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How K-12 education will improve and what to do in the meantime

Public K-12 education is, on the average, abysmal. Higher education is becoming hugely expensive without a corresponding improvement in services. While the best US universities continue to dominate international rankings, the rest of our education system is losing ground. Across the board, dramatic spending increases have done nothing to improve performance.  

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At first glance, online education seems like the perfect solution.  It’s exciting to see top professors from schools such as MIT and Stanford posting practiced lectures online, free.  Not only can students absorb knowledge from top-tier experts, but in theory they can practice with targeted, interactive drills and tests with immediate feedback.

Would-be viewers don’t have to rely on altruism to find great content. The economics of online education are good, with the marginal cost of taking on additional students very low. Moreover, online platforms offer unique advantages which are impossible to replicate offline. Remote servers can monitor individual student progress and automatically customize the educational experience based on competence, interest, and location. Automated processes eliminate human error as manifested in sick days, lost assignments, and misreported grades. Finally, companies like Voxy* have shown that educational software can be run on smartphones and used to teach anytime, anywhere. Research suggests that distributed practice is, in fact, the best way to learn.

Although online education has many advantages in terms of teaching, schools and universities serve a more nuanced role. At the university level, for example, teaching is only one small part of the value proposition. Universities also provide:

1.     Signaling. Employers need a way to quickly filter candidates and see who is worth consideration. Selective universities have long histories and many barriers to entry, making them ideally suited for this purpose. However, signaling is not relevant for the great majority of universities, which do not provide signaling value other than the ability to complete a degree speaks well of someone’s ability to plan ahead and defer gratification.

2.     Networking. Personal networks are a major source of employment and business opportunities. Universities offer their students extensive alumni networks and access to similarly talented peers.

3.     Motivation. Noah Smith argues that motivation is a limiting reagent in an individual’s human capital. College serves as a way of facilitating the development of relationships between smart people who need someone to push them to work hard after parents can no longer do so.

4.     Socialization and Perspective. As Jordan Weissmann puts it, students “get a chance to mature in a relatively consequence-free environment, where a callow 18-year-old can do the sorts of things callow 18-year-olds do without landing in serious legal trouble. They learn how to deal with authority figures face-to-face. It’s a long process of acculturation that transitions students into the adult world, probably with the help of a very expensive to maintain career services department.”

Signaling is a surmountable barrier for online education, which already has the potential to be excellent for assessment and instruction. Standardized testing that will allow accurate comparison across institutions is better than looking at university admission, which is fundamentally merely a reflection of high school performance. The other functions of universities are more difficult to replace, however, as they revolve around human interaction, which is notoriously difficult to automate.

Human interaction is also a major component in K-12 education. Teachers work with students to provide “hands-on” lessons and answer questions. They also structure the learning environment to keep students on task. Interaction amongst the students themselves is important for socialization. While online lessons cannot offer socialization or discipline, they can be highly interactive. It is even possible to answer questions through supervised peer to peer networks and natural language processing. The most promising path forward for K-12 education is likely a blending of online and traditional education in which students learn together in the same physical environment with an instructor present, but many lessons are taught online.

Change will not come quickly, however, because institutional inertia remains a major problem. The predictable obstacles of bureaucracy and regulation stand in the way. In particular, a focus on input rather than output-based metrics “has the effect of locking a system into a set way of doing things and inhibiting innovation.”

In looking online, there are a lot of good resources for adult education—see OpenCulture, Coursera, and MIT OpenCourseWare, for example.  For K-12 education, parents wishing to homeschool their children can benefit from a number of resources. SmartTeaching.org provides an excellent summary. Additionally, several sites aggregate content (Homeschool.com, etc.), offer online instruction for a fee (Keystone, K12, etc.), or provide free lessons (Udacity, Khan Academy, the No-Pay MBA, etc.).  Yup.com* provides your child with instant math homework help, 24/7.

However, for homeschoolers, I have yet to find a comprehensive solution addressing organization, curriculum, and compliance with state regulatory requirements. The piece that is most often missing is compliance. There’s likely a market opportunity there. I’d consider being a client for my own children.

I am hopeful that the revolution in online education will help to address the systemic weaknesses of the current traditional educational system.

Thanks to Matt Joyce for help researching and writing this blog post.

* I’m an investor in this company.

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