The world of computing is getting bigger—by getting smaller. MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld gave a talk at TED in 2006 detailing the new developments in computing: in addition to the possibilities of quantum computing, Gershenfeld and his students use his “fab lab” to explore how computing can change the world of manufacturing. The implications of his research include personal manufacturing machines, not unlike the matter compilers in science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Gershenfeld declares that the digital revolution is over, and that we’ve won—but even with the victory of the digital age, technology will require more creativity to win the next revolution.

Thinking outside the box—and the classroom

What Gershenfeld, his students and his colleagues have done with fab labs is in itself revolutionary: by pairing digital power with practicality and necessity, they give inventors in all corners of the world the ability to create their own products. And some of those machines will be able to replicate themselves, as well as create other machines. It’s this kind of innovation that can lead the next industrial revolution: smaller demand, serving a smaller community, and tailoring products specifically for the needs of consumers. A decentralization of supply and demand will mean that large corporations will have to diversify or that small business and business owners could once again control the marketplace.

Manufacturing and computing are connected in fab labs, but education could use several of Gershenfeld’s techniques as a way to improve teaching and learning. The concept of using technology to connect small groups of people for the purpose of education isn’t a new one, but—just like the digital revolution—an educational revolution could be fought and won.

Increasing productivity by decentralizing education

Education is not a commodity; its value changes depending on supply and demand, as well as the institutions providing education. And in a large market, the quality of an education can make the difference between a person landing a job and having to do another round of interviews. But in a decentralized education model—like students enrolling in online education programs, or workers using the Internet to learn and gain new skills—the power of earning an education is shifted toward the students.

With the increased facilitation of online teaching and learning, education can become a more collaborative act. Students in one country can learn a trade or skill online, and then teach it to others in their community—like self-replicating machines; the information is absorbed and passed on to others. The Internet is already laying a foundation for decentralized, online education to become more widespread: between online universities and other initiatives to bring free education to the masses, the ivory towers of academia are slowly becoming the coffee houses, libraries, and living rooms of everyday people. And people can tailor their educations to the jobs available in their communities—or as they use their educations to create a career that can help them better serve their communities.

Neil Gershenfeld believes the digital revolution has been fought and won—and perhaps he’s right. But a larger battle is on the horizon: providing a well-rounded, valuable education to anyone who wants it. With the Internet and other technology, that’s becoming possible—and as technology advances, so do the possibilities for a stronger, more efficiently educated population.