Apple won't fix education, but technology can


Classroom education is obsolete.

Every day, millions of children are thrust into bizarre environments that have little to do with the real world. They’re forced to sit at uncomfortable desks and listen to teachers they didn’t select as they impart knowledge -- teachers who are often handicapped by overly prescriptive course mandates that result from a national obsession with standardized testing and global competitiveness. Kids are taught to worship incremental achievements like grades -- things that are virtually meaningless outside of academia. And throwing more money at this outdated system, whether by adding more teachers or putting an iPad in the hands of every child, won’t magically create more math and science majors. That’s just not reality.

Classrooms are designed to shut out the rest of the world, and we still think of school as a "place." But kids go home, and hop on the internet (if they have a computer), and participate in global conversations on an endless array of subjects. They explore, and chat, and investigate, instead of learning from a single sage at the head of the classroom. They spontaneously pick up new and unexpected information, try out new personas, and experiment with ideas. It’s not necessarily the fault of teachers, but most classrooms are a far cry from this kind of dynamic, emergent involvement in the world.

Instead of focusing on making teachers expert on every subject matter, they should be empowered to guide and coach children in a world with more knowledge -- by orders of magnitude -- than has ever existed. And we have to stop being afraid about leaving the classroom. Why should a brilliant mind only be able to teach and inspire thirty children at a time, in a single place, at a specific time of the day? Formal learning shouldn’t be relegated to the realm of ‘regularly scheduled programming,’ and in reality, it isn’t -- learning takes place from the moment you wake up until the moment you fall asleep (and probably in-between as well).

Just look at the Khan Academy. Its creator, Salman Khan, started out remotely tutoring one of his cousins using Yahoo Doodle images. It was a hit with his family, and he started making YouTube video tutorials for anyone to watch -- the program has been turned into a non-profit educational service, now with more than 2,900 video lectures. It’s still a one-on-one learning experience, but one that anybody with a computer and an internet connection can experience.

Other sources of information, like Wikis, have been constructed by the collaboration of millions of people who share, debate, and refine knowledge. There’s more peer learning on the web than anywhere else, at any point in history. I’m not suggesting that children everywhere suddenly become Wikipedia contributors, but why not start with small-scale Wikis in the classroom? The technology is already there -- it just has to be used.

The iPad with iBooks 2 might help to advance learning in small ways, but it’s not a silver bullet. Schools really do need cheaper, better materials, and there’s no reason that shelf-space should be an issue considering that a room full of servers can host the sum of human knowledge. Recent technology is facilitating the future of learning, but fixing education is not about a new killer device or app, especially not if they’re expensive and controlled by an elite few. It’s about democratic, decentralized, egalitarian methods of learning -- methods that privilege interactivity and dynamism -- not a glitzy new walled garden filled with digital textbooks that only the wealthy will be able to access on Apple’s proprietary hardware.

So how do we get there? As with any other entrenched industry -- and education most certainly is an industry -- the old guard will throw up massive resistance to radical changes. Highly influential teachers unions that have gained ground in the current system will resist any upheaval. School boards, state governments, and federal policymakers will continue to grip power and editorial control over educational content, as the current chain-of-command provides. But the future of learning is already here, and it’s not in the classroom. It’s also not in iTunes.

Note: Just following Paul Miller's lead in his brilliant forum post on SOPA, I want to make it clear that the views in this forum post are my own, and not in any way the official opinion of The Verge.