Re-thinking education for the Internet Age

By Ariel Diaz , written on October 31, 2012

From The News Desk

People talk now about the education system being "ripe for disruption." However, this has been true for hundreds of years, not just since the advent of the Internet Age. The current lecture model of teaching was developed before the printing press, where one person would read the only copy of a book, and the rest of the room would take notes. The invention of movable type enabled lower cost printing onto paper. And as the printing press spread throughout Europe, it facilitated the distribution of Bibles, pamphlets, and early academic work. These two modes of teaching were developed in the Middle Ages, and yet they still dominate today’s educational landscape.

But of course, the lack of innovation is only more apparent considering how far the world has come since the development of online resources. This medieval approach has dominated education for hundreds of years, in spite of major innovations like the computer, the Internet, and mobile. What will it take for education to be revolutionized?

The bad news:

US student performance has dropped significantly in the last two decades, with students ranking average in reading, and below average in math and science. In fact, studies of US education effectiveness have shown literally no correlation between education spending and student achievement.

Things don't look any better for college graduates: A college degree is no longer enough to guarantee a stable job and life, and employers complain that college graduates lack job skills. Education costs have risen at three to four times the rate of inflation over the last 30 years. Student debt in the US is now greater than all credit card debt, surpassing $1 trillion. Because of this added debt burden, younger people are buying fewer houses and cars, impacting the economy and slowing our recovery. The education bubble will make the housing bubble a distant memory.

These realities have led to a panic in academia, driving people to ask silly questions, like "Is Algebra Necessary?" Others claim that STEM education is overrated, even though it's believed a necessity to compete in our increasingly technology-driven world. Peter Thiel openly challenges the value of a college education and encourages top students to skip it altogether.

Also, academia is going through gut-wrenching changes. Higher education is losing its monopoly on certification while producing a glut of PhDs who will likely never have a chance at a tenured track position. Some people want to expand the influence of today's top institutions (think edX and Coursera), while others want to create radically new and better institutions (think Udacity and Minerva). Anyway you slice it, the very essence and meaning of education is up for grabs for the first time in centuries.

Why do we find ourselves in this predicament when technology has revolutionized every other information industry except education? The explosive growth of mobile, social, and the cloud has changed ecommerce and social communication. Android and iOS are rapidly approaching 1 billion devices. Social infrastructure makes the creation of new online communities quick and easy. Cloud enables new classes of products, faster deployment, and easier scale.

Educational startups, meanwhile, have not fared well due to long adoption cycles, slow moving organizations, and a lack of understanding of the market.

The good news:

Direct-to-consumer channels and the consumerization of education are helping overcome traditional distribution challenges, while the younger, increasingly digital-native generation of instructors and professors are open to new technology and willing to experiment with new products.

Education is bigger than all of advertising at 5.5 percent of our GDP. Advertising has supported tons of innovations (radio, TV) and created huge companies (Google, Facebook, etc). Why hasn’t education been able to leverage the colossal amount of spending towards innovation? Most of our resources go towards maintaining and propagating existing models. But that’s starting to change. VCs and entrepreneurs are starting to believe, and doing their share by putting money and time on the line. VC investment in education is on pace to increase five-fold compared with 2002, and the number of ed tech companies being founded is at an all time high.

Governments are also getting on board. The US Government is investing $2 billion over the next four years to create openly licensed professional and vocational educational content. The state of California has committed to Open Textbooks as a way to stop wasting $400 million a year on purchasing K-12 textbooks, and instead invest in re-usable evergreen content. We have an opportunity now to take this lead and begin investing more resources into the future of education, instead of supporting the status quo. We need to unlock the potential of that 5.5 percent of GDP spending to motivate and support innovation in education.

Technology has made the distribution of information and content essentially free. Yet in education we’re still spending tons of money in moving physical content around. Not only is this expensive, the nature of this physical content is severely limited. We can do much better.

Open educational resources, free and online, offer great learning content, created by highly experienced educators. Sites like Khan Academy focus on creating thousands of educational videos that anyone can access. Wikipedia offers open and free access for nearly any topic. Open access journals continue to gain steam and put research in more hands by leveraging new online distribution models. My startup, Boundless, is organizing openly licensed content to enable students to learn what they need without overpaying for traditional textbooks.

These trends in content will lead to a much stronger foundation for education to flourish. In the same way that the open source LAMP stack enabled faster and cheaper innovation for tech startups, the open content foundation will enable faster iteration and entirely new learning opportunities.

In addition to changing the way we distribute content, technology can also improve the way we facilitate learning. Companies like Knewton focus on personalized and adaptive learning. Technology trends like gamification, through badges, points, and progress, can help motivate students. Online communities, like Edmodo and Piazza, make teachers more effective by making it easy for them to share information, respond to individual students, and create a community for each classroom.

Traditional academic certification bodies have served us well to date, but we cannot rely on them to meet the needs of the future. They cannot scale because of limitations in bureaucracy, staffing, and physical campuses. President Obama has set a bold goal of increasing the nations college graduation rate to 60 percent, meaning we would need to graduate 8 million more students, 40 percent more students than we do today, by 2020. Unless we embrace the newly emerging certification models, this goal will be physically impossible. If we continue to scale linearly, it would require 40 percent more professors, more physical space, more books, more college campus land.

New educational models have the opportunity to educate more people much more efficiently. We’re already seeing this with free online courses like Coursera, Udacity, edX and others. Some are already offering college ready course credit, like Straighterline and Excelsior College, which grants credits for just the cost of the exam if you’ve learned the material elsewhere.

Looking towards the future of education

In 20 years, does anyone really think we'll be educating children and young adults in the same way we do today? The trends we are seeing now with increased venture funding, huge technology enablers, and dramatic urgency are very real and will lead to big transformations and a new crop of significant companies. What we will see is an evolution of the role of teachers, a resurgence in vocational and professional education, and a squeezing of the middle-tier education institutions.

We’re in the midst of an educational renaissance, facilitated by the same technological changes that have fueled innovation in countless industries. We’ll see the emergence of a new class of educational companies, offering alternative certification opportunities as traditional degree monopolies erode, and providing enabling technology or services to traditional and emerging educational companies.

These efforts will make education more accessible and learning more personal and effective. The future of education and education innovation is bright.

[Image courtesy pancakeeater]