About that time vampire…


We don’t think about it much, but taking a class is a massive time commitment.

First off, students, teachers and administrators have to get to and from the location where the class is being held. In my case, this means wasting away in traffic on the Washington area’s largest parking lot (yes, 495: I mean you). As first-world problems go, sitting in traffic is the worst. It’s the very bane of my existence. Things I’d rather be doing: anything. Staring at a wall. Shaking hands with Justin Bieber. Getting waterboarded. Just as long as I don’t have to be on that godforsaken Beltway!

That aside, another factor increasing the time required to take a course is that large classes mean time is used inefficiently as teachers try to keep things orderly. This becomes especially poignant when the guy in the back row keeps asking the same insipid question over and over again, and you can’t climb up there and… kindly suggest that he talk to the professor after class. Or send an email.

Everyone’s very busy these days – a couple of extra hours of free time would be a blessing to many. With that in mind, it’s refreshing to think about the time that can be saved by just going online.

Pulling the education system out of the past

How will online learning help to update our antiquated attitudes towards education?

Following directions vs. taking initiative. The very act of taking a class online is a major step forward in demonstrating an initiative to learn. A student who willingly takes a class that interests him/her is much more likely to succeed than one who feels he/she is doing so at someone else’s behest. The teacher-student relationship changes from a hierarchical one to a mutually beneficial partnership. Such an environment is far more conducive to taking responsibility for one’s own education.

Tolerance of discussion and questioning. With a varied market of services, educators, and classes, those who want to learn will be able to shop around and choose how they want to learn. Informed consumers who don’t wish to be handed a boilerplate no-questions-asked version of a subject – and we think most people who take the initiative to take a class are such consumers – will be able to select the type of instruction they want.

Allowing students, parents, and stakeholders to have a say in what should be taught. Because the student (and other involved stakeholders such as the parents) becomes the consumer, education providers have a serious incentive to offer the classes that are most relevant to the student’s needs. This simple market mechanism – the desire to benefit the consumer – is a serious deficit in public education.

Online technology is changing the conversation about how we ought to learn. We think this is great – every system requires occasional questioning and updating. Our education system needs it more than anything else.

Taking Initiative

Mark Twain once famously said the above words in reference to his experience in the American school system.

That was over a century ago. Would he still have said this in 2012?

The likely (and unfortunate) answer to that question is yes. The principles underlying the American education system have not changed significantly since Mark Twain’s time. We remain attached to a philosophy that:

• Values following directions over taking initiative
• Foists ideologically-laced information upon students without tolerating discussion or questioning
• Neglects young peoples’ natural desire to learn actively
• Prevents students, parents, and stakeholders from having a say in what should be taught

Granted, the United States is certainly not alone. That’s nothing to be proud of, though: along with most of the rest of the world, our students languish in a system whose basic attitude is stuck firmly in the 19th century.

Online technology holds the promise to be a catalyst for change in the thinking of the education community. Check us out on Friday for a discussion of how we can lead the charge in changing how we learn.

Breaking Barriers

As we outlined last Wednesday, there are several significant barriers preventing low-income people and other disadvantaged groups from accessing quality education. How can new technology address these deficiencies?

1.      Technological advancement will lower the input costs of education. The traditional teacher-classroom education model is no longer the only game in town. With intuitive and flexible online platforms, teachers and learners will be able to meet in a virtual environment, drastically cutting costs. Before, this transaction would have had to incorporate the cost of transportation, a brick-and-mortar location, and materials, but now it only has to address the cost of hiring a great educator. Both the student and the teacher benefit.

2.      Online platforms will allow a teacher to interact effectively with a greater number of students. Currently, a major limiting factor in the efficiency of education is class size. Thoughtfully designed online learning platforms can eliminate the constraints of the physical classroom while preserving (and even enhancing) the teacher-student relationship. This will further hack away at the major barrier to entry for many people – cost – while improving quality.

3.      Online education technology will also bridge the quality gap by increasing accessibility. The beauty of learning online is that teacher and student can interact from anywhere in the world at any time. People in areas that are remote or lacking in quality teachers will be able to connect with great educators around the world – educational demand and supply will be connected in a dramatically new and more efficient way.

The possibilities are truly exciting.

Please check back with us all next week for more about educational problems and solutions!

Relevance in Education

At Rukuku, we’re always thinking about solutions that will give people options when it comes to education. One of the problems we are trying to solve is the problem of relevance: we want people to be learning things that are relevant to their personal interests and professional goals.

The United States is respected around the world for its venerable system of higher education. There is much to laud: there’s no doubt that we have some of the world’s best colleges and universities, greatest opportunities for research and innovation, and most talented people.

Unfortunately, American education is also severely deficient in one very important area: real-life career training. When it comes to technical or vocational programs, or even just learning a relevant skill at one’s own initiative, we do not have many quality options available. This is in stark contrast to other developed countries, such as Germany, where only a small fraction of people attend full-fledged universities, with most opting for narrower professional programs.

In a recent exchange of political slurs between our president and candidate Rick Santorum, the latter called Obama a “snob” for suggesting that everyone should go to college. It’s a shame Santorum’s many years of higher education didn’t teach him any tact, because he missed a perfect opportunity to make a serious statement on the matter. What he might have been trying to say, in his indelicate Santorumish way, is that there should be a lot of alternatives to the traditional four-year higher education model. That, actually, would have been a pretty sensible thing to say. If he had said it.

As important as higher education is to many people, there are many other people who do not need to attend universities and learn useless things that will not help them to become productive members of society. There was a time in America when it was possible to be make a great living doing a skilled trade without having to go through the motions of receiving a (completely useless for many) bachelor’s degree. Those days can return if we’re willing to accept the idea that college really isn’t for everyone, and that many of us would be better off learning real, useful skills instead.

This argument has some seriously positive economic implications, too. The United States, once the world’s most prolific producer, currently exports much less than it imports. A lot less. We don’t make anything anymore in this country – and I daresay part of the reason is that we’ve forgotten how.

Now, you can talk all you want about how our labor can’t compete with cheap labor from Asia, and how we’re destined to become a 100% service economy, and all that jazz. But guess what? The Germans clearly didn’t get that memo. Despite having one of the most expensive labor forces in the world, they continue to produce everything from washing machines to cars to electronics to medical equipment to Märzen. You can go ask their $18 billion trade surplus if you don’t believe me.

College is undoubtedly one of the most important ways to encourage an educated, productive population. But it should not be the only answer, and if you still think it is, perhaps you ought to get off your ivory tower!

What do you think, readers? Leave your angry comments below.

American students: “Where’s New York?”

Now that we’ve dabbled in the topic of teachers, it may also be useful to direct some attention towards curricula. Here are the questions we think should be asked in evaluating the quality of what is being taught at American primary schools, colleges, and universities.

Are students in our education system acquiring valuable, relevant, actionable skills?

For too many people, especially those in higher education, instruction yields very little in the way of a useful skill set that can be applied towards a real job. Employers often quip that their entry-level employees are woefully incompetent at actually doing things – a result of four years of learning abstractions rather than skills.

Are they receiving complete, factual information about the world?

Studies expose major gaps in what US students are taught. Geography is one of the most glaring examples: despite constant news coverage since 2003, a 2006 survey revealed that 63% of Americans aged 18-24 could not locate Iraq on a map of the world. Even worse, a more recent study showed that 50% of young Americans couldn’t even identify the state of New York on a map of the US!

Are they being challenged to think critically and develop ideas?

Although American schools are better at encouraging critical thinking and creativity than some of their counterparts around the world, the overall picture remains bleak. Too often, merely following directions is encouraged while reasonable questioning is discouraged. Getting good grades on multiple choice tests is rewarded, while learning profoundly and thoroughly is not. Following a formula is lauded, but explaining a formula, or questioning one, is ignored.

Are they being taught how to effectively use technology and be players in the modern economy?

Even today, most curricula in US schools do not include incorporating or learning about technology that is vital to becoming a productive player in the global economy. Aside from those specialized in technological fields, most American students’ computer knowledge is a result of personal initiative rather than a systematic approach in education.

Visit us on Sunday for an analysis of what factors may be responsible for America’s curricular woes.