I was watching an interview on television that I found to be quite fascinating. Three of the richest and most successful businessman in the world were being interviewed about issues of equality and opportunity in the modern day world. The general consensus was that it is critical to have equal opportunity with the expectation that there would be on equal outcomes. Put another way, everyone should have access to a university quality education, but the endpoint will be that some people will earn much more than others.
I fully appreciate how controversial this issue is, and as I have mentioned before, I personally am very much a socialist when it comes to issues of health care and education. In my case, the type of socialism I believe in is one that gives people a hand up, versus a hand out. Within the socialized system I grew up in, in Canada, and now live in here in Israel, the cost of university is a fraction of what it is in the United States. The quality of education is equivalent to top level schools in the world. But debt accrued purely from paying tuition, never reaches anything close to the $150,000 that an American student can easily attain.
I very specifically referred to “a university quality education” above. There is a very real question as to whether physical presence in the classroom is necessary to achieve a top-flight learning experience. Admittedly, lab-based courses require a different type of participation than a course in the social or political sciences. But even in medical school, the first year and a half of my studies were attended remotely by a few of my classmates. Using printed notes and tapes, these far-off students were nevertheless present for all examinations. It was only towards the third-year of the MD, that physical presence on the wards was required. So even with medicine, before the Internet, people could receive their training from far away.
Of course, the Internet changes everything. In the developing world, access to the Internet from a smart phone is enough for an individual to become educated in a huge range of topics. Computer science is a huge area of interest right now across the world, and the “labs” are all done on a computer. As such, the person taking the computer science course can watch lectures live or previously recorded, and submit all of their work from anywhere in the world.
One of the purported advantages of attending a specific university is networking. The physical presence of a student at the front of a top professor’s class could be the difference between getting a PhD position or not. On the other hand, so much of our human interaction is now online, that the whole concept of being “top of mind” has fundamentally changed. I think it is fair to say that a student who makes informed and uniquely intelligent comments on a university based online forum, also has a good chance of catching influential people’s eyes. More so, as younger professors with their anatomically connected iPhones, replace the previous generation of educators, online presence will likely be more important than physically attending class.
Going back to the topic of medical education, remote teaching is already extremely well established. Many physicians complete their annual requirement for continuing medical education by reading materials online and then answering digital questions. More and more conferences post their lectures as online videos, and I have personally “attended” many conferences in this way. Some major conferences have an entirely virtual component. Perhaps the top medical technology conference called HIMSS, has an entire virtual version, that allows attendees to listen to lectures and interact with various sponsors. The viewership of a top-flight set of lectures given by the TED organization, is primarily online. There is a local audience that attend the lecture live. But the vast majority of people who watch these lectures, do so from a screen.
I will take a moment to repeat my fascination and appreciation for Microsoft’s latest augmented reality technology called HoloLens. Anyone who is seen a demonstration of this technology can easily appreciate how we are on the crux of a totally immersive virtual experience that can easily fool the mind into thinking that one is physically sitting in a classroom with thousands of other students. Augmented reality, especially ones it is encapsulated into a low-cost device affordable by almost anyone in the world, will cause people to reevaluate the need for travel to meetings and educational opportunities. In the early versions of augmented reality, the only thing that really will be missing is the ability to physically shake the hand of the professor. And I should point out that there are technologies that will allow for this experience as well. These “haptic” technologies are still primarily in development. But like everything else, they will be upon us before we realize it.
Laboratory work will be possible within an augmented reality, with the difference being the way in which components are manipulated. Instead of physically holding a test tube, a user will manipulate a hologram of the test tube. Hand gestures will allow the user to tilt the test tube to an exact degree in order to measure out a quantity of these solutions being studied. Basically, I suspect that within a generation, there really will not be any need for physical presence in a laboratory environment for medical students, or any students for that matter.
Part of the problem with this whole new approach to education, is that the educators themselves have grown up in and trained for an analog reality. The educators will need to develop a high level of comfort with these augmented reality tools, before they can readily use them to teach others. But this will happen, out of pure necessity. In practical terms, many laboratory experiences are created by teaching assistants, who are much younger than the professors, and who have already experienced singularity with their android phones. As such, the transition to these virtual realities will likely be less painful and less problematic than people are presently worried about.
The Internet and augmented reality will create an equal opportunity for almost anyone in the world. I don’t pretend for a second that an individual living in abject poverty, in India, will as easily complete a university education, as a financially secure student attending Harvard. On the other hand, the Indian student will have an opportunity that did not exist even a few years ago. And if that Indian student can demonstrate a high level of proficiency in what ever topic is being studied, it is likely that the educational software will inform the educators in charge as to this user’s capabilities. It could very well be that a top-level think tank will be able to identify the top minds in India faster and better than ever imagined, once all of these technologies are brought to bear.
There are of course many questions that still need to be asked. Should such virtual educations cost as much as those provided in a physical university? Will there be standardization of a great deal of educational material such that the benefits of attending a top level university will be minimized? My personal opinion, not surprisingly, is that virtual universities should be as inexpensive as possible. And there’s nothing wrong with having a tiered system whereby those people of means pay more for the exact same product as those from a lower socioeconomic level. I would not pretend to have easy answers to all of these questions. I would like to believe that these questions will not delay the real-life implementation of these educational opportunities.
In Jewish culture, it has been recognized for thousands of years that education is fundamental to survival. The Internet provided me with educational opportunities that I would never have had otherwise. The idea that I can sit in my home in Jerusalem, and virtually attend countless important lectures, reaffirms my belief of how divinely special this time in history is.
Thanks for listening