Education must foster creativity – and fight inequality

source:   author: Hao Jingfang

Nowadays, two of the most frequently discussed topics in the media are perhaps the growing gap between rich and poor, and the challenges presented by Artificial Intelligence (AI).

These two problems are mentioned in my sci-fi novelette Folding Beijing, and people still haven’t found satisfactory solutions to them.

The causes of the widening social gap are various: globalization, the financial system, political policies, and, the most important one, the replacement of workers by automation.

As AI becomes more advanced, it is expected that it will replace more and more jobs now done by humans, increasing joblessness and social inequality.

These problems are not easy to solve.

Social welfare can help people survive, but it cannot help create hope.

Education as key

If countries cannot make proper preparations for these challenges, they may face extremely difficult challenges in having to deal with joblessness and social crises.

Only education can provide the tools to tackle the problem of inequality in the future.

Requirements for jobs in the age of AI are quite different to those in the industrial era.

Programmatic, repeatable work will be increasingly replaced by AI; while new jobs will require much more creative thinking, something that in many countries is not normally the main focus of the educational system.

What, then, should education do to solve the problem of inequality and lack of creativity?

In my view, the most important thing is to produce and share educational programmes that promote creativity.

First, we need a group of professionals who can lead the design of innovative educational programmes, including the content and teaching methods.

These should allow students to learn in explorative, creative ways, and focus on promoting the habits of self-learning and independent thinking, and make creative thinking the most important goal.

Education as commodity

Second, these innovative programmes should be shared broadly, by all children.

Nowadays, in many countries, education has become a high-price commodity, serving as the tool of an elite group to keep their social status advantages.

This undoubtedly exacerbates the problem of social inequality.

In addition to innovation in educational content, it is equally important to improve sharing mechanisms if we are to make progress.

We need to help all children, whatever their families’ status, to have the same opportunities to train and develop their creative thinking.

Can creativity be taught?

Traditionally, people have often considered creativity to be a set of special talents belonging to a few individuals; they saw it as a sign of genius, as a gift, and something brought about through inspiration.

However, new psychological studies suggest there are some common traits in the creative thinking processes.

One prominent feature is the feasible transition between divergent thinking and convergent thinking, which can be practised in classes.

The capacity to identify and then solve problems can be practised as well.

These traits can be trained through designed programmes. Teachers can ask more open questions, encourage students to give independent solutions, let them learn in creative ways, and establish virtuous cycles of explore-study-create in class.

Can this educational innovation be inclusive?

Traditionally, high-quality education has depended on face-to-face teaching by distinguished teachers, and so it was more or less restricted to prestigious campuses.

With new technologies, however, high-quality education can be promoted in a much broader way.

Internet courses can offer people free or low-price education, online applications, and AI techniques can help students learn by themselves; and this new teacher-training system can help spread innovative classes at relatively low cost. Only by these new paths, can all children share the advantages of educational innovation.

My own plans

Educational equality and educational innovation will be, I believe, the most important social issues in the future.

I hope to contribute my own energy into this meaningful process.

As a result, my friends and I have launched a new programme called “WePlan”, in order to explore programmes that promote creative thinking and share these new explorations with all kids in an inclusive way.

Our hope is that children from all families can share high-quality educational resources, and so share a future together.

Is online learning the future of education?


In the past, if you wanted to get a qualification, or even simply learn something new, you would sign up for a course at a bricks-and-mortar institution, pay any relevant fees, and then physically attend class. That was until the online learning revolution started.

Last year, the e-learning market was worth an enormous $166.5 billion. It’s been estimated that this will grow to $255 billion by 2017. Its growing financial value is matched only by the swelling numbers of students choosing to follow an online course.

In the latest Global Shapers Survey of 25,000 young people from across the world, 77.84% of respondents reported having taken online courses in the past. So is online learning the future of education?

What is online education?

Let’s start first by looking at what exactly it is. Online education takes two major forms. The first: for-credit courses where students enrolled in tertiary education take online classes offered by home or other higher education learning institutions for credit. Some well-known cases include the MIT OpenCourseWare and the Harvard Online learning.

The second form of online education consists of professional training and certification preparation. Such online learning is usually targeted at professionals or students seeking training or preparing for certification exams. Popular courses include training in foreign languages, accounting and nursing.

In the Global Shapers Survey, close to half (47.79%) of respondents said they would be willing to pursue certification for certain skills, including online certification, once they have started their working careers. This again speaks to the large potential and market for online education.

Teething problems

The growth of online education has not been without challenges. Since its early inception in the 1960s, online education has been constantly criticized for its apparent lack of quality control, particularly the scarcity of high-quality teachers.

It’s also been said that online learning deprives students of some of the benefits of being in a classroom, such as teacher-student interaction, as well as other things such as a reliable internet connection and electricity supply.

Overcoming the challenges in online learning

Regardless of these concerns, online education has made great strides in recent years. For starters, more and more institutions of higher learning have introduced or reinforced their online education platforms, the main considerations being cost reduction for students and recruitment expansion in face of rising competition. As a result, online education has become an increasingly important part of tertiary education, with colleges and universities using world-famous faculty members and professional support teams to promote online courses.

To tackle the question of teaching quality, a number of providers have turned to user rating and internal evaluation. Star teacher, for instance, has become a popular teacher evaluation mechanism in China and South Korea, two of the largest e-learning markets.

Overall, such progress seems to have eased the doubt about the quality of teaching, and 40.56% of respondents in the Global Shapers Survey said online education is as strong as traditional learning in a classroom, with another 11.76% saying they didn’t know.

The maturity of education technology has also enabled online education to become more manageable and accessible than ever before. All a prospective student needs is a computer, an internet connection and some basic IT skills.

As for the loss of traditional classroom features, online education has been making up for this through its flexibility and low cost. Students have access to their “classroom” recordings whenever they want, allowing them to go over ideas and review lessons at their convenience. Some have also pointed out that far from being an inferior learning experience, the one-on-one lessons that are often part of online education have taken teacher-student interaction to a new level, where one student is getting all the attention and the interaction, and training can be so unique and valuable.

Furthermore, some argue that online education has significantly helped make education more accessible, thus achieving the aim of “education for all”, a theme that has become a global mandate since the 1990s. While a large number of countries have made significant progress in their provision of basic education to all citizens, there are still too many people – often living in remote areas – who can’t access education.

But with an increasing number of “netizens” in rural areas in many developing countries, online education could be used to reach the last group of citizens without proper access to education and hence fulfill Sustainable Development Goal 4 concerning quality education.

Education for all

Undoubtedly, with the even wider spread of technology and deepening of the global mandate of education for all, online education’s potential to become complementary – or in some cases alternatives – to traditional education cannot be overlooked.

Instead of worrying whether or not online education can ever be as good as more traditional formats, perhaps we should instead focus on how we can use it to deliver quality education for people all over the world, particularly the poor and underserved.

This won’t be an easy task – online education is in dire need of regulation. Outstanding issues include the question of accreditation and quality control. This gets even more complicated when you consider the international dimensions. For years, cross-border credit or degree accreditation has been a major issue for various education systems. The flexibility of online learning will only make that harder.

The obstacles are real but not insurmountable. And the opportunity to make good on the promise of education for all is too big to miss.