Column #10, posted 6/6/00

So, What Do We Do About It?

People write to me all the time asking what we can do about the mess education is in. Lots of folks agree with me, they just can't see a solution. About fifteen years ago I was complaining about the state of education to the Commissioner of Education of Connecticut, where I lived at the time. He asked me what the solution was and I said "software." Now, the truth be told, I wasn't so sure that software was the answer. Kids need to interact with people, not machines, and I sure as heck wouldn't want my kid staring at a computer all day. On the other hand I don't want my kid in a prison masquerading as an educational institution either. I said "software" because I knew then, and I still believe now, that software is the Trojan Horse of education. No one will accept a new biology curriculum that is on paper and taught in the same old way--too many vested interests in the old way, from teachers to textbook publishers to test makers. But, a radically new biology curriculum on a computer (one that taught health and nutrition instead of phyla, for example) would be easily accepted if it were very engaging, and made kids want to learn biology.

So I said "software." And the Commissioner responded that he thought that was a great idea. He said he would create a special magnet school in Connecticut that any kid could go to and that would be entirely software. He was ready to see if it would work. Well, so was I. Problem was, there wasn't very much software of decent quality. In fact there was no software that was worth a damn.

So, inspired by that conversation, I set off to build the stuff. I went to Northwestern and started ILS because I was offered money to build educational software--not for kids, but for adults in business--but it was start. That was in 1989.

We built a lot of educational software at ILS, some for kids, but mostly for corporations who could afford to care about their new employees. We invented new tools and new designs and created what we believed to be very exciting stuff. Corporations got so excited about it that we had more orders than we could handle at a university so we started Cognitive Arts, a for-profit corporation intended to commercialize educational software for the corporate market. This was exciting but still, no matter how hard I looked, there was no money for building software for kids.

And then, things got worse. Someone came up with the notion of "e-learning." Now every company that had training needs was suddenly directed by their CEO to move to e-learning. What this means in effect is a step backwards in a reform movement that was just starting to move forward. The idea in most companies now is that all learning should be web delivered. That's kind of like a new company saying that all of their products will be delivered by Fed Ex instead of UPS. Yes, but will the product be good? Its delivery vehicle would seem secondary. However, once the web is chosen as a delivery vehicle by corporate America, it does not follow that training budgets are being quadrupled. So, what "all of our learning will be e-learning" means, in effect, is that much less money will be spent per course, so down with quality and up with quantity.

A similar thing is happening in university education. Now universities are excited by distance learning, not because they really care about the students who aren't on their campuses but because they are afraid that they will miss out on a cash cow. This would be great news if it meant that universities were interested in quality but yet again it's quantity that rules. Let's get our courses on the web means "let's take a lecture course, let's eliminate the lecture -- leaving only the notes, the readings and the quizzes, and let's call that a course." Here we go again, a step backwards in modern education. Just as universities were beginning to realize that one guy droning on in front of 500 students was not quality education, they propose to eliminate the human and leave the quizzes.

Nevertheless, there are now many companies offering courses on- line and many universities willing to endorse what they offer as being of actual educational value. Frightening, really.

The good news is that Cognitive Arts has just completed an agreement with Columbia University to produce high quality, learn by doing, multimedia courses that will radically change the nature of what it means to endure an introductory course. We are building courses in programming, in writing for non-native speakers, in economics and psychology. Many more courses are planned. These courses will be offered to other universities, to corporations, and to high schools. Perhaps a university credit will be seen as more valuable than an AP credit. If that is the case, we can have the best and the brightest economists in the country teach high school students economics instead of a high school teacher who happened to get assigned the AP course. We have received sufficient funding from very credible investors to create first rate courses of which we can all be proud.

We may change things yet.

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