A Bus Model For Global, Human-Centered Education

Miranda Lin Li

Through this blog series, we are exploring what the world can look like when technology is designed and deployed for the benefit of all. These broad, near-future speculative pieces are designed to de-center dominant narratives and challenge us all to realize that things can be different. These are not alternative realities, they are possible futures.

Illustration by Sylvia Pericles.

Illustration of five people sitting around a round, light blue table. Behind them are what looks like the walls of a bus, with hanging straps for passengers to grip, and a view of a sunset over mountains. The people represent a variety of skin tones, ethnicities and backgrounds: two are Black, one woman wears a hijab, and they are performing activities such as reading, working on a laptop, and conversing with each other.

As technology develops and automation threatens to displace more people from their jobs with estimates that  85 million jobs will be lost by 2025, disproportionately affecting those in the global South, we need to just as rapidly increase our capacity for educating these displaced workers and empower them to attain another means of livelihood via new skills and knowledge. To this end, I dream of an educational system which makes use of available technology for high-quality, human-centered global education for children and adults alike.

Imagine a global online school where, like a top-tier university, there are many subject areas to choose from depending on one's personal preferences or needs, with subject matter experts in all areas, and people, real people, there to offer personal support in your learning journey as mentors or peers. Unlike a top-tier university, this school provides not only knowledge-based but also skills-based education, charges no tuition.

Attendance can be forever, whenever you want, in whatever language you are most comfortable with. If you don't understand a particular subject, you can repeat it as many times as you like before taking the final exam. If you already understand a subject and want a more advanced coverage, you have no obligation to take classes which wouldn't serve you. This school provides reputable credentials that are internationally recognized , and maintains a student-teacher ratio of no more than 20:1, ensuring individualized attention and support. The diverse pool of instructors includes experienced educators, industry professionals, and subject matter experts from around the globe, all passionate about sharing their knowledge and skills with students. The school also has ample infrastructure for students to meet other students virtually and in-person.

The concept of  a “bus model” in education, where students can "get on the bus" and begin learning from any point in the course, and "get off the bus", pausing the course, at their leisure, has recently been made possible through massively open online courses (MOOCs). MOOCs are online courses that  enable a self-paced educational experience, often free, and most have no time limit. However, the human element is lacking in MOOCs -- it is difficult for students to remain committed to the course without the social aspects of a traditional classroom setting (a teacher, peers). On average, only 5-15% of students finish online courses.

From an online, introductory computer science course I work on called Code in Place, we have seen evidence that there are plenty of people out there who want to learn, and, importantly, plenty of people who want to teach what they know — we have offered it for three years so far and have had over 30,000 students and 3,000 volunteer teachers. Code in Place took inspiration from massively open online courses (MOOCs) but also implemented weekly virtual meetings between around 10 students and 1 teacher, in several languages, to center human interaction in the learning process.

Though Code in Place is a very promising step in the right direction, the global school I am describing is more ambitious: people have the agency to create their own curricula, their own courses based on their own culture and community's needs, and to implement hybrid models of teaching where in-person elements are integral to the course. The technology is already ready for such a school, but there are many interesting challenges which make actually implementing such a thing difficult — safety, motivation and incentives, balancing the autonomy of the student with the ability to form communities around shared experiences, creating easy ways to re-integrate socially when one falls behind, etc.

In order to create a global school which is truly designed for everyone, we need diverse technologists from a variety of pedagogical and cultural backgrounds to chime in and contribute to thinking about and working on these interesting issues. I am optimistic, though, that such a school could exist in the near future. I believe in a global online school as a flexible means of sharing useful skills and knowledge and a centralized platform to form lasting, meaningful relationships centered on learning and teaching cross-culturally.

Imagine a world where free, high-quality education is accessible to anyone, anywhere; where learning knows no boundaries of geography, financial means, or social circumstances. A world that celebrates the collective knowledge and skills of humanity across cultures. This is the promise of a global, human-centered online school. By harnessing technology, we can create an inclusive, engaging learning environment that empowers individuals and communities to thrive, fostering a global community of lifelong learners and teachers united by a passion for knowledge and mutual success.

Learn more about Code in Place at https://codeinplace.stanford.edu/! You can access the material at any time: the next course with teachers will run from April 22nd - May 31st, 2024. Teaching applications for Code in Place 2024 close on April 7, 2024 and student applications close on April 12, 2024.