Rising Complexity Across the Board

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Online learning is the future – so don’t get left behind

The last time I wrote about online learning was in July 2011. Luckily for me, several of my predictions quickly came true. I said that online education courses would be free and supported by public interests in philanthropy, governments and big corporations; peer groups would help students to learn online better; and online learning is the future of learning.

These ideas have now been found to be true by none other than the Director of Research at Google, Peter Norvig. He started with the obvious assumption that one-to-one learning face-to-face was perhaps the best method, but soon found, through his and his colleagues’ detailed experiments with online learning, that ultimately there was not a huge difference between machine (online) learning (with peer assisted networks and more) compared with face-to-face learning.

Where I got it wrong was that the peer to peer groups I speculated about did not proliferate on social media like Facebook (they still may), but for now student peer groups have a few other sites as listed by Norvig. I can only be delighted by all these!

As the new Modi government pushes online education in India, I am in seventh heaven. India’s education problem is huge and online education is a Godsend. Quota systems are not a solution to India’s problems, but online education, for all who want it, is. But more on that some other time. For now, I want to focus on why online education is a must for everyone around the world throughout their lives. You sort of know it, and suspect it’s true, but still you have doubts and hence this spiel:

Have you ever known how much you need to know that you don’t yet know? Most people have opinions (me too!) and they take them for granted, but as soon as you question them on facts that led them to that opinion you find they have little knowledge, very often wrong facts and even the wrong understanding. Facts are now easily accessible through searches on the internet, so learning to find facts continuously, correctly and vetting them appropriately, is central to forming opinions. This is just one reason for life long online education.

My worst fears are imagined when I meet board members and directors of many leading, and even cutting-edge organisations, and find that not only do they lack facts, they shun complexity, are afraid of it and in turn are afraid to form the solid opinions necessary for their businesses to strategise and succeed. As soon as you talk of even simple things, they feel overwhelmed by their ignorance. I am routinely told, “What you say is too complex, simplify it”. As one of the best simplifiers of complex things (as my friends know me), I find that many board members do not understand even the basics.

Suppose you are in insurance and don’t know what ‘Injury Biomechanics’ means! Or you are a programmer acquiring a software start-up and do not know what ‘Parsing’ means. Or an academic and you don’t know what ‘declension’ does to languages! God help you! Online education can!

As Peter Norvig notes, the success of online education should not be measured by how many students took and cleared an exam, or with what credit, but rather by how each person achieved the objective they set for themselves within their learning framework. As to the board members, I have bad news. Life is not simple anymore and you need to brace complexity or exit the boards and spare your organisations more failures!

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