Marc Andreesen believes that software is eating the world. It’s a very visceral image, and in one sense it’s absolutely true. Software is spreading into every industry, changing how established players must play and even what the rules of the game are. But while many in Silicon Valley and Educational Technology think that software will “eat” teachers, replacing many of them, at trinket we believe software’s role is to create openness, making teachers better and more connected. Far from there being less teachers in the future, we think openness will enable and encourage more people than ever to teach.
In the midst of a longer Twitter conversation I was having with him and others (which I will likely blog about separately), Andreesen made an interesting comment:
— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) February 3, 2014
My suggestion was that increasing openness into what teachers are doing and what the results were was the solution to bad teaching. Sunlight, disinfectant, etc:
— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) February 3, 2014
Andreesen agreed but thinks there needs to be some sort of culling of the worst teachers. He thinks of education as a government monopoly that has been too long shielded from adaptive pressures. So, logically, he thinks that it’s a natural thing for Software to eat.
Software as Archetype instead of Omnivore
But, backing up, it seems that Andreesen’s assertion that software could replace the worst performing teachers isn’t the only possibility we should consider. Another possibility is suggested by the trajectory of the profession of programming itself. In this view, software won’t replace teaching so much as model its future as an occupation.
There was a time when programmers were regarded as mostly “godawful”, insulated from competence by structure and size. Those of us who have had to endure the dictates and systematic negligence of large IT departments can see where the term ‘Godawful’ might apply.
Yet software has gotten better in the past two decades. Why? How? Can we replicate this success for teaching?
Openness and Teaching’s Future
We can anticipate what’s happening with teaching by looking at how the software industry matured: it became friendler, more open, and more accessible. It did this despite more junior, inexperienced programmers flooding the job market. And, importantly, without someone having to fire the “bottom 10%” of programmers. By connecting people (rather than separating them), transparency gave a better account of who was ‘good’, helped to improve the skills of those who weren’t and has led to the craft of coding to flourish. The craft of teaching is beginning to undergo the same overhaul. In 140 characters, that is:
@pmarca I think this approach is inconsistent. We didn't have to fire bad coders to get good software. We needed openness into what they do
— Elliott Hauser (@hauspoor) February 3, 2014
Coursera, Udacity and other massive platforms are delivering content to students but they’re also opening up these instructors’ methods and content to other instructors, for critique, reuse, and inspiration. The Open Courseware Initiative, spearheaded by MIT’s forward-thinking leadership, has made a default of openness a reality for a growing number of universities. And, all along, the humble course page has remained the most prevalent form of open teaching.
Professors have been sharing course materials online for almost as long as the Web has been around, often via hand-written HTML. Inspired and encouraged by this, we’re building the easiest way to make an interactive course page to support classroom teaching. While the purpose of most online course materials is to let students access them, we’re also building direct support for instructor-to-instructor interaction around materials. This is harder than it looks, but we think we’ve cracked the code. More in a future blog post. For now, let’s sum this up.
Why Andreesen and other VCs are Wrong about Software Eating Teaching
I’ll admit it’s somewhat unfair to write a blog post around a few tweets, inferring deeper thoughts on complex issues from 140 character snippets. So I may very well have misrepresented Andreesen’s thoughts, though I’m confident that I’m pretty close to the mark. Like I said before, though, I don’t think that Andreesen or most venture capitalists have malevolent intentions. Far from that: they’re seeking business opportunities that do real good for the world. In that way we’re on the same mission.
But I think they’ve made an error in logic when they assume that teachers will be replaced by technology. Encouraged by software’s staggering proliferation into every corner of the modern economy, they’ve been blinded to the parallels between the professions of programming and of teaching. If software ‘eats’ teaching, it will look like how software has ‘eaten’ itself: more tools to make humans more productive, effective, and connected. We will not see the rise and triumph of Teaching Machines that replace teachers any more than we’ve seen Coding Machines make coders obsolete. Rather, the need for teachers will increase apace of human innovation more broadly, and the most innovative companies in the ed tech space will augment, connect, and amplify these professionals.
In our industry, companies like Bloc, General Assembly, and DevBootCamp understand that the human element is central to teaching and are, similarly, building technology that augments good teachers rather than seeking to replace them. That’s also the approach we’re taking here at trinket.
We don’t know what the future of education looks like but, if we’re reading these trends right they point to more openness, more teachers, and software firmly ensconced as a tool for open teaching.
Thanks to Dave Paola from Bloc.io, Jenn Marks, and Brian, Ben, Julia, and Pardees from the trinket team for reviewing earlier versions of this post. And, of course, to Marc Andreesen for helping spark the discussion on Twitter.