The Coming Tsunami in Education

As the Valley recovers and growth resumes, we can’t go back to old models of education. The current systems we use to fund and operate both public and private educational institutions are not sustainable in the long run. Troubling low test scores and graduation rates in our public schools discourage increased funding, and private school tuition and fees keep increasing year after year, with no end in sight, limiting access to top-flight education. I’m one of a growing number of educators who believes that those past constants are about to change and dramatically alter the educational landscape.

The notion of distance education has been around for decades, lingering despite flaws, because it is in many ways more economic and convenient. What if those flaws could be eliminated, and distance education turned out to be not only more economical and more convenient but also more effective in terms of learning outcomes?

But now, digital technology, the proliferation of wireless Internet service and the advent of mobile devices have made online learning possible on a scale heretofore impossible. These changes are about to disrupt education with a tsunami-like revolution. Organizations such as Khan Academy, Coursera and edX, that offer free, online courses to millions of people around the world are collecting enormous amounts of data on student learning patterns. This has resulted in improvements to courses, which has in turn improved outcomes markedly over those achieved in traditional classrooms with one teacher and 25 or 35 students.

For-profit enterprises—such as the textbook publishers that have abandoned their printed textbook businesses as rapidly as possible of late—will provide online learning modules that increase student achievement at a lower cost and with more personal choice than ever before. “Blended” learning will become the norm, with students absorbing content online at their own pace at times of the day that they choose, spending more than 50 percent less face time with teachers, whose roles will shift to being mentors and coaches rather that the source of knowledge. This shift would allow us to educate twice the number of students with existing staff, or, alternatively, allow us to reduce personnel costs by a similar percentage.

In other words, present levels of funding for public schools would become more than adequate to expect large-scale improvements, and private schools would be able to increase access by lowering their tuitions substantially.

Moreover, in the 21st century, education may turn out not to be the bricks-and-mortar proposition it has been in the past. Older students, particularly, will have considerably less reason to be tied to a physical space for learning during a fixed number of hours a day, suggesting that the flexible utilization of existing facilities will expand capacity for growth well into the future without those pesky school-bond issues.

Here in Southern Nevada, where there is such a crying and obvious need for education reform, conditions are ripe for revolutionary change to take hold. As I see it, neither organized labor groups nor the politicians with whom they are allied will be able to stop profit-motivated digital-technology innovators, who thrive in a capitalist society, from finally moving into the education arena and causing a wholesale makeover on a grand scale.

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