Reduced to essentials, here’s what happens in most American schools and universities: A “teacher” appears before a group of pupils and talks, making notes on a board or putting up images, while students take notes. Classes range in size from 20 to 30 students in high schools to hundreds in large university lecture courses to individual tutorials at elite institutions like England’s ancient Oxford University.
Instructional course materials include textbooks, often supplemented by articles from books and journals and other audio-visual materials. Periodically, students are tested for their mastery of course materials and graded on their performance.
This basic method of learning and teaching has not changed much over the centuries, in some ways, perhaps, not since Socrates gave open-air lectures in ancient Greece.
But there is widespread public dissatisfaction with the performance of our schools, especially in poor and urban areas.
The situation is even more dire in our public universities, where state support has declined by as much as 50 percent over the past decade, while costs have increased faster than inflation. The result is skyrocketing tuition and fees -- and mushrooming student debt.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, America’s school graduation rates have slipped over the past three decades from first to 10th for percentage of the work force finishing high school; from third to 13th for percentage of those who graduated from college.
And though funding has been cut, the learning and teaching industry is still enormous. Michigan’s fiscal 2014 budget earmarks more than $15 billion for elementary, secondary and higher education from state sources.
Labor costs in this industry are high as well. Public schools, for example, are at the heart a highly regulated public utility, with very high labor costs and, mainly, quite resistant to change.
Yet like many other industries, education is also enormously vulnerable to developments in technology. That’s exactly what’s happening right now, and the result is likely to revolutionize our schools and colleges in ways both profound and unpredictable.
Schools in the 20th century were relatively impersonal, largely supply-driven institutions. For reasons of cost control, schooling has seldom been adapted to the needs and skills of each child. But in recent years, technological innovations have made it possible to monitor each individual child’s progress and to use data from past performance to modify and individualize what comes next.
Such systems, called “adaptive” in the trade, are becoming less and less expensive and more and more widely available.
There are tons of start-ups in the field, whether driven by venture capital entrepreneurs hoping to strike it rich or philanthropists hoping to improve society. The Economist reports GSV Advisors saying U.S. investment in ed-tech soared to $1.1 billion in 2012.
And, not surprisingly, this enormous promise is producing shivers of excitement -- and fear -- in our schools. When an adaptive schooling outfit, Khan Academy, presented its online tutorial technology and results at the West Michigan Policy Conference in Grand Rapids last year, the room was filled with enthusiastic business types … and not a few education professionals.
One possibility is a “flipped” model of a classroom, in which kids watch instructional videos at home and work on problems in class, where teachers can help them.
Many educators, including proponents of adaptive schooling programs, argue that a wholesale revolution in the assembly-line approach of most schools is the only real game-changer for American education. Certainly, the decentralized structure of Michigan schools with hundreds of individual school districts, controlled largely by the power of teacher unions and politicians, will no doubt slow down the train. But it is coming.
And the train is already moving in higher education, where Massive Open On-Line Courses (MOOCs) have already been adopted by dozens of universities. In theory, a lecture on solid-state circuits given by an expert and delivered on-line to literally hundreds of thousands of students world-wide, could provide enormously increased access to course materials at vastly reduced cost.
Already struggling to “bend the cost curve” in the face of declining public support and increasing tuition, universities are looking on the MOOC movement with a combination of delight and fear. They’re enthused at the idea of making university-level learning available literally all around the globe, yet they’re also terrified students will ask why they should pay $40,000 a year to a university when the same course material is available essentially for free.
I talked at length about all this with my old friend, Paul Courant, a former University of Michigan provost. Courant quoted former Princeton University President William Bowen: “It is appalling how little is actually known about the outcomes produced by various forms of online learning.” He speculates that the MOOC movement will change rapidly in the next few years as we learn more about the results, and universities figure out how to integrate them into their established curricula. One possibility, Courant says, is for online courses to deploy advanced students in the subject as resident instructors, working on-line or in-person with MOOC participants.
“That way,” he says, “you might get the best of both worlds.”
But Courant cautions that MOOC’s might be fine for conveying specific facts on a specific subject -- solid state circuits, say -- but not for more subjective and nuanced subjects such as poetry.
What is clear to me is that the onrush of technology is bound to change what up to now has been a relatively unchanged business model for the learning and teaching industry in both schools and universities. It may take some years, but the foundations of our schools and colleges are already beginning to change.
Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.