Technology and Education: The Tipping Point?

Late last month, The Federal Communications Commission voted to overhaul and possibly expand one of its funding programs with $2.3 billion to provide schools and libraries with up-to-date telecommunications service and equipment, including high-speed Internet connections.

Clearly an indication, as President Obama has been promising, that education will get the connectivity it needs to transform learning.This latest bit of news, still to be finalized by the Commission, is a reflection of the growing importance of technology to transforming education. Recently, the Economist Magazine, which has been following the challenges in education for over a decade observed "A long-overdue technological revolution is at last under way."

Specifically, they noted:

The idea that technology can revolutionize education is not new. In the 20th century almost every new invention was supposed to have big implications for schools...typewriters, moving pictures, film projectors, educational television, computers and CD-ROMS have all promised to improve student performance. A great deal of money went into computers for education in the boom of the late 1990s, to little avail, though big claims were advanced for the difference they would make.

What is different today that such optimism is in the air? There are probably several reasons but at least four come to mind.

1) The marriage of computers and telecommunications and the emergence of the network of networks called the Internet are unprecedented, reaching every corner of the globe and transforming life and work and play as no other invention or innovation in our history.

2) The ratcheting together of national economies and the effects of globalization compel the west to seek out new ways of defining the future of work, fashioning a new global knowledge-based economy demanding creativity and innovation as the benchmarks of success.

3) Companies and countries that do not adopt the Internet and adapt to the challenges will find that they cannot keep up and their standards of living will inevitably, spiral downward.

4) The sheer costs of keeping an irrelevant and outdated educational system alive no longer computes with the demand for new thinking skills, and new technology-savvy workers.

Today's "flipped classroom", online and blended learning, and the worldwide pressure to change the educational system have converged. A paradigm shift has indeed occurred and offers unlimited potential for meaningful change. No, make that radical change. There is simply no longer any reason to deny Howard Gardiner's long held theory of multiple intelligences, and craft learning methods that recognize different learning styles and the need for more tailored individual learning methods.

Clearly the cost and availability of technology is not an issue. Computers with access to the Internet are now available on Smart phones for almost nothing...and the costs keep coming down. The net itself, moreover, has become indispensable to business and government and most of the world for everyday use and enjoyment.

Moore's law, named for after Intel founder Gordon E. Moore, predicts computer-processing doubles every year while costs are reduced at the same rate or faster. Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and now a major force in education through his foundation, once jokingly said, "If GM had kept up with the technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25.00 cars that got 1,000 miles to the gallon."

Equally compelling is the fact that technology has shrunk the world.

As Thomas Friedman pointed out in The World Is Flat, and others have come to recognize, every nation, every community, every individual is suddenly capable of competing with every other. Because of different labor costs, the global corporation looks elsewhere for much of the goods and services it sells to the world market. As a result, we have not only lost our prowess in manufacturing, but in the provision of services like banking, accounting and insurance because computers can be found almost everywhere in the world. Any country can provide such services at a fraction of the cost, and ship it via telecommunications. And any individual can do what many of our Internet entrepreneurs can offer too.

In the wake of the hard realities of this new economy, rethinking education-- or more precisely, learning--has become an America imperative. This nation must tackle what economists are euphemistically calling a "jobless recovery".

It is almost universally felt we need to prepare our young people for a workplace that demands new thinking skills to participate in the new economy, an economy often described as one which is entrepreneurial, and encourages creativity and innovation. How we make someone entrepreneurial, creative and innovative is still being debated, but we do know both the current system doesn't nurture both sides of the brain, account for individual learning styles, and is simply too expensive.

The flipped classroom methodology in which students watch lectures online, maybe work on problems or questions with other students, and only come to class to apply the knowledge they acquired by solving problems and doing practical work must be earnestly explored. This allows the teacher to help students who become stuck, and spend more time interacting with students instead of lecturing. However, having computers and access inside the school and importantly, outside school are necessary to participate in flipped classes.

At the college level we are already seeing the impact of technology and the development of MOOCCS, massive open online courses, which are online courses aimed at large-scale interactive participation and open access via the Internet. Coursera, a big provider of massive open online courses, said it raised an additional $43 million in funding from from a handlful of Venture capital companies.

The idea of logging on when its convenient for many students and asking questions whenever they need to without the formality--and often embarrassment of more traditional classroom settings--also has its appeal. And, according to many experts in the online field, the new media make lectures more accessible and even more entertaining. Social media, e-mail, and texting have displaced personal contact in a way that would have been hard to predict just a few years ago.

"Electronic media have become the standard way of communicating," according to Glenn Hartz a professor of philosophy at Ohio State University. "Assuming that the content is there, the course is now judged largely on how artfully and smoothly the elements meld together into a coherent, pleasing whole."

If we really want to be more accessible, more affordable and more efficient at delivering basic education to more students, we need to embrace the new technology, ask how we can collaborate, where and how business education and government can work together, and determine what we can do that is so unique to our need to learn that it becomes our basic mission--in primary, secondary and post secondary classrooms and for everyday life.