Revolution in Education

I first met Richard Miller, David Kerns, and Sherra Kerns, when they received the Gordon prize of the National Academy of Engineering in 2013. They are the founding team of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, a private undergraduate engineering college located in Needham, Massachusetts. This is one of thousands of institutions that are on the threshold of revolutionizing our educational system.

Sherra Kerns, Richard Miller, David Kerns
Sherra Kerns, Richard Miller, David Kerns

David Kerns quickly got to the heart of what is happening when he told me that the very concept of the academic lecture is disappearing. He pointed out to me that students attending a lecture can now search the available knowledge on the lecturer’s subject faster than he or she can deliver it. There continues to be important roles for classrooms in schools, but delivering information is not one of them. Olin College and others are adopting what I call the inverted classroom. Here is my imperfect view of what education will look like a generation or two from now:

Hundreds of millions of young people (defined as everyone who is still educable) are spending many billions of dollars buying and playing extraordinarily complex games. At some point, somebody is going to figure out that we can devise games that teach people, challenge them, measure their progress, and at the same time, entertain them. The curriculum then becomes the process of selecting from a diversity of appropriate games. Tests that measure progress are actually embedded within the games. It would be difficult to cheat since the “student” is involved in a virtual reality and is actually living the game. In this model, education can happen anywhere and all the time (assuming that inexpensive wireless interconnection is available everywhere, all the time).

What then is the role of the schools? Olin College offers an excellent example. The school creates the curriculum. Attendance at school offers an opportunity to exercise the knowledge that is received by the students’ interactive learning. The role of the teacher is to participate with the students, to pass on wisdom and experience, to stimulate collaboration, and to guide and channel the learning process. This is not just a theoretical new teaching system; we’ve had lots of those and most have failed. This is acceptance of a truly more efficient way to learn by students who have already adopted the new technology that is the basis of the new learning process.

Progressive schools throughout the country are already experimenting with these new ideas. The call it the “flipped classroom.” My granddaughter, Tracy, is a teacher in such a school. Tracy and her colleagues are trying to devise methods by which their students can do much of their learning at home and much of their practice at school. Computers are central to the concept. The focus is not yet on wirelessly connected devices, but they are creating an excellent start. The next step, however, will require some revolutionary thinking. Teachers have to be skilled at teaching but they are not necessarily skilled at creating the teaching tools. To make the revolution work, we are going to have to divert a significant part of those billions of dollars we now spend on games, as well as the skills of those who have become expert at creating the entertainment and diversions that are the essence of the success of the games industry.

We’re also going to have to re-create the role of the teacher. I suspect that this is going to be the hardest problem. I fear that we are going to have to wait for teachers, like Tracy, to move into leadership roles before the revolution really gains momentum.

The learning revolution doesn’t stop at school. The collaboration tools that are the essence of the inverted classroom are the same tools that will revolutionize the business enterprise. More on that in a future blog.