2001 : WHAT NOW?

roger_schank's picture
CEO, Socratic Arts Inc.; John Evans Professor Emeritus of Computer Science, Psychology and Education, Northwestern University; Author, Make School Meaningful-And Fun!
America's Most Important Export: the case for education in a confused world

The U.S. in the most highly educated and highly entertained country on earth. We export entertainment. All around the world, people, watch American television and see the latest Hollywood movies. But, instead of exporting education we import the best and brightest of every country, educate them in the U.S, and keep them here. The time has come to seriously consider how we can create an education industry to rival the entertainment industry.

Many of our current problems stem from how badly educated the public is, both here and abroad. Education should be a real priority in this country. By this I do not mean silly attempts to raise meaningless test scores, but real attempts to get people to think long and hard about issues that affect their lives. If we as a nation take seriously the idea of building high quality on-line courses that can be delivered anytime anywhere to people who have never had access to such educational opportunity before, we can change the world. If the best and the brightest in this country took seriously their role as world educators, then what they built could be exported to the rest of the world. If it were not done on a for profit basis, but were offered for very little money, then people in poor countries might qualify for better jobs and might be able to reason more adroitly about the complex issues they face. While we, as a nation, export television, movies and blue jeans, we do not export quality education. Why not? Because for the most part we aren't even interested in that kind of education for our own citizens. No government agency is concerned with establishing reasonable curricula for students (instead we rely on one that was established in 1892!) or in assessing how well we are doing in creating a nation of employable graduates who can reason critically. Instead we focus on meaningless measures and allow schools to do whatever they like as long as they stay within those measures. The private universities are interested in the education of the elite and no one looks out for the average guy. But it is the average guy who votes, the average guy who fights wars, and the average guy who sometimes acts out bizarre notions of retribution.

To radically reform our education system we need to focus on three issues. what we teach, how we teach, and how we deliver teaching. Working backwards, delivery must be on line. The internet offers the possibility of educating everyone equally, with greater opportunities for the expression of individual differences. Students would be able to take whatever they like whenever they like. Certifying authorities could be located anywhere. Interactions would be of two types primarily: courses that are mentored on line by teachers who evaluate work products submitted by students, and courses where the computer itself provided the evaluation.

The method of instruction would have to be learning by doing. This method of education has long been understood at least as far as Aristotle and probably before that) as the best method of learning. It is has not been used in schools because it is difficult to implement in a classroom setting. It is not difficult to implement on a computer. In fact, the computer facilitates this type of learning through the creation of exciting simulations and the use of one on one instruction by the best and the brightest, captured beforehand, with mistakes in the simulations linked to instruction about those mistakes. In this way students receive the instruction that they need when they need it and can go at their own pace.

The big issue is what to teach. The curriculum of our high schools was established in 1892. Our university system is based on the original ideas in place at the elite universities hundreds of years ago which were focused on the education of the elite and not in the production of employable adults. Early childhood education is focused on preparation for high school. These curricula, in place for decades cannot be changed because there are so many vested interests that want to keep things as they have always been. The construction of fully on line, learning by doing courses not only allows for a different method of instruction but for the possibility of reconsidering the curricula that are the current basis of our school system.

Broadly speaking, school ought to cover issues of living in the real world (getting along with other, raising a family, basic finance), job preparation, mental acuity (reasoning, argumentation, real world problem solving, basic skills (writing, speaking, critical analysis, business, medicine) as well as more purely academic subjects (these might include history in the context of decision making, or mathematics in the context of engineering or some other useful application). Whatever subjects are chosen, the best people in the world can be put to the process of designing courses in their ares of expertise for the various age levels in a school population. An archive of expertise (in video) should be assembled and linked to courses so that the best and brightest will be available to all students for all time.

Courses of the type I am describing cost about $50,000 per instructional hour to build. Thus, a forty hour course might cost $2,000,000 to build. The reality is that courses themselves are an archaic idea and the idea that instruction takes 40 hours is ridiculous. But, we know the costs associated with that length of course and since the courses we have built typically are broken into the smaller bits that would form the basis of any new system, from a cost point of view it makes no difference.

Thus, the basic costs, assuming five 40 hour courses per semester, means that in any given grade, it would cost $10,000,000 per semester to build the on line curriculum. Thus, it costs $20,000,000 per grade and for K-college, the cost is $340,000,000. This would be fine if there were to be no alternatives and everyone took exactly the same curriculum. The whole idea of on-line courses is that everyone can study what they want. We assume therefore that K 6 might offer at least 6 different curricula that would keep maybe half of what is taught the same for everyone for a total of $280,000,000. Grades 7-12 would require at least 20 different curricula, for a total of $400,000,000 per grade or a total of 2.4 billion.

Thus, for a total of about 3 billion dollars we could reform our K-12 system for generations to come and help educate the world in the process. College is extra.