Googleplex: In Search of Education’s Next Paradigm

by David Smetters, CEO of Respondus

My 5-year old son came home from school and asked “What is 1 plus googleplex?”

I stared at him blankly. We’d recently talked about infinity — how there’s no end to numbers because you can always add 1 — but I wasn’t sure where this was going. So I responded with my own question, “What’s googleplex?”

“Tre [a friend from school] said it’s the biggest number in the world. He said you can’t add anything to it because it’s the biggest number,” my son responded.

“I don’t think googleplex is a real thing,” I said.

“Tre said his father said it was the biggest number,” he countered.

I had to measure my next response. Fathers know everything, after all, and I didn’t want to undermine this notion.

“Well, I think Tre’s father must work at Google,” I finally said. There is a Google complex a few miles from our house, so this seemed like an acceptable non-answer to me. But not to my son.

“Look it up on your phone,” he pressed.

I pulled out my Apple iPhone, started the Microsoft Bing app, searched for “googleplex” and selected the first result by Wikipedia. “Googleplex is the corporate headquarters complex of Google, Inc.,” I read to my son. “Well, there you go.”

He reached over and started scrolling the page with his finger. That’s when I noticed something that read: ‘For the number, see googolplex’.  “Wait a second,” I said, as I regained control of the phone.

I selected the link with my finger and began to read aloud a mind-bending explanation of googolplex. My words were inaudible mumblings after a couple of sentences.

It turns out that Tre’s dad is right. Googolplex is real. A really big number. A real absurdity of a big number. If you were to print googolplex in numerals (i.e., “1,000,000,000…) on sheets of paper using a 10 point font … well, let’s stop right there. It’s impossible to write googolplex on paper because the paper required for such a task would more than fill the entire known universe — which, by the way, is 93 billion light-years in diameter.

As I slip the phone back in my pocket, I feel small. Not just because the universe suddenly got much bigger in my brain, but because my 5-year-old  is learning about things I don’t know. He’s asking questions and getting real answers in seconds, using a mobile phone, Bing and Wikipedia. I’m just a link in his learning chain, not the source of answers themselves.

There used to be a time when parents were the primary source of knowledge. Today, kids go elsewhere with their questions. They want immediate, more definitive answers to questions. They learn in non-structured ways throughout the day. They learn on their phones, on the internet, from links on Twitter and Facebook. A steady stream of learning — good and bad, important and trivial. Always learning, always something new. Always fast.

And then we send them to college.

And we complain that they don’t show up to lectures, that they don’t read (or even purchase) the textbooks. Kids don’t have the basic skills for learning anymore, or so we say.

But this is a mistake. It’s a mistake to think that today’s students don’t know how to learn. They are always learning. They just don’t learn the way we learned years ago. And they don’t learn what we want them to learn.  They are a bit like goats, carelessly devouring anything they encounter that’s mildly interesting.

So what are we to do as administrators and teachers? How do we direct students to learn what we want them to learn? Do we push information through Facebook? Tweet the highlights from a lecture? Sell the lecture notes on Groupon?

I wish I could say that the silver bullet is to use products by Respondus (our marketing team would certainly like that). But, of course, there is no single approach or product that can align learning objectives of educators with the way students prefer to learn. Even trying to define “how students prefer to learn” seems impossible nowadays. As technology continuously splinters learning styles into ever-smaller segments, trying to reach learners “where they are” seems impractical in today’s mass education model.

Educators find such issues frustrating, like constructing a building without a blueprint. But there is also excitement and adventure in this challenge. For me, the excitement is in knowing we are still in the early stages of the digital transformation of education. We are still poking, probing and piloting. We are discovering and discarding. We are scavenging from the methods of the past and bolting on technologies and pedagogies of the future.

The result is sometimes ugly and Frankensteined. But over time the edges smooth, the beauty emerges. Over time the successful approaches stand out and they standardize. Learning outcomes improve, administrators begin to breathe, and we see a glimmer of relief in the virtual eyes of our students.

For the record, I do believe that Respondus plays an important role in all of this. If administrators, teachers, politicians, publishers and software vendors agree on one thing about the transformation of education, it’s that assessment will play a major role in it. And assessment is what we do at Respondus. That’s all we do.

As for my son, I did a few more searches on my phone and learned that a googolplex of Planck (the smallest unit of measurable volume) will easily fit within a teaspoon. “Tell that one to Tre,” I said smugly.