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Is Online Learning Transforming Education?

It is ironic -- and troubling -- that those technological advances haven't permeated the one sector that is most crucial to preparing our citizens for the challenges and opportunities of this knowledge society.
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"Brick and mortar schools will still exist, and the overwhelming majority of children will attend them, but the schools will be center of individualized learning, with engaging interactive content rather than a series of chalk-and-textbook, grade-delineated classrooms. At high school and potentially middle school, each child will have a computer to work at his or her own pace in customized programs; technology will deliver it to them in ways best suited to their individual needs and strengths."

Is this scenario science fiction? Can this type of set up ever happen? And if it did, would it even improve quality? What then would be the role of our teachers in managing these disruptive changes?

Ron Packard addresses these important questions in his recent book Education Transformation. In particular, he highlights the specific ways in which technology can provide meaningful educational alternatives, especially for lower-income students in communities with struggling schools.

While Packard writes about the US, his arguments also hold true in Latin America. As he said to me in a recent interview, "In South America, online education could leapfrog brick-and-mortar schools in many remote places where building infrastructure is more expensive."

Indeed, expanded online education could help thousands of schools in the region where children of different ages often study together due to lack of teachers and other resources. The personalization of content that it allows could make a big difference in allowing each student to progress at his or her level, and it can be distributed at a low marginal cost. This can impact the students who drop out of school, the athlete that can't make regular school hours, the bored but gifted child, and the kids with special needs of all types. They can all study - and advance - at their own rhythm.

Nor is the use of such technologies foreign to this generation. "Kids in even the poorest countries have smart phones now," as Packard argues. "The US has long been ahead but I think that's changing pretty rapidly."

But while education is one of the largest sectors of Latin America's economies, these technologies haven't yet had the impact one might expect. As with health care and other public services, education lags behind sectors like manufacturing, services, and consumer goods in adapting to and taking advantage of the productivity gains and disruptive effects of the "knowledge society".

It is ironic -- and troubling -- that those technological advances haven't permeated the one sector that is most crucial to preparing our citizens for the challenges and opportunities of this knowledge society.

As Packard says, "Schools have not adequately incorporated the advances in how technology can deliver information, communicate, respond and shape learning. The ineffective use of technology has left education behind in the enormous productivity gains the economy has achieved over the past twenty to twenty five years."

But Packard offers more than an analysis of the problem -- for over a decade he has been successfully implementing his ideas in the real world as CEO and founder of K12, the largest online education provider in the US. Founded in 1999, K12 has worked with more than 2,000 school districts, and is used by students in all 50 US states and 70 countries. The company has poured more than $320 million into its curriculums and programs. Despite at times heavy criticism from political opponents as well as some investors, Packard has persisted, proving that a for-profit company can apply innovation to education.

Nor is he a stranger to Latin America, having lived three years in Chile, and having traveled to almost every country in the region. K12 serves thousands of students in Latin American schools, which utilize its programs to complement their curriculums. He foresees an expanding role for online education in the region.

And the Chilean entrepreneur Carlos Ortiz, a pioneer in education technology and founder of KalaKai, agrees with him. Ortiz says that "technology is changing how we teach. The biggest opportunity it gives us is to recognize the diversity of learning styles, and put the student back at the center of teaching and learning. In this sense, technology is a catalyst for the democratization of education."

A number of other innovators, both from the non-profit and the for-profit sectors, agree with this vision and are offering new models of education to students and teachers in Latin America. There is Educabilia, Educatina, and many other online services offering content for students and parents. Mexico's Carlos Slim Foundation, for example, has partnered with the online Khan Academy to provide its content in Spanish.

All of this has led Packard to the conclusion that "Our school system won't work the way it should until we can offer different choice so that a child can find the education that is right for them." In this light, online education is just one more option to be considered among many. While it may not be the best for everyone, it is clear that the "one-size-fits-all" approach that currently predominates is no longer an option if we want our children to be prepared for the 21st century.