The times, they are a changin’. Every day we read about companies, industries, and ways of life overturned by technology. Orbitz and other websites replace travel agencies. Uber makes taxi companies quake in their boots. Netflix and others put the video rental chains out of business. Cable television may be next to go.
Education lumbers along, barely changed since 20, 40, or 60 years ago.
Obviously there have been some changes. Kids don’t use slide rules much any more. Research now mostly involves the internet rather than searching through a library. But that’s minor stuff. In terms of how it’s organized, education still looks a lot like it did when my dad was young. Every day, tens of millions of children between the ages of 6 and 18 are walked, driven, or bussed to ugly, box-like buildings. There they listen to droning teachers and are forced to go through endlessly repetitive exercises on worksheets and workbooks. Meanwhile, millions more aged 18 to 22 are at colleges and universities, where they buy textbooks, attend lectures, and takes quizzes and exams. Other than a little bit of technology at the edges, it would all be familiar to someone who time-traveled from the Eisenhower Administration.
It will change some day, however. For starters, people are challenging the notion that every kid should be packed off to a public school determined solely by where his or her parents happen to live. New options are arising. In some places, parents are allowed to choose among different public schools. In some, charter schools offer a different option. Elsewhere, school vouchers let parents pick a private school. Homeschooling is a possibility, and legal barriers to it are falling. All of these options have been growing in recent years, charter schools most particularly. Those who fight for the old model, where most children were trapped in whatever public school served their parents’ neighborhood, are clearly on the wrong side of history.
Yet for all that, none of those options other than home-schooling changes the idea of education very much. Most private schools look a lot like public schools: students arrive in class, sit in desks, listen to teachers, do worksheets or homework assignments out of textbooks, take quizzes and tests. Repeat for 13 years and you’ve got an education.
Now that may be changing, since technology offers different ways to educate. Of course, correspondence education has been around for a long time, but typically played only a minor role. It’s been assumed that having a knowledgeable person in the room with the students is vital to the success of education, and when compared to only reading a book on a subject, that’s probably correct. But new educational software offers a much broader set of options. A 21st century student can watch a video lecture on calculus. But if she gets confused at some point, she can give the software a detailed explanation of what she’s unable to understand. The software then determines the right way to address her confusion, possibly by switching to a different video or some other approach to an explanation, or connecting her to a human tutor over the internet. In this way, the student gets the same sort of dynamic interaction as a physical classroom with a physical professor.
A few years ago, everyone was talking about MOOCs, which turned out to not be such a big deal. In the past few years, actual online courses which offer actual credit, and which use more diverse and effective means of teaching material online, have exploded. Everyone knows that college education in this country is too expensive and many people graduate without good job prospects. Online courses are letting students–or at least the smart ones–spend less while learning more.
Not surprisingly, K-12 education lags behind college in this area, since the government largely shields it from competition. Nonetheless, some progress is being made. Right now, hundreds of thousands of students are enrolled in online schools after withdrawing from traditional public school, while other students take some of their courses online. As an example of how this may look in the future, the state of Arizona offers Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. Students who are either in failing public schools or have special needs can be withdrawn from school, and the state instead makes available to their parents a portion of the cost of the child’s education. But what makes this different from a traditional voucher program is that the parents need not spend the money on a private school. Instead they can distribute the money among multiple schools, private tutors, or online educations options, however they see fit within certain parameters. This is true school choice. Parents not only choose where there kid goes to school, but also whether to use physical school.
I rather imagine that within my lifetime, public schools and universities as we know them will be as obsolete as the Pony Express and Blockbuster Video.