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Dark Age or New Age for Public Education?

The global economic crisis is forcing industries, governments, and social organizations (including education) to rethink their business plans. Recovery in this changed environment requires more than scaling down, restructuring, or rigorous discipline. The economic model we know is broken. It is the end of an era. It is a time to reassess and redefine public education to meet the needs of the new millennium. It is a time for change.

For the United States to continue as an incubator of new and creative ideas, it must invest in its people, especially education, health care, and the environment. The economic model was broken by greed, excesses; and lack of regulation. Public education was broken by politics, neglect, and over-regulation.

For a century and a half, education was built upon a mass schooling model initiated by Thomas Mann, Sears Harper, and Edward Thorndike. During this period there have been great social changes as a result of immigration, wars, economics, technology, and globalization. The end result is an inefficient and overburdened public education system that does not meet the requirements of people or government. Its situation can be compared to General Motors; its core business is built around a reciprocating engine powered by fossil fuels and cannot meet environmental standards.

In the 19th and early 20th century, the core business of mass education was to provide compliant workers for industry. In the information age, workers need to be creative, intelligent, and self-reliant. However, our tools and teacher training are geared to a pre-industrial age.

Like the Swiss watch industry and silver-halide photography, the automobile industry ignored alternative and sustainable (transportation) solutions – alternatives that would be less costly to produce, operate and maintain, and friendly to the environment. General Motors continued its traditional products, lost market share to foreign competition, and went into bankruptcy. Public education can learn from these experiences by assessing its performance in several areas.

Self Reliance: Social programs such as public education and healthcare are inherently inefficient because of the number of personal services involved. Some savings are possible using paraprofessionals. An educated populace is capable of making many decisions previously made by professionals. Self help and guided help can substantially reduce the face-to-face time for routine and non-critical decisions.

Efficiency: Education is notably lacking in the labor saving technologies, integrated communication systems, and quality control. A computer based Learning Management Systems (LMS) is needed to track student progress, perform diagnostic-prescriptive procedures, guide student progress, and deliver instructional materials.

Individualization: Batch processing methods for instruction and evaluation are inefficient. Everybody receives the same treatment with a minimum of customization. This produces variable results (designated as “grades”). Grading systems should be replaced by performance criteria and rubrics that meet ISO 9000 quality standards. Individualized learning should adapt for individual differences in experience, aptitudes and needs.

Redundant Effort: Every semester, tens of thousands of teachers prepare and present the same lessons. This energy would be better spent on collaborative development of materials. Based on feedback, these materials can be continually improved and adapted for students with special needs. The best instructional materials will be interactive and adapt dynamically to the needs of each individual student.

Locus of Control: In an educated populace, individuals can be involved in decision making, or even make their own decisions. Education should prepare students to be self-reliant by exercising individual responsibility, learning independently, and working in teams.

Learning Environments: Learning can take place anywhere and anytime. To sit and listen in a classroom is one of many options. Concepts such as small class size, teacher-student interaction, and local development of curriculum, are ideals that are rarely achieved in under-funded and overcrowded schools. Alternatives to traditional classroom learning require activity areas, computers and networks beyond what a school can provide..

Funding: Seat time does not necessarily produce learning, yet K-12 school funding is based on Average Daily Attendance, which is seat-time. High truancy results in loss of teaching positions and reduction in the quality of education.

Testing: Billions of dollars are wasted on standardized tests that do little to improve performance. They rarely show significant change, so their real value is questionable.

Access to Learning Resources: Privatization of knowledge, the Digital Millennial Copyright Act, and the extraordinary cost of textbooks and learning materials reduce access for teachers and learners. Teachers and students need protection to use copyrighted material and access knowledge protected by subscription.

Public education needs an alternative model tailored to the challenges of the 21st century.
A paradigm change is needed that will greatly expand the capabilities of the existing system.
The new system of education must have:

  1. Research Base: Combine research findings, proven theories and best practices to design motivating, interactive, easy-to-learn activities that facilitate higher levels of learning.

  2. Superior Communication and Management Tools: Use technology to assist text and visual communication. Learn via interactive multimedia, computer databases, powerful search engines, and simulation. Combine all aspects of learning and evaluation into learning management systems.

  3. Individualized: Provide diagnostic and prescriptive guidance to ensure that every learner receives an appropriate education for living in a modern global economy. Use feedback to continually improve instructional materials and enhance individual/group performance.

  4. Scalable: Accommodate the needs of much larger and/or smaller numbers of students at different grade levels and in different geographic areas.

  5. Cost-Effective: Achieve global performance criteria across a broad and up-to-date curriculum. Achieve a quantum jump in performance without significant increase in cost.

  6. Relevant: Focus on life skills and job skills that are relevant for today and for the future.

All of us must be part of the solution. The editors sincerely believe that instructional technology and distance learning are an important part of the new learning paradigm. They meet many of the criteria listed in 1-6 above – research, proven theories and best practices, individualized and scalable, effective, relevant and affordable. Many of the administrative details are yet to be determined. Adoption of this futuristic model will stimulate research and continued innovation.

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