The education sector may well be impacted by advanced AI more profoundly than any other. This is partly because of the obvious potential benefit of applying more intelligence to education, and partly because education has resisted so much change in the past.
42 as the meaning of … learning
David Giron is the Director of one of the world’s most innovative educational institutions, 42 Codam College in Amsterdam. He was previously the head of studies at Codam’s parent school 42 in Paris, which was founded in 2013, so he has now spent 10 years putting the school’s radical ideas into practice. He joined the London Futurists Podcast to explain how 42 works, and how the world of education will be impacted by technology in general, and by generative AI in particular.
42 is a software engineering school, in which all learning is completely peer-to-peer. There are no teachers or lecturers. The learning process is hands-on: students don’t talk about programming; they learn by doing it. The recipe has proved successful: the school now has 50 campuses around the world, in 30 countries, with 18,000 students currently enrolled. As you may have already guessed, it is named after the famous joke in Douglas Adams’ “Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” that 42 is the meaning of life.
Placing students at the centre
Giron says the philosophy of 42 is not antagonistic towards more traditional approaches to education, but it sees the student as passive and peripheral in them, whereas it seeks to place the student at the centre of the learning process. Rather than receiving learning, they have to seek it.
Examination and evaluation is modelled on academic evaluation: students are selected randomly (within constraints) to peer review each other’s work.
The 42 school practises “competency-based learning” or “mastery learning”, which was advocated by the educationalist Sir Ken Robinson in one of the most-watched TED talks ever (here). This means that students do not proceed from one module to the next until they have demonstrated mastery of the first one.
This is particularly important in maths, and maths-related subjects like software engineering, because failure to understand one module means that your understanding of everything that follows will be shaky at best. Therefore some students at 42 finish the course in six months while others take two years. There is no stigma attached to this: it is not a race.
Giron believes that 42’s approach is applicable to many other subjects – perhaps all subjects, but most of the subjects where it has been tried are technical ones. The same hurdles keep cropping up: equipment and consumables. Software engineering requires no capital investment and no material inputs. This is obviously not true of other branches of engineering, like chemical engineering, or woodworking.
Although Giron notes that 42’s approach has been very successful, and could be applied more widely, he does not claim that it should be adopted universally. Every student is different, and what works for one will not necessarily work for the next. 42 is simply offering one new approach to the educational mix. 42 receives frequent visits from other educationalists who are curious to learn about its approach, but as a previous guest on the London Futurists Podcast commented, education is a bit of a slow learner.
Metrics and failure
The most important measurement of success for Giron is the enthusiasm of employers to hire 42’s graduates, including employers who have already hired some in the past. The second measurement is the satisfaction of the students themselves, and this is tested regularly.
Some elite schools claim that if no students are failed, then the bar is being set too low. Others argue there is no reason why every student should not succeed, at least if they were able to gain admittance in the first place. Giron says he adopts a third approach, which is that students should experience failure, but that this should happen within the school, and it should not mean they have to leave. The experience of failure can inculcate resilience, but it should not be allowed to undermine the fundamental confidence of a student.
Face-to-face contact between students was seen as an important element of 42’s approach, so Covid was especially challenging. When the lockdowns hit, the school took a month to re-design the learning process to be online-only, but the level of drop-outs soared, and the students who persevered took longer to complete the course. It also turned out that for many students, 42 provided the whole of their social life, and when they were no longer able to see each other at school, some of them had no social contact whatsoever.
Re-adjusting to normal life after Covid was also bumpy, but Giron reports that everything is pretty much back to normal now.
Initial responses to ChatGPT and similar models were often polarised. Some people immediately said that we have entered a new world and everything will change. Others demurred, dismissing the excited talk as hype. Enough time has now passed since the launches of ChatGPT and GPT-4 to make a more balanced judgement. Giron does believe that these models will have enormous impact. For instance, some simple software engineering tasks, such as building static websites, will probably be completely automated. But he says that the adoption of GPT technology will be slower than many people expect, and it will not replace humans in most software engineering roles.
Surprisingly, only 3 or 4 of every 10 students at Codam are using GPTs regularly. Adoption is picking up, but it remains gradual.
An interesting consequence of GPTs is that the sequence of coding is sometimes reversed. Previously, you would write some code, and if you followed best practice you would then write some commentary on it to help future engineers use or debug the code. Now you can write the commentary, and have GPTs write the code based on that. Effectively, this is programming in natural language.
It is too soon to know exactly what impacts GPTs and other advanced AIs will have on education, and the impact will be very different depending on the timescale. The change in the next year will be eclipsed by the change in the next five years, and again in the next decade. In a period of exponential technological progress, the most important characteristic to cultivate is agility.