Singularity, Learning, and the Future

George Zhang
10 min readJul 8, 2021

Based on a recent half-hour presentation I gave at the UX Crunch meetup on “HCD in Driving Effective Learning”. Some examples were removed to save your reading time.

It discusses the emerging trends in Education Technology (in short, EdTech) and the convergence (i.e. “singularity”) of three underlying forces — a student’s needs, advancements of technology, as well as the booming contents for a student to learn. The singularity renders exciting challenges and opportunities for us who work to build humane (desirable, effective, efficient, friendly and so on) learning solutions for now and for the foreseeable future. I’d like you to take away some food for thought, especially the T-B-D design framework that could flare some sparks in your daily work.

I. Three Driving Forces

It’s well known that the unprecedented pandemic COVID-19 has locked down cities, grounded flights, and sent people home for a prolonged painful period. In the meantime, locationally separated teachers and students of otherwise “classrooms” moved online, resorting to online, remote, virtual, and even asynchronous learning and teaching methods. EdTech, like Course Hero which I am working at, quickly became even more essential to millions and millions of students to assist them to continuously learn, to graduate confident and prepared, despite all the unprecedented challenges. You’re welcome to read more about student challenges on Course Hero’s research hub.

In some sense, the COVID-19 has triggered a social experimentation of creative education innovations at an unprecedented worldwide large scale for a long while. This experimentation quickly revealed the following three driving forces that have been leading the revolutionary or evolutionary changes in how we human being learn new knowledge in the past hundreds and or thousands of years: Student Needs, Technologies, and Contents.

01. Evolving students bring forward new learning needs

The landscape of undergraduates has grown out of the traditionally defined students who grow up domestically, earn a high school diploma, enroll full time immediately after finishing high school, depend on parents for financial support, and either do not work during the school year or work part time. According to the NCES (National Center for Education Statistics), greater than 70% of all undergraduates in the states are non-traditional students since the beginning of this century. They become the new “typical” students by number.

Compared with the traditional college students, the non-traditional students typically:

  • Have a full time job, a part-time job, or even multiple paid jobs. Not surprisingly, a big proportion of them often work 35 hours or more every week.
  • Have dependents other than a spouse. Usually children, but may also be caregivers of sick or elderly family members.
  • Delay enrollment. They don’t immediately enter postsecondary education in the same calendar year that they finished high school.
  • Delay graduation. Many of them can’t obtain a bachelor’s degree on time and then have to delay graduation, or unfortunately drop out. Again according to the NCES, by 2018 only 62% of students had completed a bachelor’s degree at the same institution where they started in 2012.
  • Attend school part-time or at least part of the academic year.
  • Live off campus. They often commute regularly or irregularly between school, home, and workplaces.
  • Lifelong learners. More and more older Americans are heading back to school, often part time or in their spare times. Students aged 25 and older are expected to rise to 43 percent by 2020 as 9.6 million according the NCES.
  • International students. Since 2001, the population of international students enrolled in higher education courses away from their home of origin has increased from 2.1 million to 5.3 million, then makes a significant part of our student body (source).

New learning needs were brought forward and then established, as the non-traditional college students became the absolute majority in our college student body, also thanks to the advancements in technologies and our lifestyles. For example, some emergent needs are:

  • Short span of attention. In the age of fast-paced life, high mobility, modern technology and social media, it’s no surprise that college students are unable to focus their attention easily for prolonged study hours. Instead, they want to learn better at a faster pace. Delayed gratification becomes more of a torture / pain point in their journey of learning.
  • Personalized learning. Modern technology enables the students to customize the direction, content, pace, and result of learning to fit into their own stages, strengths, skills, needs, and interests. With personalized learning, each student gets a learning journey that’s based on what they know and how they learn the best. Along the journey, they like to receive the right support and assistance in the right time with the right amount.
  • On-demand learning. Thanks to the booming on-demand economies in recent years, think of Uber, Airbnb, and Doordash, the on-demand learning becomes not a buzzword but a necessity for students who can receive timely support anywhere they need it.
  • Mobile learning. “Learning on the go” becomes a surging need in the non-traditional students who have to commute multiple places daily. On the other hand, more and more traditional students have multiple connected devices, mostly mobile devices, and they no longer need a fixated desk and or a dedicated study hour to learn something.
  • Virtual collaborative learning. With the modern technology, students don’t have to colocate to collaborate. Instead, they can do a course project together all virtual from briefing the project, identifying the tasks, to coordinating time, solving conflicts and celebrating the success.

02. Technologies bring forward new learning and teaching methods

Compared with other socioeconomic sectors such as information, communication, entertainment, transportation and even agriculture, the education sector has always appeared to be slow in adopting new technologies. It happened for many good reasons including this one — Education is not about adding/integrating brand-new, shiny, fancy gadgets, but about how well a new tech-powered approach serves a student’s journey to graduate, having support, confidence and preparedness all the time turn by turn, week after week, course by course, year over year.

In recent decades, we have seen the following student facing technologies penetrating into learning activities:

  • Distance learning (a.k.a. e-Learning). The Covid-19 pandemic definitely promoted it.
  • Video assisted learning, gamification.
  • App, extension, software, web, and all other interfaces.
  • Immersive learning with VR, AR, simulators, and so on.
  • Social Media enabled learning activities.
  • Virtual group project.

In addition to aforementioned student facing front-end technologies, we also saw many new technologies on the backend, such as:

  • Web-based tools for tracking student’s progresses.
  • Big data getting bigger to store student docs and other learning materials.
  • School libraries and public libraries getting more digital, more accessible, and more ubiquitous for their students.
  • New tools like AI, ML, NLP, Auto Translation, Auto Transcription and so on supporting students to do more interactive, progressive and immersive learning activities.
  • Learning analytics (part of LMS) to help the teachers better track all students in their classroom, and improve the pedagogy when needed.

03. Knowledge Booms bring forward new contents

From Kenneth E. Boulding’s article “The Knowledge Boom” and his book “The Image” in 1950s, to the “Information Exploration” in the following decades, we indisputably are living in an era of data exploding, information overloading, and then knowledge booming.

The booming knowledge surely brought forward new knowledge of the students to learn and apply in their own lives. However the accelerated speed and scale of knowledge growth also brought huge challenges to students, for example:

  • It becomes harder and harder to keep up with and drink from the tsunami of new knowledge, information and data.
  • The “half-life of knowledge” becomes shorter and shorter over time, which easily means that students need to worry about this fact that all that knowledge they’re learning are either outdated or to bee outdated soon.
  • Knowledge gaps are everywhere, for everyone, and all the time in the era of knowledge-based economy. Natalie Wexler dived deep into the knowledge gaps in her recent book “The Knowledge Gap: The hidden cause of America’s broken education system — and how to fix it.”

II. The Convergences

The three driving forces can rarely succeed or work alone. They have huge overlaps and interdependences on each other. As illustrated on the following chart, new education elements can be formed when the three driving forces converge or connect.

01. Student Needs + Technologies => New Methods

COVID-19 catalyzed new online learning methods, thanks to the convergence of students needs and new personal digital technologies. Such as:

  • Async/sync online courses.
  • Online-offline hybrid courses.
  • Self-paced learning vs instructor-led courses.
  • Step-by-step explanations.
  • Interactive e-lessons.
  • Online tutoring vs offline tutoring.
  • Mobile learning.
  • AR+VR based immersive learning.
  • Gamification learning management systems

02. Student Needs + Contents => New Patterns

All students are profoundly different in their needs of learning contents, therefore suit for various learning trajectories and follow their own paths. The following new patterns broke the ground to grow quickly:

  • Continuing education
  • Micro-curriculum design
  • Concept based learning
  • Competency-based online courses
  • Infographic materials for visual learners
  • 1:1 tutoring or coaching, sync or async, especially in language learning

03. Contents + Technologies => New Media

Overall edging technologies have been very slow in penetrating in the education ecosystem. But new media are emerging also thanks to modern contents, such as:

  • Interactive literature guides
  • Voice-recognition based language learning
  • Real time voice transcription
  • HWR, OCR, Camera-based interactions
  • Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality
  • Virtual group projects

III. The Singularity

As a student, graduation is our north star, especially of higher education. We students want to graduate confident and prepared, and we want to get there with confidence and preparedness day by day, week by week, semester by semester, year by year. We need support and assistance every turn along the journey.

As we discussed, as an EdTech platform, we need to leverage the advances in technologies and contents to meet the ever-changing student learning needs.

Let us say that we have this system in which the y-axis is students’ learning speed and quality, the higher the better. The x-axis is the time. We’re standing at now, limited by the status quo. And we are moving into the future. There are basically several scenarios driving us toward the singularity, the future, as shown on the chart below.

#1. Do Nothing at all. Things move slowly. Basically we do nothing, letting students, technologies, and contents run on their own in random directions.

#2. Do Something for a while. We work hard to seek the singularity among all three factors at the very beginning, and it grows faster. But after a while, we give up and the growth loses its steam, and star falling back to the normal growth track.

#3. Drive Exponential Growth. We invested heavily into the rapid growth leveraging the advances in students, technologies and contents, seek network effects among the three, and then further accelerating the speed and quality of learning until the passes the turning points. As a result, we see the exponential growths like the green curve. It is what we seek to see in our future.

IV. The Takeaways

Even as of today, I’m closely observing the COVID impact to form some concrete assessments, but it’s still too early to call the COVID as a threat, an opportunity, or both for the online education platforms. The economy gets back to a new normal, thanks to effective vaccines, but the recovery path varies from sector to sector showing shapes of V, L, U, W, and K. So please allow me to remind you the difficulties to connect the dots for the future.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward.So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” — Steve Jobs

I found the following T-B-D framework could be useful for us — research, design, product and or marketing — to craft user-centered, which is also student-centered, learning experience for the future.

01. Think systematically

Let us revisit the oversimplified chart of a learning platform below. Any real working ecological system for an EdTech platform is way more complex, dynamic, and therefore challenging for us. Even we work on the smallest feature, we should think about both the parts and the connections on the our system. We should always calculate the readiness of other parts, and calibrate the possible impact of any design decision, experimentation, market campaign, and product launch.

02. Balance holistically

All decisions of product, design, marketing, and engineering, are about the check and balances between pros and cons to various business or operation factors.

Let us focus on the learners and the learning needs. Everything else will follow, especially the business gains.

Balance across complex online/offline, on-campus/off-campus education ecosystems.

Make the products always available and accessible for all users, and deliver the experience in inclusive and sustainable manner.

03. Design humanely

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” — William Ward (1921–1994)

Like a great teacher, a great EdTech product inspires the students to be better prepared and more confident on their journey to graduate, demonstrates not only what to learn but also how to learn more effectively and efficiently, explains why an answer to a question is better than its alternatives. When we design, we design in a humane way for all the learners.

Thank you for reading to the end!

All in all, this article serves you as a food for thought. Your questions, comments and thoughts are profoundly appreciated.



George Zhang

Global Head of Product Design, Brightly a Siemens Company. Formerly Google, Uber, Intel, Course Hero. Received Ph.D in I/O psychology.