Problems in Education
There is an ongoing debate of whether there is a higher education bubble in the USA . Some people say that is not correct to compare education and, e.g. houses, since houses are resalable assets, which can lead to fast price deterioration in case of a bear market. But it is not possible to resell your education to someone else. Others say that there definitely is at least a “student loan bubble”.
Time will show us how the situation evolves. However, let’s take a look at a few facts:
Tuition fees are over 550% higher today than in 1985, and college textbooks prices increased over 800% since 1978. Medical care, housing prices, and consumer price index didn’t grow that fast, not to mention the average income growth.
Current US student loan debt approaches $1.3 trillion, growing at a rate of over $3,000 per second.
Whether it is technically correct or incorrect to use the word bubble for the situation, most people would agree that it is scary and seems to be getting out of control, not only on the student end of the market, but also with high chances of colleges and universities going bankrupt.
There are multiple recommendations of what needs to be done, as well as explanations of the causes, with some of the most notable reasons named being fast tuition costs growth due to fast growth of administrative services and jobs, tenure, availability of loans, reduction of state and federal funding, increased demand for education due to prestige and foreign students, lack of protection of students due to federal law changes making it not possible to declare bankruptcy, making lenders interested to give as many loans as possible, and even more interested in students to default.
Many people are concerned about the problem and get involved in finding solutions, and hopefully they will. However, I would like to touch upon a different part of the value/price equation that is talked about not so often.
And the common understanding is that even if education might be not such a good investment anymore (especially for non-engineering education), the primary reason is believed to be the growing costs of education. The quality and value parts of education are perceived to be high (it could not be that expensive if it was not good) and there are little concerns about it.
I believe that the quality component of education is overlooked and needs at least no less attention than the price component. In particular, I want to talk about why books and textbooks are not adequate anymore.
My concers goes beyond textbook prices, even though they are increasing even faster than the cost of tuition itself (you can read about it here, here and here) and the textbook industry is inevitably approaching some changes.
Problems with Books and Reading
I believe the regular linear textbooks are no longer adequate, and I will tell you why, but first I want to show some stats.
In 2010 Google estimated the amount of book titles to be around 130 million. Since then the amount most probably has grown to around 140 million (last year the amount of new book titles published was around 2.2 million, and this year it approaches 1.5 million at the end of July). And these are just books, not to mentioned various other types of content. We are definitely seeing information overload.
At the same time, people read less. In 2014 almost one of four Americans did not read a single book. The median amount of books read was only five, with college graduates and high income individuals showing not a substantially better results, with their median being only 8 books.
And it is not only the amount of books read that is deteriorating. Average attention span decreased from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2015, with goldfish having that of 9 seconds. And there is a rise in digital amnesia, or as it is also named Google Effect (and I would say Evernote Effect as well), with up to 44% of people telling that smartphones serve as their memory, and everything they need to know or recall is on them.
As a result we can say that regular, linear (text)books are dead. They are not being read, they are hardly comprehended, and info in them is not retained in memory for later use.
It is still possible to produce regular books in millions per year, but the chances of them to be used are diminishing.
Linearity as the Key Problem of Books and Education
One of the key reasons for this is the format itself, its linearity. Here is a brief explanation why.
In any system or field of knowledge there is a relatively limited amount of elements (e.g. concepts, theories, experiments, scientists, etc.). The amount of possible connections between the elements is substantially bigger. There are tremendously more paths/ways you can talk or write about the key elements of a system and their interconnections. Let’s have a look at some numbers to understand how big the impact is.
The formula for number of unique connections in a network of a number of nodes (n) is n*(n-1)/2. At the same time there are n! different paths between the nodes.
|Number of elements (nodes)||Number of unique connections||Number of paths between nodes|
|10||45||3 628 800|
There is a limited amount of major building blocks, they can be connected in multiple ways. In reality the amount of potential connections is bigger, since, there can be various types and directions of connections (what impacts what and in what ways). However, not all the possible types of connections are important. The most important ones are cause and effect relationships, explaining how elements are interrelated (e.g. in scientific experiments and theories explaining them).
The column on the right demonstrates that you can create virtually endless amount of linear descriptions of relatively limited amount of basic elements. And in reality it is even worse than the right column of the table shows, since we listed only the amount of paths between the basic nodes, and did not include connections (while real text describe relationships as well) and did not consider additional variability we can see in languages (e.g. use of synonyms, ways to construct sentence, etc.). As a result, the linear textual formats in real life make it possible to have virtually limitless amount of ways to describe reality or even a relatively small system or field of knowledge, let’s say containing several hundreds of basic structural elements.
Virtually endless amount of possible paths around major components and their relationships makes linear format great for fiction and entertainment. But it is very inefficient for learning. Same is true for the rest of the linear formats used in education, including video, audio and lectures.
This way of education was more or less acceptable when there were small amount of books, especially before mass-printing, and definitely before the internet.
Nowadays, the fact that the linear textual formats are still predominant in education is one of the key factors that limits ability of people to learn. Unfortunately, same outdated and inefficient format is duplicated in “new technologies”, including MOOCs, most of educational software, etc. The linear textual formats that primarily produce more new paths than educational value are at the heart of the educational system that is about to face the concrete wall in the form of educational bubble bursting.
The linear textbook is dead not (only) because there are newer formats available, the primary reason is that it becomes less and less valuable. People read less, are worse at comprehending and memorizing, while the amount of linear content, including books is growing exponentially. Five books read per year are the tool that an average American is using to to navigate the ocean of millions of books titles published each year, not to name books of the previous years and other types of content.
The evident solution would be to eliminate or minimize the amount of documented paths between primary components of any system or domain, limiting the covered info to the major building blocks and primary relationships, yet providing easy ways for the user (reader) to navigate.
Here are some of the ways to fight against documenting and spending time on multiple linear paths:
- Create/use lists of primary building blocks relevant to any subject, system or field of study. This strips down the amount of data to the bare minimum (see the the left column of the table above get the general idea of such a reduction). Lists are well known and used to help memorize the most important info (think of 10 Commandments, various Buddhist lists, glossaries, etc.). Unfortunately, lists make it very difficult to show and establish any relationships between list items. Nested lists help to show hierarchical parent/child relationships in a way that is not substantially multiplying the amount of info. The good thing about lists is that is possible to manage them in almost any type of software or on paper. But lists are boring and hard to memorize and recall later.
- And this is exactly what flashcards help to solve. Flashcards software, especially with spaced repetition algorithms, can make memorizing boring lists an easier and more effective task. Ready decks of flashcards are essentially ready lists of data.
- Another interesting solution could have been mind maps, especially the early ones that were created by hand. Essentially mind maps are nested lists, though with some spatial orientation, which is important for recall and provides an easier way to show other relationships. However, the software for mind maps decreased value of the approach, transforming it more into a fancy way to create lists, since software ruins spatial orientation of topics each time new piece of data is added or next level is opened/closed. Software minimized the spatial benefits that could aid memorization (I covered it in more detail in one of my previous posts). There are some other useful benefits in mind mapping software, e.g. ability to add notes, which is hard to make with regular ways of creating lists.Anyway the essence of the method is another way of organizing hierarchical lists.
- Test preparation solutions typically have linear textual methods at their basis. However, since they limit the amount of info learned and engage you in active recall activities, they can be effective for memorizing info on a specific topic. In essence the solutions are also a form of (spaced) repetition software. Though they can be effective on certain topics, e.g. STEM and ACT test preparations, a person relying on such solutions for her education can be completely unprepared to handle less popular topics, e.g. needed for future educational or professional life.
- Solutions using spatial mechanisms to boost learning, understanding, memorization. The basis of human memory is spatial (e.g. 90% of world memory champions use the spatial Method of Loci technique as the basis for their memory systems). One needs to position info in space to have it organized. In real world packing things in boxes or baskets is not enough to have order, it is important to put each box in a certain place. Same is true for knowledge organization. To establish relationships one needs to specify how things are related to each other in space. Languages strongly rely on spatial mechanisms and embodied cognition, with thousands of words being based on spatial metaphors. And finally, it is very easy to navigate/travel in space, which makes it possible to fight the key problem of linear content - tremendous amount of redundant paths generated (right column of the table above demonstrates it), documented and distributed by various authors. Spatially organized documents help readers travel the multiple paths themselves. All the above mentioned features of spatially organized documents make them an ideal solution for educational content. Our solution SpatialNote is an example of a spatial learning tool/platform, but we really hope that other EdTech vendors will invent their own ways to step into the spatial world for improving education.
Example of a Spatial Textbook
OpenStax is a wonderful global repository of educational content. The platform stores free educational content available for remix and editing. In particular, it currently offers 16 high-quality free textbooks for colleges as well as other content.
We decided to convert these textbooks into SpatialNote format and make it possible for everyone to create a free copy of these documents that can serve as the basis for organizing all further knowledge on the subjects. The document still contains linear texts, but this linearity is present on the local level only, while the major structure is organized spatially. Even though simply converting regular linear documents will not use the full potential of spatial metaphors and embodied cognition for organizing the info (compared to documents specifically created to use the mechanisms), they still can be a great demonstration of potential of non-linear spatial educational textbooks.
I’d like to introduce the first spatial textbook in the series - Sociology. Click on the image below to explore the document. Please open the window in Fullscreen mode for better visibility. And please allow some time for the document to fully load and render (It is a document equivalent to around 500 printed pages that need to be loaded and rendered in 3D. Opening 500 new internet pages is a computer intensive task, same is true for our document). It can take from couple of minutes on faster computers to around five on slower ones to fully load and render, but should work fast afterwards).
We also split the whole textbook into 2 parts so that those working on really slow computers could still take a look, spending less time.
We plan to publish other OpenStax textbooks later, stay tuned! And better yet, create your own spatial documents and textbooks and share them with others (it is now possible to share created documents with others and embed them in web-pages).
Nowadays education approaches hard times, more and more people see little value or cannot afford higher education at current prices, cognitive abilities deteriorate and information overload gets more and more severe.
It becomes extremely important to acquire effective learning methods and techniques not only not to waste your almost quarter of a million US dollars spent on education, but to become a lifelong learner, capable of staying or becoming competent and knowledgeable either for employment or even more so for becoming an entrepreneur and employing others. Those who cannot justify going to college are even in a higher need for effective learning methods and tools.
Current educational system is busy with various political and financial questions and issues. As a result you can rarely read or see initiatives aimed at the core issues, one of them being the linear way to present most educational materials.
That means that nobody will solve really big educational challenges for you in the foreseeable future. And it is better to start being concerned with more effective ways to study early, ideally at least at the end of the middle school, to get prepared both for the college and get much more from the years spent in the college. Those who are already past this ideal time to establish powerful educational approaches, in fact have even higher need to have them.
And I hope that this article was at least a little bit of help to see some of the key issues making education not effective, as well as to see a general direction of how to cope with the issues.
As for linear textbooks, of course they can still be of use. But it is important to understand that they should be considered more of supplementary material to your own centralized and ideally spatially organized system of knowledge. In this case you will be able to read more textbooks faster, comprehend them better and use them as yet another way to improve your memory by repeating the info, only occasionally adding new valuable info to you life-long system of knowledge.