Obsoleting education

The market (i.e. money) costs of learning include: cost of textbook, cost of lecture, cost of interaction and grading. There remains a substantial non-market cost of learning: the time and effort required to study a subject in enough depth to make a noticeable difference in the student's life. You will learn something by reading Stephen Hawking's easily digestible popular books on physics, but it will make little difference in your life. Put a lot of effort into the subject over several years, and it's a different story.

In recent years universities have been putting a lot of their course material online, but it hasn't led to an intellectual revolution among the non-university-attending public. Doubtless there must be individuals who are ravenously consuming all this free education, but for the vast majority of us, it simply requires more effort and time than we're willing to put into it. Since it is costly to learn, we might try alternative ways of making the knowledge work for us, ways that sidestep the process of becoming educated.

When it comes to trivia, and to certain other kinds of knowledge, Google and other online resources that provide answers as they are needed are effective substitutes, sometimes. So we can in some cases skip the step of learning the knowledge we need to have at our fingertips. One might imagine taking this to an extreme: just anybody might fix a car or perform heart surgery or do any other task that in today's world requires specialized knowledge, by using some device that feeds him the knowledge he needs on an as-needed basis, much as Google today feeds us knowledge on an as-needed basis.

Or the knowledge might not even need to enter our heads at all in order for us to employ it and benefit from it. We can embody some kinds of knowledge in devices. It used to be that in order to create a photograph, somebody had to prepare and operate a darkroom, which was a complicated process that required training. Now that digital has almost completely replaced film photography, all the knowledge needed to create a photographic print from beginning to end is embodied in devices which can be bought for a few hundred dollars - less if your only ambition is to share the image electronically. As technology develops, more knowledge is being embedded into devices. Of course, the manufacturer needs to have that knowledge, but the end-user is now spared any dependence on experts such as local photo lab technicians.

So, why can't we just Google just anything that we need to know now, or use a device that embodies the knowledge?

The most obvious difference between education and and ignorance-plus-database is speed. A translator who knows both source and target languages is much faster than a translator who knows only one and relies entirely on a dictionary for the other. Searchable online databases narrow that gap somewhat, but there's still a large gap in speed between an expert and a novice using electronic tools.

Another difference is that some kinds of knowledge are not easily represented in an as-needed format. To ride a bicycle you need to have practiced it over a certain period of time. There is no way you can Google each twist of the handlebars. That's partly a problem with speed (there is no way to search for the answer quickly enough), but that's only part of it. We just have no way of turning linguistically or pictorially represented instructions into the actual skill of staying balanced. Really, nobody actually teaches anybody else how to ride a bicycle (or, for that matter, to walk). It's something that the student has to do on his own. All that anyone else can do is put the student in an environment where he can teach himself. And this necessarily takes effort and time. There are no short cuts. (On the other hand, in the future, all bikes might come equipped with Segway-like self-balancers, just as cameras increasingly come with technology that compensates for shaky hands.)

Another difference is that in many cases the key question is, "okay, now what do I do?" Google can't answer that, and even an expert would have trouble answering the question unless he was essentially looking over your shoulder. Experts can take in a situation and know what to do, but an online database needs a specific question in order to produce a specific result, and knowing what question to ask may itself require knowledge which a non-expert does not have. Still, it might be possible to abbreviate the learning process by learning what questions to ask when, rather than tediously memorizing all the answers.

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my computer thinks for me

well not really but knowing what kind of questions to ask to approach even conplex concepts can be learned in a short time.  Databases like westlaw, edgar and bloomberg, by way of example,  can be easy to navigate after a 30 minute info session.  And then there's the 24 hour hotline to make sure you find exactly what your looking for.  It's only going to get easier and easier.  Remember when people put crap like "internet research skills" on their resume's?