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Discussing the future of education with Google's Peter Norvig

The concept of the conventional classroom and how education is being provided in general is undergoing great change. A lot of this change has been at the hands of technological advances that have provided new ways in which lecturers and students can interact. Indeed, I was surprised to hear from Franco Taverna, a lecturer at the University of Toronto, using a live online webinar format to deliver a course in which I am a teaching assistant, at how much positive feedback has been given by students with regards to the level of interaction. One specific feedback comment from an anonymous student states "It's a lot more personal than normal offline courses, and I feel like I know a lot of my fellow students and the professor far better after just one lecture than I would after a whole semester of regular class".

Another unique example of how online courses are working effectively in engaging almost unfathomable class sizes has been recently discussed in a TED talk given by Peter Norvig. Norvig has served as an assistant professor at University of Southern California and as a research faculty member at University of California. He currently is also the Director of Research at Google and will be giving a talk at this year's AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston, focusing on education and technology.

Being a fan of his work, and appreciating his insight, I reached out to Norvig to ask him a few questions regarding the future of education and to find out about what role Google may play.

AAASMC: In your CV you state right at the top: "Note to recruiters: Please don't offer me a job. I already have the best job in the world at the best company in the world." Could you elaborate on this, specifically what makes your job the best job in the world and why is Google the best company in the world?
Director of Research at Google Peter Norvig
: The bank robber Willie Sutton, when asked "Why do you rob banks?\" was alleged to have said "because that's where the money is." I like working at Google because that's where the resources are to do what I do -- the computing power, the web pages, images, and videos representing so much of what the world is like, and the colleagues to help make sense of it all.

AAASMC: I recently wrote an article on education ("Application over knowledge") where I discussed that taking down barricades to knowledge, such as costs and access, has diminished its economic value. And though there are certainly great benefits to this (I am a proponent of this), it is changing the way we ought to provide education from simply conferring knowledge, to stimulating application and creativity. What is your take on this?
Norvig: The value of information is determined by what you can do with it, not by the cost of acquiring it. (I use the term value of "information" rather than "knowledge" because the former is a technical term with a well-defined meaning.) If information doesn't change you -- doesn't change what you can decide by using the knowledge -- then the information has no value.  If information helps you decide something or solve a problem, then that information has value, and it has the same value whether you got it in four minutes or four years, and whether you paid nothing or $100,000 for it. The only reason that making the cost less could have any effect on the value of information would be if lower costs changed what you can do -- if for example somebody else uses the same information, acquired cheaply or free, to make an invention or discovery first and reap the benefits.  That can happen sometimes, and cause some people to lose out, but mostly, more information means more value in the world, and mostly good things come from that.  

As to how we should provide education --  education has never been something "provided" -- something done by a teacher -- education has always been something done by a learner.  If there is no application and creativity on the part of the learner, then there is no education.

AAASMC: What changes to education and how it is provided do you foresee in the future? What role will artificial intelligence play?
Norvig: I think we are starting to see tools to help us do a better job of allowing people to learn more of what is useful to them.  We can broadcast more effectively to more people around the world.  Groups of people can communicate more effectively -- in study groups, online forums, chats and hangouts, informal and formal mentoring/tutoring/teaching.  And we can start to get more feedback on what works and doesn't work, so that we can test hypotheses and continually improve.  I think we need a science of courseware engineering  -- just as we developed the science of software engineering, so that we could build large software artifacts with teams of dozens or hundreds of people working together, we now need a way for teams to work together to improve education.  The current practice has most of the work done by a single teacher at a time -- with lots of help from textbooks and other sources, but mostly building as an individual, not a team.  We have some tools now that can enable much more ambitious collaborative projects.

AAASMC: Is Google taking any part in changing education?
Norvig: Google has always been about education -- a searcher has an information need, comes to Google to search, and goes away having learned something.  Now Google, through the Course Builder toolkit and other projects, is helping to provide more tools for structuring the course of learning.

AAASMC: If you had the ability to change anything about how education is provided now, what would you do?
Norvig: Make education something that students participate in not because they are told they have to, but because it is an exciting epic quest.

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