A page from the Hilbert playbook

In June, I gave a talk, “Confessions of a fundamentalist”, at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. The first half of the talk was reported in two separate articles in OLPC News. (Please see Part 1 and Part 2.)

I had promised to blog the second half of the talk, which was called, “A page from the Hilbert playbook.”

In 1900, the German mathematician David Hilbert posed 23 problems in mathematics that were very influential to 20th century mathematics. Subsequently, variants of this device has been used to draw attention to additional challenges in mathematics and in other disciplines. While I am no certainly no Hilbert, I use the device here to draw attention to a number of problems—perhaps not as intractable as the Riemann hypothesis—facing the intervention of technology on learning (still in draft form):

Computer Science:

(1) How does one build an efficient, scalable, affordable community network? (802.11s is not yet the solution and may never be.) How do we efficiently connect these local networks to the global network?

(2) Are there scalable architectures for software development such that one can reach towards complexity while maintaining a level of simplicity so as to not be unapproachable for the uninitiated? Can these architectures be open to local development and yet, within reason, secure to malware? Can these architectures be reasonably efficient?

(3) Is there a better distributed fully-persistent versioned file system? And a better flash file system?

(4) Are there more efficient means of internationalization and localization? We need to scale these efforts by three orders of magnitude in order to reach every corner of the planet.

(5) Can we design a more symmetric global content distribution system, so that people everywhere are on a more equal footing as both creators and consumers of content?


(6) Can we develop low-power computing and alternative power systems?

(7) Can we develop low-cost computing (and buck industry’s predilection for marketing bigger and faster systems to no purpose)?

(8) Can we build environmentally-robust computing?


(9) Can we validate methods that lead to fluency, such as “scaffolding” in support of “learning through doing” at scale and across disciplines? (We still have many open questions about learning: How well do we understand mastery? How well do we understand understanding? How do we measure what we value instead of value what we can measure?)

(10) Is school reform possible (in our lifetimes)? Are there systemic approaches to overcoming the systemic barriers to change?

(11) How can we unleash the teacher in the classroom and in each of us?

(12) Are there new tools for collaboration, critique, and meaningful evaluation? (There lessons the education community can learn from the FOSS community.)

(13) How can we engaging the local, regional, and global communities to help? Are there any other ways to scale such that every child has an opportunity for a quality learning experience.


(14) What are the best models for the governance of volunteer communities?

(15) Are there new economic models for schooling?

(16) What are the micro-economics of learning? Of support? Of economic development?

(17) Is it possible to validate the hypothesis that learning (coupled with freedom of thought) leads to economic development?

(18) Are there better models of FOSS economic (and technological) impact?

Social Sciences:

(19) How will we cope with a switch in the balance of knowledge and knowledge creation? How does this impact local culture and social norms?

(20) What does it mean for a child to create content from both legal and cultural perspectives?

(21) Who should pay for learning? Is it a basic human right? Is it a means to combat poverty and the other root causes of social unrest?

(22) What “shoulders of giants” should we stand on? What is it that children should learn? Are there any universals? How do children decide whom and what to believe?

(23) How can open-content programs such as Open Courseware be expanded? Should contribution to a knowledge commons be the de rigour for universities?

Learning Learning

These problems are beyond the scope of any one organization—many in fact are by their very nature global. I propose that we establish a “Learning Learning consortium” with a mission to supporting universal access to innovative quality education worldwide. It would engage universities around the world to take action. (We have many “think tanks” but far too few “action tanks”.)

Two universities in Peru are giving students a semester of course credit to spend time in the field in support of their country’s learning initiative. (Pairs of students—one from education and one from engineering—are spending time in schools throughout the most rural regions of the country, observing, supporting, and spreading best practices.) This is but one example of how universities can get involved. We need to invent many more ways, put them into practice, evaluate them, and share the ones that work.

Universities need to use their power to convene—bringing the best and brightest minds to these questions.

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