A Machine for Online Education

This is an excerpt from a novel called Society Changed:

Kelly Phillips has just retired from an exhausting career as an actress.  After graduating from university with a fine degree in music and theatre, she exploited her enormous talents and spent a decade on the stage.  It was highly satisfying and earned her sufficient money to retire on, but she’d had enough of it.  Still young and used to an active life, she is increasingly restless.  One project now underway is to have a baby, but that will not keep her busy.  Kelly’s mentor Alice is concerned about Kelly’s desire to find something meaningful to do with the rest of her life:

“So, did you ask the computer?”


“And what are you going to do with the rest of your life?”

“I don’t know.”

“Didn’t the computer tell you?”


“Didn’t you ask it?”

“No, I only asked about the next few years.”

“OK, and what did it say, smarty?”

“Go to school, get a doctorate.”

“Ah, I coulda toldya that.”

“Didn’t though, didja?”

“Nope.  Gonna?”


“Good.  Where?”

“I dunno.  SoTech, I guess.  I’m not really qualified to enter a doctoral program, though, am I?  I don’t know how to get started.”

“I don’t know either.  All I can say is consult the software.  The other guys’ software too, if ours doesn’t help.”

“Yeah, OK, I’ll try that.  If it tells me to go back to kindergarten and start all over again, I’m not doing it.”

Various advice programs were available for her to use.  Kelly had a long conversation with each of the three best ones.  After some thought she tried the Tech Fantasies system again. Where to go, how to get in, what to study, details.  Interesting. Possible. Then she tried the Harmony Match Project’s version again, same questions.  Then she tried the system usually just called The System, or Beth Green’s system. In all three cases she had updated her information to show that she was pregnant and expecting in September.

All of the social software systems had suggested getting more education.  They led her in the direction of grad studies.  The System recommended grad studies in Social Psychology or Human Relationships, more specific advice than she had gotten before.  Alright.  Good.  Kelly told the software to focus on that kind of education.  This immediately produced a more specific answer still. “Enter doctoral program in Human Relationships at Social Technology University, unless a move to another location is anticipated.”

This was the most specific answer Kelly had received yet, but it presented a problem.  She had none of the prerequisites for such a program, nothing more than freshman undergraduate courses in psychology and sociology.   She asked asked how she fill in the gaps in her education.  The Tech Fantasies version of the software responded at once.

“You have an interest in Human Relationships going back to childhood.  Your experience in the theatre has probably helped your understanding of human relationships.  The Social Technology University has the best department and best teachers in this field. It is possible to get into that university and do these studies with not too much additional work.”


“It would be possible for you to enter graduate studies at almost any university if you take various kinds of make-up work to fill in for missed prerequisites.   Social Technology University is probably the best match for your educational desires and needs, but the Social Technology University is not easy to get into.  As former student of that institution it would be easiest to get registered for university extension, the addition of arbitrary courses to your existing educational achievement.  Once registered at that institution it is not necessary to actually take courses there. As a registered student it would be easy to arrange for university extension credit at Social Technology regardless of where you actually took the courses.”

“Where would I go?”

“With sufficient university extension credit, admission to graduate studies for a student already registered at the institution is just a matter of standard procedure, which should be easy in you case.  Do you want help with this?”


“Here is the plan.  You can amend it or ask for immediate implementation.  Apply to the Social Technology University for unspecified university extension courses, or click Change to generate other options.  Request the services of the New York Academic and Technical University to fill in your missing background knowledge by working at home.  Use this device as an interactive teacher, also using it to communicate with other students.”
Also, attend the special Friday sessions held jointly by Social Technology, NYATU and NYU while possible, before and after your baby is born.”

“That sounds good.  Now what.”

“The first few step will be done automatically for you, if you wish.”

“Sure, go ahead.”

“Done.  A date and time stamped application in your name has been submitted to the New York Social Technology University for university extension.  It is not necessary to wait for this application to be accepted before seeking courses elsewhere, if you wish to do so.  You will see that you have been accepted as a student of the Home Educational Services of the New York Academic and Technical University.  The University system must evaluate your current level of general knowledge before continuing.  A preliminary examination will begin when you press Start.  It will include questions about what you wish to do with your education.”

A woman’s voice began to ask questions.  Kelly suspected that she was now connected to the university server.

“The following questions are multiple choice.  Answer until you are tired of them or encounter difficulties.  Just say so if you are.   Most of the questions will be multiple choice.  Pick the answer that most applies.  It is always better to say that you don’t know than just to guess.” Press Start to begin, ContinueLater to continue at some later time, or Help for more information.  Do you understand.”

“Yup, gotcha.”

“Which came first:

  • the Roman Empire
  • the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus
  • the building of the pyramids in Eygpt
  • d) the French Revolution
  • e) the Italian Renaisance
  • don’t know.”

Ah, easy question.  The building of the pyramids came first.  Kelly answered questions like this, harder and harder, more and more specific, for about half an hour until coming across a question about her interests.

“Which areas of study interest you the most:

  • the physical sciences, such as physics or chemistry
  • social sciences such as psychology or sociology
  • biology or medicine
  • art or music
  • elementary or secondary education
  • don’t know.”

Kelly picked the social sciences.  She was sure about that.

Then it was back to more academic questions, this time mostly about psychology.  After another 45 minutes she said she was tired.  The machine responded with “More assessment is necessary.  Lessons will begin after about 200 questions have been answered.  An review of results so far may be obtained after the next session.”

Well, so far so good.  After the next session the machine gave her an opportunity to review her results.

“You have knowledge at approximately the level of a person who has finished 2 years of undergraduate study in the areas of your interest, which are psychology and sociology, possibly the study of human relationships.  Your knowledge of facts and theories is good, above the stated level, but your knowledge of sources is below the stated level.  You need to learn more about the people who formulated the theories and got experimental evidence of the facts.  It is recommended that you increase your general knowledge of other fields while learning more about sources of knowledge in your chosen fields. Graduate studies in those fields is highly recommended.”

For her third session, Kelly got a page full of information to read.  After she had pressed a button to indicate she had read the information and thought she understood it, she was shown a page containing 8 multiple choice questions.  Over the course of a two hour session before lunch Kelly was presented with 10 such pages of information and answered a total of 80 multiple choice questions.  Then came her evaluation:

“You made few errors.  Here is a comparison of your answers with the best known answers to the few question where these did not match:”

Tactful.  And the results were useful.

“Question: what age range corresponds to one standard deviation from the mean age for girls who get pregnant before ever having a menstrual period? Five choices were given, all based on whole integers.  Your answer was 10 to 12.  Best answer: 11 to 13.  People who answered the way you did may be overestimating the number of very young girls who get pregnant, but most often this error is because of underestimating the number of girls who start menstruating at a late age.”

Wow!  Not just X marks the error but a good explanation of what I did wrong. Kelly was happy with the results.

After lunch she did the same amount of work.  Some was conversational, but she was also asked to read through 10 pages of text before again answered 80 questions.  She took some time to read over the material, which was fascinating, so her evaluations were good.

Ten days into her work, Kelly was asked to read 3 one-page essays on a specific topic and to rate them according to the information contained and the quality of the writing, picking out the best of the three and the worst according to content then the best and worst according to presentation.

Why did they want her to do that?  Well she did it anyway.

Two days later the machine asked her to write a one page essay herself, the topic being chosen for her.  The same thing happened the next week and the next.

Every 10 sessions, approximately, she was asked to evaluate 3 essays, picking the best and worst according to the same two criteria.  Also after about 10 sessions, and usually on a different day, she was asked to write a one page essay of her own.

This was all very puzzling.  One day she asked for an explanation.  The software voiced this reply:

“Using your answers to test questions we are comparing you with other students to place you in a group of three students who tend to make different errors.  You will remain anonymous to each other.  The three of you are each being asked to evaluate 3 essays, and from your selections the authors are rated.  You are also rated according to your ability to read and evaluate other people’s text.  Your own essays are being treated the same way, given to carefully matched triples of readers for evaluation.  This will test both your knowledge of the subject and your ability to write.  A large number of students are therefore writing, reading and evaluating each others work.  At a later time there will be longer essays, to be treated the same way.”

Interesting.  It became more obvious how this worked when Kelly was asked to suggest essay topics. At other times she was asked to read three suggested essay topics and evaluate them.  This would go on throughout her time at NYATU, but Kelly would never be asked to write on a topic she had suggested or evaluated.

Kelly explained all this to Alice.

“My god, Kel, it is a giant machine. The students seem to be running the whole show.  What do the profs do?”

“Well, for those taking courses at home this is a bit like a machine, right.  Someone has to generate the multiple choice questions and the lessons, though. I guess the same material is used for people taking classes on campus, but they have lectures and tutorials there.  Actually I’ve been told that I can go to any lectures that I want to. They will also arrange extra tutorials for people if enough people want them, whether they study on campus or
entirely online.  It’s wonderful.”

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