Blogs & Comment

The coming boom in techno-education

Food is actually the biggest driver of education supply.

Indian students participate in a Hole in the Wall experiment (Photo: courtesy Philippe Tarbouriech/Hole-in-the-Wall Education Ltd.)

I’m going to be spending the next few months brushing up on my German (I actually did take some classes a few years back) as I’ll be one of the keynote speakers at the Online Educa conference in Berlin in December.

The event, which runs from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2, describes itself as the “largest global e-learning conference for the corporate, education and public service sectors.” This year’s theme will be “new learning cultures,” with speakers and sessions focusing on whether new teaching methods are going to be required in the future and how technology will figure into all of it.

Fortunately, my speech will be in English, so I’ll only need the German to figure out how to order sausages while there. I’ve been asked to talk about how some of the themes in Sex, Bombs and Burgers relate to education, with how technology affects learning as the broader subject.

I discussed some of my preliminary thoughts on a short Educa podcast, which can be heard here. In a nutshell, while education doesn’t really figure as a central theme in Sex, Bombs and Burgers, the effects of food, war and even porn on worldwide learning are pretty significant.

Food is actually the biggest driver of education supply. When parents have enough food for their children and no longer have to worry about where their next meals are going to come from, getting them to school is usually the next step. In other words, children who are hungry and poor are less likely to be concerned with learning, but when they have enough food, they suddenly and necessarily become students.

Food technology—as well as better water purification, medicine and general economic improvement—has resulted in nearly half a billion people escaping absolute poverty over the past five years. This trajectory is going to continue, which means the number of children joining the global education system over the next few decades is going to skyrocket. That means one of two things: either we’re going to need a lot more teachers, or technology will be needed to make learning more efficient and entrepreneurial.

I read with great interest a story on this subject in a recent issue of Canadian Business magazine. The story detailed the efforts of Sugata Mitra, an Indian professor who teaches in the UK, and his Hole the Wall project. The experiment involved sticking a computer with internet access into one of the poorest schools in Delhi and allowing students to use it freely. Rather than lecturing and instructing the students, Mitra would simply allow them to teach themselves. The results were amazing—students ended up teaching themselves English, among other things.

With a huge influx of new students on the horizon, schools—especially those in heavily populated nations such as India and China—are going to need to think more along these lines.

To get back to the Sex and Bombs, however, both the military and porn industries have also had huge effects on education both directly and indirectly. According to Peter Singer in his book Wired for War, about one-third of all university research funding since the 1950s has come from the military. It’s impossible to overstate how much of an effect all that money has had on the direction and quality of education in the United States.

The sex industry’s effect has been considerably less direct, but still important. As discussed in my book and in The Erotic Engine by Patchen Barss, porn producers have historically supplied much of the early development dollars for all communications technologies, from the simple camera right on up to the internet. Without all that early adoption, those technologies—each of which in turn changed and improved education—might never have seen the light of day.

Nevertheless, it’s the food supply-education demand aspect that fascinates me most. I have a few months yet to put my speech together, but that’s the likeliest direction I’ll be taking. I think it’ll be fun to imagine what learning will look like in 10 years. More people than ever will be taking part in the education system, which means big changes are in store.