Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Future of Education: Effective Distance Learning

The year is 2025. Moseka, a 5th grade Congolese girl living in Kinshasa, uses her tablet computer to access her interactive learning software from the cloud. It is capable of accessing any book in the world, watching high-definition videos of her instructors, and tracking her progress. Her tablet is a lower-end model – only a thousand times more powerful than the iPads of 2010. She doesn’t worry about it breaking; they are as cheap as scrap paper, and only slightly thicker.

Although Moseka is fluent in French and English as a result of her lessons, she still prefers to learn in her native Lingala. There is an entire library of online courses available in Lingala, complete with ratings from previous students and parents. Unlike the online classes in the United States of the late 1990s and 2000s, which were largely inferior to in-person education, Moseka’s classes are among the best of the best. Many of the best educators in the Congo (as well as everywhere else in the world) have become celebrities in their country, reaching thousands of pupils at a time. The old model of online education, which was mainly confined to reading text on a desktop computer screen and submitting homework assignments digitally, has mostly been replaced by interactive software and tablet computers which make the classes much more productive and engaging. Moseka doesn't have any physical textbooks; she can easily access them from the cloud on her tablet whenever she needs them. These e-books are not merely electronic copies of books that exist in the physical world. They are full of video clips, learning games, and customization.

Like most of her friends, Moseka has only ever seen schools in old American cartoons. This is not because of her location; she has lots of friends in the United States and Europe who have never set foot in a school either. What is the point of going to an old building to learn from a local teacher, she wonders, when she can learn whatever she wants to learn, whenever she wants, from some of the best instructors in the world? Her parents and friends all seem to agree, as do the governments of most nations. Nearly everyone has access to a good education now. Ubiquitous computing has eliminated the need to waste money on school buildings, and created the economies of scale necessary for the cost per pupil to drop to nearly nothing.

However, Moseka’s education is not impersonal just because her instructor has many students. Large class sizes are mostly irrelevant now that brick-and-mortar schools are a thing of the past; in fact, Moseka likes having a huge network of classmates whom she can turn to for help. Whenever she gets stuck on her lessons, she first turns to some older girls to help her (and likewise, she helps her younger brother with his schoolwork). If she is still confused, she can ask her class for help. With so many classmates, someone else is almost always having the same problem…and someone almost always knows the answer. Intelligent software can easily match these students with one another.

Moseka is excited about her future. In much of the developing world, her generation will be the first that has the opportunity to use their abilities to change the world. She wants to be a teacher, confident that she’ll be just as successful as the teaching superstars who instruct her today. And due to the new education paradigm, she very well might be.

By 2025 - Youth literacy rates exceed 90% in both Sub-Saharan Africa (up from 72% in 2008) and South Asia (up from 79% in 2008). Gender disparities in literacy have mostly disappeared; the global female youth literacy rate is no less than 98% of the male youth literacy rate (up from 94% in 2008).
By 2025 - Fewer than 75% of students in the United States physically attend a school on a daily basis.

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