Greek Business File, April-May 2020, No 125

Interview by Harry Savidis


In the digital era, Education and Learning are not the same

In this exclusive interview Nicholas NEGROPONTE one of the pioneers in digital technologies describes the interconnection of kids with new technologies in learning and modern education

My daughter, 8 years old, complains she should not learn multiplication tables and spelling, given that, throughout her life, she will have to hand calculators and spell checkers. She also believes that her 3 year old sister should learn typing before writing. What would you answer?

Arguably, you do not have to learn much of anything, these days. You can just ask Siri or Alexa. That said, there are some basics, but math and spelling are different. Math is deeply conceptual, both abstract and practical. Numbers ought to be fun. So learning them is part of learning itself. Math is a veritable iceberg of knowledge with many, almost limitless levels of understanding.

Spelling, by contrast and depending on the language, can be quite arbitrary. English is the worst. Turkish is the easiest, because it is the most phonetic. The fascinating part of spelling should be your errors. We should encourage children to celebrate spelling errors, play with them, even find humor in them.

Typing, especially touch typing, is far more valuable than handwriting. I have personally suffered because I did not learn touch typing at school. 3-yearsold is a bit young for written language, as such, but by all means encourage the keyboard itself. By keyboard I mean using all fingers not just thumbs.

The100 year old education system

Most countries developed their education system 100-150 years ago, to equip workers with human capital required by the economy of that time. How should education systems change, to adapt to the new reality? Are predetermined curriculum, grades and exams still relevant in the 4th industrial age?

All countries think more about education than learning. Education and learning are not the same. The assumption is that one leads to the other. That is often not the case. If you learn some math basics at the expense of hating math, that is a bad bargain.

The reason we focus on education, as such, and optimize on a specific system of delivery and evaluation, is that we can measure those and, from the measurements, we think we can see levels of accomplishment in a child. Too often that accomplishment is merely an ability to take tests.

Almost everything we do in education is to make the administrative system manageable. For example, age segregation is one of the worst ideas in education, but almost all countries do it, because it is convenient. Likewise, grades, in the other sense (A, B, C…F) and testing should be abolished in favor of self-evidence in a child’s behavior. I am fond of reminding people that if you have to measure a result that may be because it is not big enough.

How could AI technologies be utilized in education?

The quick answer is teaching, with far more understanding of both the child and the subject matter. The longer and more profound impact will come from thinking about thinking. In the early days of AI and learning technologies, we viewed computer programming as a means of thinking about thinking, and the act of debugging as an approximation of learning learning. While this may sound abstract, it is very practical. A specific and delightful example is that kids who are computer programmers learn spelling differently, and often are better spellers because they are debuggers by nature. They share and joke about the misspelled words, versus sweep them under the carpet.

Does technological progress reduce or widen inequalities in access to know ledge?

Technological progress, in all due respect, does the opposite. While there may be a period of early adoption by the rich, the cost of entry usually drops very rapidly. Pubic education is key to getting these technologies into the lives of children. However, as a side note, the worst thing that ever happened to public education is private education.

One Laptop per Child

Years ago you wholeheartedly participated in one pioneering initiative to produce laptops cheap enough to be accessible for children in developing countries. How did this evolve?

One Laptop per Child (OLPC) was created as a non-profi t venture. That gave it a unique birthright, particularly because all of its own expenses and research were funded separately and philanthropically, not on the basis of sales. From this arose the ability to publicize OLPC bids, usually in the newspapers, long before a tender was due. Therefore, if any company wanted to win a public tender for children’s laptops, they had to be below our published number. The result was about 25 million laptops went into the hands of children who would never have received them otherwise. We only did about 4 million of those ourselves. But, that was enough to be a credible manufacturer and create huge downward pressure.

Is the teaching profession constrained by the strong relationship between universities and big companies?

Research comes in flavors. Simply speaking, they vary from basic to applied, the most basic of which should be open and widely published. At the applied end, corporate self-interests and competitive advantages mitigate for more closed and proprietary results.

The nature of academia itself argues for more open thus basic research. The Japanese used to call this “precompetitive research.” Some big companies like IBM and Microsoft have been active and strong partners in basic and open research. Others, most notably Apple, have been very closed. Ask yourself how many scientific papers you have read by scientists from Apple.

Is the teaching profession threatened by technological progress? Will jobs in education be curtailed in coming decades?

Every profession is both threatened and augmented by technological progress. 20 years ago we would not have imagined driving a car as something that could be automated. At the time, we more myopically looked at examples like the diminishing need for bank tellers, because of the growth and promise ATM machines. By extension, let’s not fool ourselves today.

We should stop thinking that there are distinctly human roles, due to intuition and imagination. Instead, think of it this way: where does delight come from? Why have some of us been able to enjoy lifetimes of play, play masquerading as work? Most people work to earn money to do what they really want to do. Is that perhaps the equation that will change?

The Greek diaspora and Greek culture

Despite criticism of the Greek public education system, its graduates often excel abroad. It could be Greek schools’ emphasis on mathematics (especially geometry) or the value of the Greek language (as a tool of thinking, analyzing and understanding). How do you feel about graduates of Greek schools and universities? Where do you attribute strengths and weaknesses?

The Greek diaspora are well known in academia and often business. I would attribute this more to culture and language than to some secret source in the public education system. Greek culture has a long history of global outreach, punching above its weight. Adding language, most notably the need to know more than just Greek, is a real exercise for the mind. Greeks grow up more prone to understand multiple points of view, because they vary between languages. As for any high rate of accomplishment, I won’t mention the slightly combative and over-competitive nature of Greeks.

Signifi cant breakthroughs have been announced recently, in the eff ort to develop quantum computers. Is this the next big thing?

It’s big and may be one of the next. I would claim that nuclear fusion is a bigger «next big thing,» and perhaps will not take much longer.

Nationalism, a dystopian phenomenon

Power and control capabilities offered by technology, can lead to dystopian regimes. By what rules will we prevent this? Is an adequate institutional framework sufficient or should our societies adopt wider changes in their moral context? Does education play a special role here?

For me, the most dystopian, worldwide phenomenon, growing and not shrinking, is nationalism. It has become a pandemic. Those of us who were part of the founding of the Internet believed (speaking mostly for myself) that connectivity would create a more united and understanding world, less dominated by the nation state, with fewer divisions and more common denominators. Well, so far, it has not worked out that way, not because of technology, but how we have elected to use it, more for private gain and less for pubic good.