The Student, The Teacher, and Zoom
The pandemic of recent memory has created innumerable challenges for our educational system. It has also exposed the rotting foundation of our outmoded and hidebound eighteenth century-based institutions and blatant waste of technical resources. Instead of using this epochal event to reevaluate and reinvent education for the twenty-first century, we have complacently plopped our ineffective curricula and existing instructional staff into online applications originally designed for one-hour business meetings. But before we look to opportunities, let’s assess how we got here.
You may find it hard to believe our country only started mandating elementary education in 1918 – just over a hundred years ago. It took until 1940 for the United States to see half its young adults achieve a high school diploma. By 1970, the United States had reached a peak 77% high school graduation rate that has since dropped into the high 60-percent range as we have made major advances in information technology.
The last fifty years, not only have graduation rates dropped, but so have student outcomes from almost any metric you choose. While these numbers are troubling, they surprisingly correspond to what many call the third industrial revolution: information technology, communications, and electronics. During this technology sea change, we have simultaneously placed our educational institutions in deep technical debt. From 1970 to the present, we have installed millions of personal computers and endpoint devices at our schools, extensive network infrastructure and engaged millions of professionals to manage it all. The results – or lack thereof – speak volumes.
Online training has been around for a few decades and we now have an opportunity to determine the best ways to not only educate our children, but also develop a skilled workforce for this century. We can leverage new technologies by diverting resources from antiquated and poorly employed systems. For example, all learning that does not require hands-on or face-to-face instruction can be moved out of brick-and-mortar facilities that require not only property acquisition costs, but heating and air conditioning, cleaning services, and maintenance among others.
Virtual classrooms have been around since the 1980s, yet it took this pandemic to force broad adoption across the entire educational spectrum. However, we are failing to take full advantage of all the technology options available to us. Our children could be taking their algebra class from one of the top ten instructors in the country with local resources as learning aids. Instead, we settle for just hooking up existing teachers and instructional materials to an online meeting format designed for one-hour business meetings.
In addition to all the building and property costs, our public schools are supported by nearly a half million school buses, food service equipment and personnel, and sporting facilities. I am certainly a fan of school sports, music and arts. They are central to a robust education. However, we now have a chance to evaluate all the extraneous investments to design a much more effective and efficient educational institutions. Will we let this opportunity pass us by?