Hacking at Education: TED, Technology Entrepreneurship, Uncollege, and the Hole in the Wall

Last week as part of its glitzy annual conference in Long Beach, California, TED awarded its $1 million prize to Sugata Mitra to support his wish to build a “School in the Cloud,” a self-organized learning environment based on his “Hole in the Wall” and “Granny Cloud” research.

Next week Pearson, the largest and most powerful education company in the world, will publish Dale Stephens’ book Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will, a personal experience narrative and guide about dropping out of college and making it in Silicon Valley.


Both these projects — the Hole in the Wall and the Uncollege movement — claim to “hack education” on behalf of the learner. And both have been the topics of TED Talks — on the main TED stage and at the smaller TEDx spin–offs.

Mitra’s TED talks, which have been particularly successful, describe his company’s placing of computer kiosks into the slums of India. From there, street children have gained computer and English literacy skills without adult intervention.

It’s an story that Stephens nods vigorously at: the self-directed and self-motivated student can learn anything; no thanks to our testing-dominated public school curriculum; no thanks to our federally-subsidized, loan-obsessed university; but thanks to the Internet and the growing availability of open online resources -- thanks to the access and a lot of “grit.”

In the TED world of techno-humanitarianism, this computer-enabled learning certainly makes for an incredibly compelling story.

But once something becomes a TED Talk, it becomes oddly unassailable. The video, the speech, the idea, the applause — there too often stops our critical faculties. We don’t interrupt. We don’t jeer. We don’t ask any follow-up questions.

They lecture. We listen.


The phrase, “child-driven education” — promoted by Sugatra Mitra and Dale Stephens and others — is a stirring one. It’s a good slogan, as all popular TED talks are wont to be.

It’s one that posits that all children are capable learners — no manner race nor creed nor gender nor income; it’s one that posits that knowledge need not be delivered by teachers nor learning spaces be teacher-centered. Hail discovery, curiosity, inquiry and such.

This new vision for education, as Mitra explains it, can be enabled now thanks to computer technologies. “The future of learning” will be a break from the present and the past — from our current education system’s factory model and its colonial legacy.


“I tried to look at where did the kind of learning we do in schools, where did it come from? And you can look far back into the past, but if you look at present-day schooling the way it is, it’s quite easy to figure out where it came from. It came from about 300 years ago, and it came from the last and the biggest of the empires on this planet. [“The British Empire”] Imagine trying to run the show, trying to run the entire planet, without computers, without telephones, with data handwritten on pieces of paper, and traveling by ships. But the Victorians actually did it. What they did was amazing. They created a global computer made up of people. It’s still with us today. It’s called the bureaucratic administrative machine. In order to have that machine running, you need lots and lots of people. They made another machine to produce those people: the school. The schools would produce the people who would then become parts of the bureaucratic administrative machine. They must be identical to each other. They must know three things: They must have good handwriting, because the data is handwritten; they must be able to read; and they must be able to do multiplication, division, addition and subtraction in their head. They must be so identical that you could pick one up from New Zealand and ship them to Canada and he would be instantly functional. The Victorians were great engineers. They engineered a system that was so robust that it’s still with us today, continuously producing identical people for a machine that no longer exists. The empire is gone, so what are we doing with that design that produces these identical people, and what are we going to do next if we ever are going to do anything else with it?

[“Schools as we know them are obsolete"]

So that’s a pretty strong comment there. I said schools as we know them now, they’re obsolete. I’m not saying they’re broken. It’s quite fashionable to say that the education system’s broken. It’s not broken. It’s wonderfully constructed. It’s just that we don’t need it anymore. It’s outdated. What are the kind of jobs that we have today? Well, the clerks are the computers. They’re there in thousands in every office. And you have people who guide those computers to do their clerical jobs. Those people don’t need to be able to write beautifully by hand. They don’t need to be able to multiply numbers in their heads. They do need to be able to read. In fact, they need to be able to read discerningly.”

Pardon my quoting Mitra’s TED Prize acceptance speech at length, but I always feel like it’s hard to get a word in edgewise in TED Talks. Indeed, they’re designed that way: well-scripted and highly-polished presentations — 15 to 20 minutes on “ideas worth spreading.” The audience is supposed to bask in the ideas — get carried away in the prose and in the delight of human curiosity and the superstar delivery and “why hadn’t I thunk of that” problem-solving.

You are not supposed to interrogate a TED Talk. You’re supposed to share the talk on Facebook.

But I have questions.


I have questions about this history of schooling as Mitra (and others) tell it, about colonialism and neo-colonialism. I have questions about the funding of the initial “Hole in the Wall” project (it came from NIIT, an India-based “enterprise learning solution” company that offers 2- and 4-year IT diplomas). I have questions about these commercial interests in “child-driven education” (As Ellen Seitler asks, “can the customer base be expanded to reach people without a computer, without literacy, and without any formal teaching whatsoever?”). I have questions about the research from the “Hole in the Wall” project — the research, not the 15 minute TED spiel about it. I have questions about girls’ lack of participation in the kiosks. I have questions about project’s usage of retired British schoolteachers — “grannies” — to interact with Indian children via Skype.

I have questions about community support. I have questions about what happens when we dismantle public institutions like schools — questions about social justice, questions about community, questions about care. I have questions about the promise of a liberation via a “child-driven education,” questions about this particular brand of neo-liberalism, techno-humanitarianism, and techno-individualism.

You don’t get to ask questions of a TED Talk. Even the $10,000 ticket to watch it live only gives you the privilege of a seat in the theater.


As Evgeny Morozov recently wrote in a review of several books published by the new TED press,

“Since any meaningful discussion of politics is off limits at TED, the solutions advocated by TED’s techno-humanitarians cannot go beyond the toolkit available to the scientist, the coder, and the engineer. This leaves Silicon Valley entrepreneurs positioned as TED’s preferred redeemers. In TED world, tech entrepreneurs are in the business of solving the world’s most pressing problems. This is what makes TED stand out from other globalist shindigs, and makes its intellectual performances increasingly irrelevant to genuine thought and serious action.”


Dale Stephens is not a tech entrepreneur. But as one of the first recipients of the 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship, the program that pays young men and women (well, mostly men) $100,000 to drop out of college to pursue their entrepreneurial visions, Stephens has been supported by one of the most powerful tech entrepreneurs and one of the world’s richest men: PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.

Stephens’ and Thiel’s message about education overlap in many places, namely: “there is a higher education bubble.” That is, our investment in college education is overhyped and irrational, and now the cost of a diploma has out-stripped its value.

That’s the underlying argument of Stephens soon-to-be-released book Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will.

The book, along with Stephens’ larger speaking and writing efforts about unschooling, share with Sugata Mitra’s TED Talk the notion that we can and must support a learner-centered and learner-driven education future — something that universities in particular, Stephens argues, fail to do.

But this isn’t simply about the rise of the learner — we’d be so naive to believe that’s the case. It’s about the rise of the technology industry alongside the collapse of the education sector. Take away the public school, as Mitra suggests — it is a colonial legacy! — and replace it with computers. Something like NIIT Enterprise Learning Solutions, perhaps, “one of the top 5 training companies in the world.”


Stephens echoes those on the TED stage and those in Silicon Valley when he talks about the future of higher education thusly: “the advancement of technology means that educational institutions are being dismantled. … And just like that, the three major functions of a university—knowledge delivery, community building, and employer signaling—are replaced.”

Of course, to narrow “the university to these three “major functions” is, well, narrow. What about knowledge building? What about research? What about civics and service? What about the public good?

And let’s be clear here: this is a calculated view and one perfectly crafted for the intellectually impeccable TED stage, one that situates education institutions as attacked by the Internet, rather than as the co-creators of it; one that posits professors as necessarily resistors to change, rather than agents of innovation.

And framed as such, this signals a massive opportunity —a wink and a nod to those investors in the audience — for the tech entrepreneur. See also: the TED Talk by Salman Khan (2+ million views). The TED Talk by Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller (+900K views). The TED Talk by Sugata Mitra (1.2 million views).


Much like a TED Talk, Stephens’ book is neither designed nor prepared to be closely interrogated. He talks “big ideas” in sweeping generalizations. Stephens invokes anecdote after anecdote, hoping I suppose that this blurs into data. But while “uncollege” might make a good slogan — particularly considering the high cost of tuition and the increasing burden of student debt — the advice in Stephens’ handbook doesn’t always stand up to close scrutiny.

“I’m the first MacCaw not to go to Cambridge,” says one of the informant. This and a myriad of other utterances are rather mind-boggling markers of privilege, markers that Hacking Your Education fails to examine and that the book seems extraordinarily unaware of.

One hack it offers for the young uncollege-er: “take people out for coffee” — budget $150 a month to do so. Another hack: “go to conferences.” Sneak in. “Hardly anyone will notice.” Another hack: “buy an airplane ticket.” “You can go anywhere in the world for $1500.” “Collect frequent flyer points.” Too bad if you’re big or black or brown or a non-native English speaker or the working poor or a single mom. Just practice your posture and your grammar and your email introductions, and you’re golden.

“You are responsible for your own successes and failures” according to Hacking Your Education. Systematic racism, sexism, classism be damned. Race, class, and gender privilege, family and community and mentor support — how much of “hacking your education” entails relying on this and not just on individual drive, curiosity, or “grit”? The book ignores all this. (Cue Peter Thiel’s libertarianism and Silicon Valley’s insistence that it is a meritocracy.)


Now don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty that education institutions do — from K–12 onward — that doesn’t help learners at all. Cost. Curriculum. Control. Assessments. Standardization. Debt. Unemployment. Existential Malaise.

Yet much of what’s written about in Hacking Your Education feels like a caricature of school, a convenient description of the failures of our modern education system that feels very particular to Stephens’ own biography, to the anecdotes told by his informants and — and here’s the most troubling part — to a larger political narrative about the “brokenness” and irrelevance of the public education system. “Think about it,” Dale writes, “in your twelve years of school did any teachers ever ask you what you wanted to learn, or did they just prepare you for the next test?”

Or “schools only teach what is settled.”

Or “university does not exist to train you for the real world—it exists to make money.”

These assertions can all be easily disputed, if no other reason than none of them are backed up with any evidence or research. And even the data the book does cite are flawed or contested, crafted to make a particular political point. The way that Stephens (and he’s certainly not alone in this) touts the findings in Academically Adrift — that college students don’t learn critical skills — without any recognition of the serious critiques about the book’s methodology, is a case in point.

Take too the claim that “When I started writing this book in 2011, the average student graduated with $25,000 or so in debt. By 2012, it was up to $27,000 in debt.” Not quite true. That might be the average for students who take out student loans; but only two-thirds of students do so. That means the average student loan debt is actually lower — and here’s the problem with mean versus median — skewed too by the very small percentage of borrowers (3.1%) who borrow over $100,000.

I’m quibbling here, perhaps. This isn’t a book grounded in education research. It’s a book grounded in personal experience: “Ditch the lectures, save tens of thousands, and learn more than your peers ever will.” Or, “Do what Dale did.” Drop out. Network. Travel. Profit.

And Stephens has been extraordinarily successful at this. He’s been successful as a (TED) speaker. As an op-ed writer. And now, as a Pearson-published author.

His book is not a TED book, but it shares with the Mitra's TED Talk that certain hope for virality and inscrutability. As Morozov writes,

Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void. Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how “ideas worth spreading” become “ideas no footnotes can support.”


Hacking Your Education advances the notion that education is a personal (financial) investment rather than a public good. The School in the Cloud project posits that education is a corporate (financial) investment rather than a public good. Why fund public schools when we can put a kiosk in a tech company’s annex? Why fund public schools when you can learn anything online?

The future that TED Talks paint doesn’t want us to think too deeply as we ask these questions. But what happens,when we “hack education” in such a way that our public institutions are dismantled? What happens to that public good? What happens to community? What happens to local economies? What happens to social justice?

As such, the vision for the future of education offered in Stephens’ new book is an individualist and incredibly elitist one. It contains a grossly unexamined exceptionalism, much like the Hole in the Wall which, at the end of the day, worked best for the strongest boys on the streets.

So despite their claims to be liberatory — with the focus on “the learner” and “the child” — this hacking of education by Mitra and Stephens is politically regressive. It is however likely to be good business for the legions of tech entrepreneurs in the audience.


Sugata Mitra, “Build a School in the Cloud,” TED, 2013. (link)

Dale Stephens, Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will, Perigee Trade, 2013. (Amazon Affiliate link)

Disclosure: I was one of the first people to write about Stephens and Uncollege; I'm thanked in the book's acknowledgments. I'm also giving my first TEDx talk this spring. So there you go.

 Photo credits: TED, Uncollege 



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