Staff interview #13 Masayuki Watanabe

Learning will become more liberal

The area we are working on is ‘leaning’. I think learning in the future will become more and more liberal. Let’s say in 10 years’ time, I think it may have become something completely different.

 

When I say it will become liberal, you may think ‘what is inconvenient now?’ This must be quite a tricky question to realize by ourselves.For us, it is natural to start receiving obligational ‘learning’ that has been provided by each society.

 

However, if we think about it, ‘learning’ we experience at school starts at the same age of the very early stage of our life, makes us stay in the same room from morning to evening, and makes us ‘receive’ the lessons that proceeds evenly from a teacher standing in front of us. Standard division of subjects and curriculums are available determined uniformly by the government, and we basically get trained for memorization and solution.

 

Even more, with the current educational system in Japan, many things like the university you can go, the occupation you can take, and your lifetime income are related with the degree of achievement. This makes your parents and other people around you say ‘study desperately’, and you feel you have to do that.

 

Don’t you think this is quite a surreal system if you closely think about it?

 

This is almost the same as mass manufacturing something at a factory that applies the same processing at one line. In addition, this is continuing for more than 1,000 years in the educational field. There used to be a system called ‘examination for higher civil services’ in ancient China, and we have been copying that system almost without changing it. Can you think of a reason why? I think that is because this is the most efficient system that can be provided.

 

So, for whom is this efficient? It is for the politician and for the society itself. This is because the power force to earn tax revenue to maintain tangible and intangible infrastructure has been workers who work obediently and are good at acquiring necessary skills for clerical tasks and memorization. I have to agree that at least in terms of efficiency, it has been a right approach for a long time.

 

Having said that, it is also true that the technological innovation including internet and Artificial Intelligence is causing the change of social structure and sense of values. Naturally, this is changing learning drastically. If the society and/or sense of value changes, the definition of happiness will also change, and people will start choosing different learning just because they want themselves/their kids to be happy. It is not changing learning that makes the society change, it is vice versa and the change of society and sense of value change the learning. I think this is important.

 

Initially, we have to learn basic rules and common recognition for becoming a member of society as a part of basic education. However, I believe we only need to spend 10-20% of the whole time at school for that. We should be able to learn things we want to do, or things we think necessary during the remaining 80%, and it should be done liberally at our own paces and timing. Alternatively, what we need to train in the future society and with the new sense of value may not be memorizing, solutions, or understandings, but be arts, attitudes and diversities. If we look at the future that is too far, or start too detailed discussions, it may sound like a religious war, but I think the broad direction will definitely like this.

 

To realize new learning, technology is essential of course. Who thinks when the society and the sense of value change due to technology, the accompanying education is unrelated?

 

As StudySapuri and Quipper are already doing, services like delivering extremely high-quality lessons individually, customizing the individual learning processes, or providing many-to-many coaching to nurturing meta-cognition have become available, thanks to technology.

Until a while ago, I thought that it would be possible to change the world by sweeping the educational market all at once with a brand new innovative and enlightening methods, but recently, I changed my opinions and no longer thought so.

Instead, I now think the structure of the person teaching people and the person guiding people is fundamentally unchangeable, and the only way to change the world is to build up the services using the technology by studying the action of teaching and guiding, determining the critical points, and realizing those critical points at the higher levels.



Masa's Lecture at ISAK, photo by Dean Kirkness

Bottom-up revolution of learning

I think that education will have changed greatly in 10 years’ time. Unlike the Bourgeois revolution in the history textbook, everything will not change on a particular preset day. As I have mentioned earlier, with the revolution in the educational field, things will gradually change in 10-20 years’ time by meeting the change of the society.

At the same time, we also need to verify what sort of curriculum and lectures are suitable for students or adults, and if the assessment is appropriate or not. Public education has weakness when the situation goes wrong because there would be no other choices and it would be impossible to undone. In many cases, I think it is necessary to build up curriculums, lectures, and assessments by having opportunities to spend with students and discuss in a bottom-up manner.

In the private sector, the principle of the market just weeds out odd things, so the degree of liberty is relatively high. However, we can never be irresponsible as what we are dealing with is education.

 

If we keep tackling these issues, we will find ourselves say ‘this is very different from the education of 10 years ago, isn’t it?’

The reality of how the world changes is often happening just like this. Think about the internet. 20 years ago in 1998, when it was still the dawning era of the internet, it was incredibly slow and unreliable, and no one apart from very few even imagined a communication like this would change the world. Since then, the environment gradually improved and more internet services became available. Suddenly, it has become an indispensable tool, and the society has enormously changed.

If the government had intervened 20 years ago, and had forced to introduce internet like saying ‘we prohibit paper-based communication starting today’, the expansion would have been less varied. I think this is the same with education. Going step by step with everyone will bring significantly varied results comparing to a top-down drastic change.

Becoming the one who creates the future of educational field

No one perfectly saw through the current society 20 years ago, but there were people who had plans and dreams such as internet should be used this way, this kind of service should make the world better, and so on. Notable examples should be Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, and Larry Page and Sergey Brin, of Google.

Similarly, 10 years ago, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook was one of those people who clearly saw the value and result of the new communication, and where the society should be heading to.

People like them, who establish the vision for future, wave the flag involving others, and create the change, actually change the society. In the educational field, we would like to be the one.

 

What I personally think about the direction of education is the world should be more liberal and fairer. Everyone should have an access to the thing he/she would like to try and should not be criticized even if he/she does not succeed. I would like to change the current situation where people are bounded by the inflexible and sensitive sense of value, and are looked down if they drop out, such as people think their lives have finished if they fail an entrance exam, and your life-long income is more or less decided by the company you first work for.

If everyone shares sense of value, learning in reality should become even more important. That is because you can challenge whatever and whenever you want if you learn.

Won’t it be more fun if you learn things in order to make your life fuller and happier than you train reading comprehension because you need it for your entrance exam? I think if more people decide what to learn with their own will, and become able to keep learning with sense of satisfaction by themselves, learning will be more easygoing and fun.

 

Please keep in mind that when we are progressing, it is meaningless to play cool out of self-satisfaction and provide services that are no use to users. Keeping it in mind, we have to face the current entrance exams and grading systems which students, parents and teachers are facing. That is because those are the existing problems. I think we will have to deal with them one by one, and this is the quickest way.

 

Google is providing various services today, but they have not realized the 20-year-old huge perfect plan at the perfect timing.

They started as a very simple search engine. Once they got used by many people, re-investment became possible. Since then, they kept changing, adding and taking their services and they have gradually become as they are now. I think it is necessary to be aware that the service evolves as it is used by the user to finally realize the vision.

 

Educational business has an especially long span. Users change every year. It is really difficult to change and accumulate something in this business. You feel there is a vast distance to the situation you would like it to be. I know it is easy to deny the difference from your ideal status, but I think it is necessary to regard it as a long-distance race.

There is an enormous market, and we are making excellent services. Yes, we can definitely grow businesswise.

In terms of business, the educational business is easily inclined to becoming volunteer-like, and start ignoring profitability. If you think about it, the public education is free of charge.

However, if you start acting like a volunteer, and start using public funds, you will soon find yourself in the middle of political adjustment. If we are to keep the future image of ourselves and to get close to users, being independent financially is an absolute necessity.

Being badly involved with the political movement and opinions should be strictly prohibited when dealing with education. Because the business has to be sustained for a long period of time, it is absolutely necessary to have an independent resource so that we will not be affected by others. It is possible to grow our business because we are a strong team who are trying to make something really good in the huge market of education.

 

Creating good services is costly. In reality, we have invested to some extent. However, it is said the market size of the educational field is 20 trillion yen all over the world. Most governments regard the education of the youth as one of the most important issues, and I believe it is the same for parents and students themselves. The market we are targeting is enormous. In Japan, the size may seem to be shrinking because of sub-replacement fertility, but I think the market will continue to grow to meet the needs of life-time education and learning which is related to business. I believe we can grow business wise because we are a strong team which is trying to make something really good with every virtue.

‘s’ in ‘Distributors of Wisdom’

Let me mention the vision of "Distributors of Wisdom" again. When I created this, I felt that wisdom and knowledge should not be conveyed by one way to students from the teacher. Knowledge should be distributed more dynamically. Also, not only limited to professionals, anyone should be able to teach, be taught, draw out knowledge from where it is pooled, and put it back to the pool when you have understood it so that it can be referred to those who would like to know the same thing later. I was imagining the world where the knowledge was exchanged more fluidly like this. I also thought that the flow of the knowledge would be more liberal if we used the technology. I hoped I could make ‘distribution revolution’ happen in education.

I have made ‘Distributors’ plural because I want to make it clear that we are promoting the distribution revolution as a team. We, Quipper, are a team that is always aiming at the revolution.

We may be having tough time, but we are doing something really interesting and significant. So, why don’t we all have fun?

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