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Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Please stop delivering content (and stop saying "AI" while you are at it)


A friend and colleague, Donald Clark just published a blog about how AI will help deliver more content: 



He wants content to be created automatically so that it can be created quickly and then delivered. But why is that even worth thinking about? AI, at least as I understand it after having worked on it for 50 years, is about getting a computer to be able to discern what knowledge is relevant  based on analysis of the situation at hand. AI is not, nor should not be, about gathering words that the computer  doesn't understand, and then telling them to you. We can use AI to find information just in time based on analysis and understanding of what a user is trying to accomplish, and then determining what knowledge would help.  That is the kind of AI worth doing for education.  Tell me what I need to know because you (the computer) realize what I need to know that right now.

But the real problem with his proposal is the very idea of the “delivery of content" in the first place. I never liked the metaphor that is in common use about delivery of content. But, now, I am concerned that this idea is totally out of control.

We need to deliver content shorter and faster

We should use AI to deliver content

Presenters need to be more effective in delivering content

Last I heard, content delivery was an issue for internet service providers, or newspaper deliverers, or television broadcasters, to worry about.  I turn on the TV or the computer and content is delivered. Wonderful.

But the notion of content delivery as a mechanism in education is simply wrong.

Where did the idea of content delivery as education come from? The Romans are to blame for what we do in education. They were specialists in content delivery. The education system we have in place today comes from the Roman education system which was deigned to train orators in the Forum. Talk about content delivery!. Citizens competed with each other for whom could deliver content the best. They trained for doing that by the studying the Artes Liberales. Why learn literature or philosophy? So you can quote it when speaking in the Forum. Romans were very impressed by good speeches. And so, today, we have lectures and content delivery and an education system which is barely different from the one the Romans employed. Mathematics? It is in schools today because if you were a Roman who was speaking about land use, you needed to be able to make calculations about acreage.  

Things have changed since Roman times of course. 

Really? Not so much.

Why does anyone think lecturing is an effective teaching method?  Actually, I am not really sure they really do.  Most people couldn't even name a lecture they heard ten years earlier much less can they recall it’s content. Lectures exist because they are seen as being cost effective.  Professors like to give them because they like hearing themselves speak.  And MOOCs? Don’t get me started.

Classrooms exist to enable lecturing. But, today, we have new technology available. So, should we use it to more effectively deliver more content?   

Why should you use technology to deliver content when content delivery is a wrong-headed idea in the first place?  

What should the role of AI in education? To answer this we need to go back to the Ancient Greeks. 

Real learning, as Plato pointed out, is done while doing, followed by lots of practice, New technologies can easily enable doing. We should be thinking about how to encourage students to be trying things out, as opposed to being receptacles for delivered content. Real teaching must be done Socratically. We  should never be telling anyone anything. (“What do you think the answer is? How would go about finding out? Try it.”)


We need to hear about something just in time. Friends say things to you when what they feel that what they are about to say fits in with what was being talked about or they recognize that some missing knowledge would help you do what you want to do.  This is what good parenting looks like as well and it should be what good education looks like.

Education is not about content delivery but about helping people try new things out.  We need more air flight simulators (but they should be able to help you when you are having trouble.)  

We need to stop delivering content and start enabling experiences mediated by experts just in time.