There has been a lot of discussion about how to improve education in the United States. Clearly, the United States is not the top-ranked country in math, science or English test scores. Yet, it is ranked at the top in broadband access (total subscribers) and adoption of portable PCs. One solution promoted is the "One Laptop per Child" initiative. Under this plan, the idea is, if you simply give every one of the 55 million students in grades K-12 a laptop with Internet access, all of our problems with K-12 education will be solved.
There's an underlying assumption (or perhaps an emotional feeling) that if you simply provide more technology, it will result in the United States leading the world in K-12 education. After all, if we have the best technology supporting the education process, surely the test scores will improve and students in the United States will be able to compete better for 21st-century jobs in biotech, health care, IT and the like.
You need to know that simply distributing laptops to teachers, students and administrators will only make marginal, if any, difference in the education process. It seems counterintuitive. But there's more to this story than meets the eye. Here's why.
Current educational process
Our educational process today is modeled after educational systems created over 100 years ago. In the 1800s, we taught students in small rural schools, almost on an individual basis. As cities became more populated and centralized, we migrated to a process of "mass production" in education, modeled after Henry Ford and the automobile assembly plant. You could get far more students "educated" more cost-effectively if you put all of them through the same educational process: you simply taught the same thing to every student. It was easy to demonstrate how much more cost-effective this was over the old method.
Students took tests to see how they were doing. Some were slow and others were fast in taking a test. It didn't matter. Everyone took the same test and had the same amount of time to finish it. Teachers graded and gave test results back to the students often a week or more after the test was conducted. And with national tests, the results were often not provided until after the student had moved on to the next term.
Students went on to the next grade and were all taught the same thing for that new grade. Lessons were organized, pre-planned and used over and over again. If the student couldn't keep up at a minimal level, then they were pulled out and placed into "special ed" programs. We operate as an efficient manufacturing process today for most of the 55 million students in high school and 16 million more in college.
The only problem is, while our K-12 educational system is a very efficient manufacturing process, it doesn't produce high-quality products on the back-end. The reason: lack of personalization.