Monday, July 18, 2011

Technology to the rescue

One blessing of technology is its ability to overcome some of the hassles and barriers presented by government. The tax code may be a convoluted mess, but tax preparation software makes dealing with it a relative snap compared to what it would otherwise be. The country's airwaves may be governed by various decency laws and ridiculous forays such as the Fairness Doctrine, but the internet remains a relatively unregulated sphere (enjoy it while it lasts) where pretty much anything goes. The local government may prohibit Wal-Mart from operating in your neighborhood, but you can still turn to Email and the internet make the US Postal Service less relevant each day and its demise seemingly inevitable. Et cetera.

Another area where technology has the potential to remedy some of the substantial shortcomings in government is education. One example is this article from Wired about the rise of the Khan Academy and its impact. At its most basic the academy is simply a set of free instructional/lecture videos addressing various topics that students can watch on the internet and learn from at their own pace. Teachers are a resource to be utilized when students still have questions or are unable to grasp what is being taught.

While conceptually simple, the results in at least certain cases have proven to be dramatic:
Students move at their own pace. Those who are struggling get surgically targeted guidance, while advanced kids rocket far ahead; once they’re answering questions without making mistakes, Khan’s site automatically recommends new topics to move on to. Over half the [fifth grade] class is now tackling subjects like algebra and geometric formulas. And even the less precocious kids are improving: Only 3 percent of her students were classified as average or lower in end-of-year tests, down from 13 percent at midyear. 
...Among those impressed was Courtney Cadwell, a seventh-grade math teacher at Egan Junior High in Los Altos. When I visited her class, she pulled me over to her laptop and showed me her kids’ statistics. She flicked through screenfuls of colorful charts illustrating what subjects the kids were working on and how many videos they’d watched and problem sets they’d done. The software even told Cadwell how many minutes the students had worked at home.

“Oh my gosh,” she exclaims when she gets to one student’s account. “Kristofer, he’s working on systems of equations and subtracting fractions?” Clearly, even after working with the system for almost five months, it still has the ability to surprise her. A look at the data shows that the students seem to advance in spurts: A kid will grind away at a subject, seemingly stuck, until suddenly something clicks and he vaults forward, sometimes going on a tear and mastering several new subjects in a day or two.

Cadwell has already gotten so used to these metrics that she feels unmoored in her other classes, where they’re not yet using the system. “In those, I get to a quiz or a test and I’m blindsided when they don’t know something—or when they ace something.”

Cadwell needs all the help she can get: She teaches remedial math to the school’s struggling students, some of whom come from immigrant families with parents who don’t speak English and can’t easily help with homework. When her seventh-grade class arrived last fall, some barely had third-grade math skills. But by being able to target her students for special help exactly when they needed it, Cadwell saw stunning results: The class’s test scores improved more than 106 percent in half a year.
Amazing. This would seem to have the potential to turn the very concept of school completely on its head. If students can learn at their own pace, what is the usefulness of students advancing in grades/cohorts? And if they can learn from home, what is the point of school? After all, if teachers are only needed for occasional consultations, why not seek out such advice from professionals over the internet and avoid school altogether?

Will this happen anytime soon? Perhaps not. But the gears appear to be grinding in this direction and the implications could be profound. Writing in today's Wall Street Journal, Terry Moe considers the impact of technology on teacher's unions:
There's a crucial dynamic outside of politics: the revolution in information technology. This tsunami is only now beginning to swell, and it will hit the American education system with full force over the next few decades. The teachers unions are trying to stop it, but it is much bigger than they are.

Online learning now allows schools to customize coursework to each child, with all kids working at their own pace, receiving instant remedial help, exploring a vast array of courses, and much more. The advantages are huge. Already some 39 states have set up virtual schools or learning initiatives that enroll students statewide, often providing advanced placement courses, remedial courses, and other offerings that students can't get in their local schools.

...As the cyber revolution comes to American education, it will bring about a massive and cost-saving substitution of technology for labor. That means far fewer teachers (and union members) per student. It also means teachers will be far less concentrated in geographic districts, as those who work online can be anywhere. It'll thus be far more difficult for unions to organize. There will also be much more diversity in educational offerings, and money and jobs will flow out of the (unionized) regular schools into new (nonunion) providers of online options.

The confluence of these forces—plus the shifting political tides among Democrats—will inexorably weaken the unions, sapping them of members, money and power. It will render them less and less able to block reform. The political doors will increasingly swing open to reforms that simply make good sense for children and for society.
The voucher debate would also seem to become less relevant in the advent of free/cheap education available from a myriad of sources on the internet. In addition, it would appear to at least have the potential of making education much more egalitarian. Rather than quality of education being dictated by whatever is offered at the local public school, students would have access to some of the best schooling around regardless of background.

The potential is simply dizzying.

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