Isaac Asimov Predicts the Future of Online Education in 1988–and It’s Now Coming True in the Age of AI & Smartphones

“I have nev­er let my school­ing inter­fere with my edu­ca­tion.” Though that line prob­a­bly orig­i­nat­ed with  a Cana­di­an nov­el­ist called Grant Allen, it’s long been pop­u­lar­ly attrib­uted to his more col­or­ful nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry con­tem­po­rary Mark Twain. It isn’t hard to under­stand why it now has so much trac­tion as a social media-ready quote, though dur­ing much of the peri­od between Allen’s day and our own, many must have found it prac­ti­cal­ly unin­tel­li­gi­ble. The indus­tri­al­ized world of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry attempt­ed to make edu­ca­tion and school­ing syn­ony­mous, an ambi­tion suf­fi­cient­ly wrong­head­ed that, by the nine­teen-eight­ies, no less pow­er­ful a mind than Isaac Asi­mov was lament­ing it on nation­al tele­vi­sion.

“In the old days you used to have tutors for chil­dren,” Asi­mov tells Bill Moy­ers in a 1988 World of Ideas inter­view. “But how many peo­ple could afford to hire a ped­a­gogue? Most chil­dren went une­d­u­cat­ed. Then we reached the point where it was absolute­ly nec­es­sary to edu­cate every­body. The only way we could do it is to have one teacher for a great many stu­dents and, in order to orga­nize the sit­u­a­tion prop­er­ly, we gave them a cur­ricu­lum to teach from.” And yet “the num­ber of teach­ers is far greater than the num­ber of good teach­ers.” The ide­al solu­tion, per­son­al tutors for all, would be made pos­si­ble by per­son­al com­put­ers, “each of them hooked up to enor­mous libraries where any­one can ask any ques­tion and be giv­en answers.”

At the time, this was­n’t an obvi­ous future for non-sci­ence-fic­tion-vision­ar­ies to imag­ine. “Well, what if I want to learn only about base­ball?” asks a faint­ly skep­ti­cal Moy­ers. “You learn all you want about base­ball,” Asi­mov replies, “because the more you learn about base­ball the more you might grow inter­est­ed in math­e­mat­ics to try to fig­ure out what they mean by those earned run aver­ages and the bat­ting aver­ages and so on. You might, in the end, become more inter­est­ed in math than base­ball if you fol­low your own bent.” And indeed, sim­i­lar­ly equipped with a per­son­al-com­put­er-as-tutor, “some­one who is inter­est­ed in math­e­mat­ics may sud­den­ly find him­self very enticed by the prob­lem of how you throw a curve ball.”

The trou­ble was how to get every house­hold a com­put­er, which was still seen by many in 1988 as an extrav­a­gant, not nec­es­sar­i­ly use­ful pur­chase. Three and a half decades lat­er, you see a com­put­er in the hand of near­ly every man, woman, and child in the devel­oped coun­tries (and many devel­op­ing ones as well). This is the tech­no­log­i­cal real­i­ty that gave rise to Khan Acad­e­my, which offers free online edu­ca­tion in math, sci­ences, lit­er­a­ture, his­to­ry, and much else besides. In the inter­view clip above, its founder Sal Khan remem­bers how, when his inter­net-tutor­ing project was first gain­ing momen­tum, it occurred to him that “maybe we’re in the right moment in his­to­ry that some­thing like this could become what Isaac Asi­mov envi­sioned.”

More recent­ly, Khan has been pro­mot­ing the edu­ca­tion­al use of a tech­nol­o­gy at the edge of even Asi­mov’s vision. Just days ago, he pub­lished the book Brave New Words: How AI Will Rev­o­lu­tion­ize Edu­ca­tion (and Why That’s a Good Thing) and made a video with his teenage son demon­strat­ing how the lat­est ver­sion of Ope­nAI’s Chat­G­PT — sound­ing, it must be said, uncan­ni­ly like Scar­lett Johans­son in the now-prophet­ic-seem­ing Her — can act as a geom­e­try tutor. Not that it works only, or even pri­mar­i­ly, for kids in school: “That’s anoth­er trou­ble with edu­ca­tion as we now have it,” as Asi­mov says. “It is for the young, and peo­ple think of edu­ca­tion as some­thing that they can fin­ish.” We may be as relieved as gen­er­a­tions past when our school­ing ends, but now we have no excuse ever to fin­ish our edu­ca­tion.

Find a tran­script of Asi­mov and Moy­ers’ con­ver­sa­tion here.

Relat­ed con­tent:

1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties

Isaac Asi­mov Pre­dicts the Future in 1982: Com­put­ers Will Be “at the Cen­ter of Every­thing;” Robots Will Take Human Jobs

Arthur C. Clarke Pre­dicts the Future in 1964 … And Kind of Nails It

Noam Chom­sky Spells Out the Pur­pose of Edu­ca­tion

The Pres­i­dent of North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty Pre­dicts Online Learn­ing … in 1934!

Salman Khan Returns to MIT, Gives Com­mence­ment Speech, Likens School to Hog­warts

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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