July 20, 2019

Rethinking education

For this post we focus on higher education / college / university.


Current education comes from a time when:

  • knowledge transfer/sharing was expensive (pre-internet era)
  • knowledge changed slower (pace of innovation has increased)
  • people lived their whole life in the same area

Let’s address these topics!

Ease of knowledge transfer

Before the invention of books … let’s not go there. When everything was done in books, there was a lot of value in aggregated clusters of knowledge, which one could consume (learn).

Nowadays, with search engines (Google) and the internet, university libraries and physical archives are not needed for gaining knowledge.

I would argue that the facilitation of knowledge is not a requirement of a university anymore for one to gain knowledge (this is different from the creation of it).

Pace of innovation

Note; my field of study is IT (the lens through which I see).

Books were always a great source of knowledge. However, books need to be updated and the release of a book takes more than half a year, which already obsoletes parts of it.

In this fast paced world, we desire a medium that lets us changes the contents within a day (e.g. blog).

Nowadays, everyone can create materials which people can use to enrich themselves, from books and blogs to videos and games. Therefore the creation of educational material is not a requirement for a university.

Value of institution

When an university is close by, you have a sense of what type of people attend, which values they uphold, what quality of employees you can expect of them.

With globalization, this has become harder.

Value of education/curriculum

A diploma should show the (cap)abilities/knowledge/capacity/skills of an individual. The current system is vague; one completes an education, gets a diploma. Employers do not know exactly what the curriculum was and how it was tested; the value is usually tied to the name of the institution.

Value of assessment

An institution that has a good reputation does its testing/assessment well. To be able to do this well, the ones verifying the subject at hand need to be skilled in their craft, we’ll call them professors.

The creation of the curriculum we’ll leave out of scope here, since more factors like marketing come into play. For the assessment of the topics in the curriculum, we need good professors, which should play an important role in the ranking of a university.

Proposed model

Let’s stop saying “I’ve got a bachelor X from university Y“ and instead say “I’ve passed my exams for curriculum X, tested by university Y”.

Let me explain this. We can represent a curriculum as a knowledge tree. We’ll use a simplified representation:

 +-- number theory
 |   +-- Algebraic number theory
 |   |   +-- number fields
 |   |   +-- class field theory
 |   +-- Analytic number theory
 |       +-- prime number theorem
 |       |   +-- Goldbach conjecture
 |       |   +-- Waring problem
 |       |   +-- Riemann hypothesis
 |       +-- Dedekind/Riemann zeta functions
 +-- algebra
 |   +-- sub subject
 |       +-- sub sub subject
 +-- geometry
 +-- statistics

This represenation should include details on what is exactly expected of someone and thus can be expected to show up in an assessment.

This would allow anyone to create a list of learning materials (e.g. set of links to Wikipedia/videos/books/blogs), while the actual exams are only done by a university.

This separation of teaching and examination is seen for a drivers license. This model allows for better competition between examination parties and training/teaching facilities. But above all everyone can choose their own way of learning and this makes the market more flexible, which should lower the price of an education, which we’ll now call a curriculum.

Note that if you complete an exam at a separate entity, you need to know the full matter of the subject, since the one writing the exam is not your teacher, dropping clues.

This will benefit people who:

  • are highly motivated
  • want to study at their own times
  • study at own pace
  • avoid traveling

however, it won’t work for people who:

  • need external motivation
  • want to learn just enough to pass an exam


New curriculum creating and examination institutions are possible. One could choose to give certificates for partial exams and a diploma for a subject requires that all partial exams are done successfully within timeframe X with a maximum of Y retakes.

New entities who would want to compete with the elite colleges, could take a very different approach.

An example could be that exams are scanned/photographed directly after the exam and are online available to the student who can share it with anyone. This forces the institution to be proud of their exam questions, since bad exams will be public as well.


Current education feels a bit like having a butcher inspecting the quality of his own meat. This makes it expensive, time consuming and inflexible for its students. Let’s stop the Baumol effect by increasing productivity. Employers deserve a better overview of what has been verified by the examining institution.

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