“This is The Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done”

I’ll start with a quick story.

I work with students at One Month, and we do a lot of one-on-one sessions where I can troubleshoot common problems that people have when building apps.

One day, a student reached out who was having trouble with images not working correctly in their Rails app. I had seen a few errors that could happen at this point in the project, so I was confident that I could get this fixed. I followed up and we scheduled a screen sharing session.

As the session progressed, I started to panic. This was a new problem, one I had never seen before, and none of my usual fixes were working. Over the next 30 minutes I tried several different things, walking through some more obscure troubleshooting techniques. As a last measure, I decided it would be best to have the student continue through the lesson with the code not working and we’d reconvene at a later date.

I felt defeated.

That’s when I saw the problem: we were missing the image rendering code. Once we added this bit of code, the project worked and the student was back on track. Hooray!

As I walked to the train that night, I replayed the session in my head, trying to figure out what happened. In that moment, I realized something about the learning process:

You are either doing something easy because you’ve done it before, or it’s the hardest thing that you’ve ever done, because it’s new.

When faced with a new problem, something you have never seen before, it will always be the hardest problem you’ve ever faced.

During that screenshare, I faced, at that point in my life, the hardest problem that I ever had to face, and it was new. It wasn’t what I had expected and nothing was working.

I had no clue what I needed to do and no idea where to go.

I think that as learners, we often forget this idea. We forget that we are forging new pathways in our personal atlas. It is in these moments that we have to accept that the problem is hard. It’s hard because we don’t have answers, and we don’t know how to figure it out yet. Not only do we not know the solution, we don’t know how to go about figuring it out. This feels really frustrating. But that’s the whole point: to challenge ourselves to find those answers.

The point is learning.

In 2015, Omies decided that we would make personal resolutions. We even went so far as to write them down and share them publicly so you all could hold us accountable. My resolution was to make more music. I share new work and music links every week on my public Trello board. Every week I sit down with the goal of “drawing a musical sketch.”

It has been really hard. It’s hard because it’s so far from where I want to be, and being bad at something for a while isn’t always the most fun place to be. When you’re learning, there’s a lot of frustration. Most people give up when it gets hard, but there’s something that happens when you figure it out. When I get frustrated with my weekly musical sketch or want to quit I think back to my screenshare:

“It’s the hardest thing that I’ve ever done, until it’s easy.”

The Case for Online Education

I have a prediction: Not only will online education eventually be as good as offline education, it will be better.

The honeymoon is over. People are writing about how online education will never replace offline education. I’d like to challenge that view. Not only will online education eventually be as good as offline education, it will be better.

Saying that online education will never be as good as offline is like taking one look at a Model T, saying that it’s unsafe, and urging everyone to switch back to horses.

The reason online classes will eventually be better than offline classes is simple:

We can measure and respond to students’ behavior much more easily and quickly when education is digital than when it is analog.

On the other hand, what makes for a good teacher in a classroom setting? A good teacher is someone who can:

  • Come up with compelling content that explains complicated topics
  • Take in a lot of information about how students are responding to that content
  • Adjust the style based on that information quickly

A good teacher

A good teacher can see the look in a student’s eyes and tell immediately whether a particular topic is resonating or not. He or she has the ability to reiterate a point and respond to questions in real time. That’s what we mean when we say that an in-person classroom experience is more “personal.”  It’s hard to imagine online education being able to match that anytime soon.

But let’s suspend disbelief for a second. In theory, a computer can take in vastly more information than a human can and respond to it much faster. According to Scientific American, two years ago the fastest computer could store almost ten time as much data as the human brain and process it almost four times as fast.

Imagine what a good teacher could do if he or she knew where exactly a student was getting confused during a lesson. Or how long it took that student to complete an exercise. Or even the student’s physiological responses to the content (say, for example, by tracking heart-rate or eye movements via webcam — forget about the creepy-factor).

There are a handful of education startups already tracking some of this data. But they’ve barely scratched the surface of how to use it to make education more compelling.

This brings me to my second and more pressing point:

The biggest problem with in-person education is that it forces a linear, one-size-fits-all teaching style.

In any classroom, there will be some students that are behind and some that are ahead.

Even the best teacher in the world must deal with this tradeoff. It boils down to the following question: Should I slow down to help more students understand, or speed up to cover more material?

And so they inevitably end up settling on a pace and an educational approach somewhere in the middle.

Personalized Learning

Online education can solve this problem because it allows for personalized learning. Educational content and style can adapt to a particular student and that student’s response to a particular lesson.

Imagine a world in which no one person experiences the same class in the same way. One that adjusts a lesson on computer programming depending on whether a student already has previous experience with programming, or is a total beginner. Why not use concepts a student may already have to allow them to learn something faster?

One in which the way the material is delivered is different depending on whether the student is an auditory, a visual, or a kinesthetic learner.

One in which the order of the lessons themselves are rearranged. (Or A/B tested!)

Or one that can identify early that a student might get stuck in an upcoming lesson. Then takes him or her on a learning detour to reinforce important concepts. This could avoid frustration that might otherwise lead to abandonment.

Actually, you don’t have to imagine this world, because Salman Khan is already doing it with Khan Academy (watch 13:35 if you’re not yet sold on the value of personalized education).

Finally, advancements in online education allow teachers to treat classes in the same way that startups treat products.

Learning online is not a failure

There are tons of amazing tools out there for A/B testing, onboarding, gamification, email campaigns, measuring user satisfaction, and so much more that startups use. Why not apply the same tools to education? It’s going to happen, it’s only a matter of time.

That’s why it’s frustrating to hear people brush off online education as a failure that will never amount to anything. Let’s see the current batch of online educational classes and platforms as what they really are: a first attempt.

(This post was originally posted on the One Month Rails blog)