Singularity, Learning, and the Future

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.

  • 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).
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

  • 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
  • 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
  • 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.

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.

“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.



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George Zhang

George Zhang


Sr. Director of UX Research at Course Hero. Formerly Google, Uber, Intel. Received Ph.D in I/O psychology.