-to-peer instruction is subject to what is called the Network Effect.  Unlike a traditional classroom, addition of new people in a network makes the network more valuable to everyone else already on the network.  Massive economies of scale result.  So in a peer-to-peer learning environment, more students means more knowledge, more interaction, and a better experience for everyone.

Whereas peer-to-peer learning used to be limited by the number of people that could fit around a table, ICT now allows thousands of people to interact without having to be in the same space at the same time.  What hasn’t happened yet (at least not in a formal sense) is a hybrid model in which an expert teacher provides the learning objectives, structures some of the learning activities, moderates the interactions, validates the credentials, but peers conduct the assessments.  We do see the beginning of peer assessment (such as rating comments on YouTube), but we have yet to see a formal course offering that masters assessment in such as way that captures the network effect.

Nevertheless, this hybrid model seems to be the future of Higher Education.  We will likely see fewer Instructors, larger classes, much, much lower costs, and an enormous effort to integrate ICT and social media into college courses.  Most importantly, the expectations of the students and faculty have lagged the technology.  That is, students generally do not feel like part of a learning ecosystem just because a course incorporates social media.  For example, they don’t necessarily feel a responsibility to post, or comment, or answer questions from other students.  Where these options are already available on-line, they’re almost always exploited by intrinsically motivated individuals (except perhaps for some top-rated Amazon reviewers, who do get perks), where 20% of the people do 80% of the work.  But that could change.

Related articles

4 thoughts on “Ken Robinson: The Post-industrial Education will be Network-based

  1. Clinton Laulo

    This was an interesting video for me to watch. I have a child with ASD that has taken a stimulant for about 4 years now. He has gone from the lowest form of self contained class to a mainstream class where he is outperforming the neurotipical children. I don’t believe this would have been possible without the concerta pills; however I do believe he is held back by the conformity and standardization. This is good to think about, but the bigger problem is a new system and how to maintain quality without any standard of measure. I suppose this is why charter schools are on the rise.

  2. Jonathan Edgington

    Comments inspired by: Ken Robinson: The Post-industrial Education will be Network-based via @seagertp #cee300
    I am a firm believer in the Socratic convention. Also I agreed that the answers in text books without the worked out solutions are no good for most students.
    Further assembly line teaching needs to stop in order for diversity of thoughts and ideas to reach fruition.

  3. Abdul Rahman AL Hammadi

    I really like this video especially when he compared between old school and school in 21st Century. Students in past the work hard to get a job but nowadays students don’t. I am with the point that the reason why many students don’t get attention in class, yeah it’s really because of boring stuff, nothing interesting.

  4. Cody Abides (@SlowOpeningDoor)

    The video talks about the old habits of the school system. Students are being force-fed education in a system that is designed for the masses. This generalization of education leaves some students left grasping for more while society deems them as being inferior.

    The 3 types of learning discussed are: 1) learning on your own at your own pace stuff that only interests you, 2) being crammed full of stuff that someone from somewhere decided it was relevant to living in this current world, and 3) learning from peers who are going through the same problems at similar times so they can progress forward as a unit.

    This model directly relates to my Physics II class. It was an online only class of 70+ students. I never once had any interaction with the teacher: no lectures, no nothing. All that happened was the TA (who lives in Virginia and chatted online) answered question about the homework and every once-in-a-while we had to get together for a test. The class created a Facebook page so we could ask questions. A few people would have an issue with a problem and then someone would post their own solution or a link to a worked out solution so it could be seen how it was done.

    This did help with learning but I could not help but constantly wonder how much money the teacher for that course got paid.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s