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Learning to Educate

November 8, 2011

Teachers don’t scale.

–Salman Khan, founder of khanacademy.org. However, Mr. Khan also says that what may be more important is that the infrastructure for delivering content can scale. And Khan Academy, of course, is the proof of concept. Like others creating in the digital space, Mr. Khan seeded his web academy with a handful of starter content (i.e., digitally recorded lessons) and let the masses of the Internet and user-generated/submitted content take care of the rest (with some mindful curation). So far, history has borne Mr. Khan’s theory out, whether measured by page views, video lessons accumulated, or in raw numbers of lives affected. And perhaps most concretely, Khan Academy just received $5 million in additional grant funding to hire more staff and build a brick-and-mortar version of the academy. Khan still maintains that a flesh-and-blood teacher’s supervision in conjunction with the Khan Academy program is a necessary component of a complete education, so the impact of his Internet innovation can only go so far. For now. Khan Academy is already developing computer-mediated interactions between material and students with an eye towards actual student proficiency and not just apery.

Such innovation seems desperately needed at a time when students learn little and take on big debt to pay for an education that may not turn out to be much of a safe bet. Professors at large universities are incentivized to burrow deep down into the furthest reaches of research, not to teach. So grad students and assistants teach uninspired freshmen, who are fumbling with the decision of which field to pursue a degree in.

Fundamentally, a student’s activity is driven by certain behaviors subject to rent-seeking like anybody else. Whether it’s achieving good grades, joining social groups, playing sports, undertaking extracurricular activities, making friends, or finding love, there is quite a bit bundled up into the American College Experience™ and it’s no wonder that most students don’t come out the other end a repository of knowledge or immediately marketable skills. As a consequence, it is equally understandable that the value of the average American College Experience™ is diminishing in an increasingly cutthroat and globalized business world. Hell, when it comes to scientific, technical, engineering or math degrees, 40% of American students drop out due to the inherent difficulty (60% if you include pre-med). Whether it’s the students’ lack of an adequate high school education, the kids’ higher grades in softer courses, or their lower grades in science/technical/engineering/math courses, it’s no surprise that Obama’s call for America to graduate 100,000 more such students is more Hope and less Change without a corresponding shift in attitudes of Americans that such degrees, careers, and paths are worth the effort in advance.

And even while American students choose note to pursue degrees in the most advanced and rigorous academic fields, they are undertaking massive personal debt on the assumption that buying into this system will eventually result in a salary to pay it. Americans now owe almost a trillion dollars in student loans, more than they owe in credit card debt, which has contributed to the post-collegiate employment doldrums that has beset this country.

Student debt is an exceptionally punishing kind to have. Not only is it inescapable through bankruptcy, but student loans have no expiration date and collectors can garnish wages, social security payments, and even unemployment benefits.

Economists have always seen for miles away that public education is a public good (i.e., a positive externality). Specifically, education has benefits to others beyond the buyer and the seller. A more educated workforce is more productive and less likely to rely on the public dole, for example, and those who can communicate and deal with one another effectively can reduce transaction costs significantly. But because society as a whole enjoys more benefits than can be effectively internalized into the transaction (e.g., more education packed in or less costs imposed on the buyer), the market tends to produce less than the socially optimal amount when left to its own devices. Of course, that was the thinking that led LBJ’s administration to our current practice of making students indebted and entangled with a system that does not always offer a helping hand on the way out.

However, while the expensive, brick-and-mortar education is failing, it seems as though the infrastructure that Khan Academy has begun to develop may make room for some serious Change. History may show that Khan’s real innovation is in the digital learning analytics and feedback mechanisms that can provide structure and meaning for those video-recorded lessons. In essence, the software will increasingly resemble a virtual teacher (or at least a virtual and free curriculum). And for every student that wants one, there is a digital school open 24/7.

The school of the future will not resemble the school of today…In the past, the assembly-line, lecture-homework-exam model existed because that’s what was possible in the no-tech and low-tech classrooms of their day.

As in every other area it touches, the quintessential costlessness of digital distribution may afford more educational opportunities to more and more people. Digital content means that one gets what one puts into an experience, and there is some cause for optimism in that one can become as educated as one pleases. However, what that revolution will mean for the prospects of Americans who continue to view college through the everything-is-permitted stage-of-life framework depicted in Animal House or Van Wilder when compared to the rest of the world is less than optimistic.

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