A future without schools

Illustration: Mrzyk & Moriceau for BOLD
Illustration: Mrzyk & Moriceau for BOLD

As educational apps become more popular, online coursework becomes more proliferative, and artificial intelligence becomes more intelligent, it’s hard not to wonder how all of this will affect traditional schooling. Could it one day replace schools altogether? That’s a question Rose Eveleth explores in an episode of her podcast Flash Forward, a podcast that takes on a hypothetical future one episode at a time and looks at how we might find ourselves there.

In a recent episode, Eveleth investigates a future without schools or teachers, a future where children learn from computers and are monitored by algorithms. But the aspects of this future are very much in the present. For instance, she talks to a professor who snuck a supercomputer-generated AI into his pool of teaching assistants without his students knowing. Eveleth also talks to app developers who create learning systems that don’t just teach lessons, they also monitor the user and adjust or revisit lessons depending on their performance, essentially tailoring a learning experience to the individual.

Throughout these discussions of the future of education, Eveleth and her guests talk about some of the effects it could have. What about children who don’t gain as much from this type of system – will they just be left behind? Could the rise of computer-based learning put a premium on human teachers, creating a system where in-person education is only the privilege of the wealthy? And what about the practical aspects – who takes care of the children if there are no teachers and no school for them to attend? And ultimately, what is the purpose of school?

While a world without schools doesn’t exist, there are plenty who think that’s a goal to work towards and Eveleth curates an important discussion about what that could mean. And if that’s not enough to pique your interest, there’s some great audio of children explaining why they would or wouldn’t want to be taught by a robot. Give it a listen.