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.
Education Needs Personalization
Education needs personalization
If you think about it for just a minute, it’s pretty obvious that every student learns at a different rate. And not only that, they learn each subject at a different rate. Further, some are more creative while others are more quantitative.
And even more, they learn at different rates during their educational life, with factors such as stability at home, amount of sleep, quality of diet, environment and other things that may affect the learning process. And finally, they take tests at different rates.
But how do you change a very large manufacturing process? There’s billions of dollars being spent on the system that took 100 years to structure it the way it is. So the thought was, if you left the manufacturing process in place but gave each student and teacher a laptop with Internet access, the students would learn faster. The overall result would be a “better” educational process. That, however, doesn’t change the very core problem: mass “assembly line” education is not the right way to educate our students.
But you can’t just throw out all the lesson plans and instead try to teach students individually. That would result in chaos, and a cry for 10 to 20 times the number of teachers and administrators. Costs would skyrocket. So, what’s the answer?
Mobile Technology in Education
Mobile technology in education
We need to have a national agenda on K-12 education that includes mobile technology and support services that will help provide personalized education. It would seem to me that President Obama would have an easier path toward success if he had set education as the top national priority, and required that we develop a personalized education process that utilizes mobile technology for every American K-12 student.
With that objective, we could wrap technology around a process where all 55 million K-12 students are set on a path toward high school graduation in which their minds learn at their own rate. We may still celebrate formal graduation in the spring each year but, in fact, students will be “graduating” at different intervals, with many moving on to take college-level courses while still in high school.
I believe that part of the total solution is to use mobile technology to enable the required personalization, with devices including next-generation e-books (that incorporate color, touch, animation and an external keyboard), convertible pen-based notebooks, netbooks and low-cost notebooks-all utilizing embedded wireless communication.
I have discussed this at length with Tom Greaves, head of The Greaves Group. His firm provides consulting services on the use of technology in the K-12 market. He provides the following observation:
“The most effective way to improve K-12 education outcomes is to personalize the experience. In order to personalize the experience, you have to move from print to digital. But once you move from print to digital, you need to develop personalized processes instead of assembly line ‘spoon-feeding’ of lessons. Schools are looking for a single mobile device that will meet all of their needs, at an attractive price. This equates to a $100B shift in educational system spending over the next 10 years.”
New Educational Process
New Education Process
So, what’s the best form factor in which to use in this new, personalized educational process? It looks like the following:
1. Take basic laptop and add touch, GPS and third-generation/fourth-generation wireless communications
– System uses embedded wireless to interact with an educational back-end system
– Monitors student progress with feedback
2. Include “Here’s How It’s Supposed to Be Done” feature
– Animation shows what was done incorrectly (and then explains how it should be done)
– Informs teachers where help is needed
3. Include “Johnny needs help with this area” feature
– Informs administrators about progress
4. “The current status of the student is…” feature
– Enables a student to interact with others at the same level
5. Have a basic price point of $500 or less.
Companies such as Apple, HP, Dell and others are working on this. Software firms teaming with textbook authors could build student applications for the device, and major educational system providers could work on the back-end support systems.
I expect that the student will also carry around a handheld as well, whether it’s a cell phone or something more similar to the iPod Touch to complement the total education process. Many lessons and databases will be available on handhelds. These will also integrate into the back-end systems. Companies such as Apple, Nokia, Google (Android), Microsoft and RIM are likely major players in the educational handheld space.
Notice that, in this new environment, students are presented with new things to learn in a fundamentally different way: they are given lessons that they themselves personalize. The lessons are all personalized so that drill and practice (aka homework) is actually embedded into the lesson itself. Because of this, the student is constantly tested on what they are learning and corrections to mistakes are made instantly.
Teachers become mentors; they help each student with the problems each is having, instead of focusing on giving mass adoption lessons to everyone. They also do not have to focus on grading boring homework assignments.
And instead of focusing on giving the same test to all students, we’ll be able to assess students who are creative and mentor those creative skills. We’ll let others who are more quantitatively oriented migrate toward science and engineering. And we won’t own this process; it will definitely be adopted worldwide over the coming decades.
We should see the change toward personalized education using mobile technology in place as we migrate into the 22
J. Gerry Purdy, Ph.D., is the VP and Chief Analyst with the Frost & Sullivan North American Information & Communication Technologies Practice. As a nationally recognized industry authority, he focuses on monitoring and analyzing emerging trends, technologies and market behavior in the mobile computing and wireless data communications industry in North America. Since joining Frost & Sullivan in 2006, Dr. Purdy has been specializing in mobile and wireless devices, wireless data communications and connection to the infrastructure that powers the data in the wireless handheld.
He is author of Inside Mobile & Wireless, which provides industry insights and reaches over 100,000 readers per month. For more than 16 years, Dr. Purdy has been consulting, speaking, researching, networking, writing and developing state-of-the-art concepts that challenge people’s mind-sets, and developing new ways of thinking and forecasting in the mobile computing and wireless data arenas. Often quoted, his ideas and opinions are followed closely by thought leaders in the mobile & wireless industry. He has a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Stanford University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.