Disrupt Education. Save the World.

Is there any generalized institution in the world that needs disruption more badly than education? Right now there are more than a billion people under 10 years old. How well do you think we adults are doing with educating all those kids? classroom

You can’t have a leading economy and a lagging educational system

I know for a fact that you cannot have a leading economy and have a lagging educational system. You cannot lead as a country when your education system is failing.

That’s from Corey Booker, mayor of Newark NJ, educated at Stanford, Oxford, and Yale, quoted in Technology Is One Tool To Improve Education Levels Worldwide. He spoke last month at a Stanford conference on technology in education.

And what about technology in education? It seems so obvious. Reading the Stanford piece quoted there, I remembered Fred Wilson’s 2009 talk at Google on markets ripe for disruption. Education is second on his list, right after finance.

And where is technology in education?

How much do you think technology has changed public education in the U.S.? Could we measure the impact of word processing on writing, or calculators on math? I have to step away from the computer for a minute and clear my mind to remember when I was in high school and college and research took rifling through the index of periodicals, and the card catalog in the library, and finding the physical printed hard copies of everything I needed. How much has online video changed things?

The Stanford article ticks off some advances, like new developments:

  • DreamBox Learning customizes the way information is presented to pupils, an approach company CEO and President Jessie Woolley-Wilson says helps students understand multiplication, division, and other concepts more quickly.
  • Ireland-based electronic-learning company RISE operates a network of education centers across China that teach English to Chinese children using an American curriculum designed specifically for Asian students who ultimately want to attend college in the United States.
  • An online program developed by internet-based Knewton teaches math tailored to each student’s abilities. The service can “predict in advance if you’re going to fail at a concept before you ever see it.” If so, it deploys a more appropriate learning strategy
  • During the past 5 years, 181 education-focused U.S. companies have received venture capital funding.
  • Ambow Education Group is China’s first e-learning platform.
  • K12 Inc. provides proprietary curriculum and online education programs to students in grades kindergarten through 12.

But of course that’s just a drop in the bucket, a few stories. Think of what technology has done for, say, television, or media in general. Published music? Mail? Business? Then compare that to education, where our kids, in this country, still depend on teachers and books and classrooms; and in poorer countries they don’t even have that … how badly does education still need disrupting?

What bothers me is this whole topic quickly projects me back to the early 1980s when I was a market researcher for a company specializing in forecasting technology business. Some 30 years ago technology was going to change everything in education; or so we thought. We made a big deal of Control Data Corporation’s push to change education with online learning.

So is this ever going to happen?

(Image: velkr0/flickrcc)


  • Charles Robinson says:

    I do not learn well from online classes or video instruction. The physical presence of the instructor makes a huge difference for me, and I think it is most likely because of the feedback loop. If I had been forced to do online education when I was younger I seriously doubt I would have excelled the way I did with teacher-led classes.

    I agree that students need better access to technology and properly applied technology can radically improve educational outcomes, but I don’t think that technology by itself is a replacement for teachers.

  • Gary Kline says:

    I’ve been skeptical about simply throwing hardware into the classroom, and expecting students to magically do better. But it is encouraging that there are companies out there pursuing what the best teachers do – mass customization.

    Each child has their own strengths and weaknesses, and the best teachers will try different approaches until they find what works for each student. If technology can help teachers do that, that’s awesome.

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