Recently, my son Eric was struggling with a calculus problem. For 30 minutes, he flipped through the textbook. Eventually, overwhelmed by frustration, he gave up.
Shortly thereafter Eric was intensely engaged playing an interactive video game with eight to 10 other teens. They had an objective, developed a strategy, received real-time feedback on performance, used critical thinking skills and worked as a team. The "game" offered guidance to improve performance. What's wrong with this scene? What's right with it?
As an adjunct professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, I wondered why the learning strategies effectively employed in video games rarely appear in education. Instead, our U.S. academic environment is often characterized by a "binge and purge" mentality. Instructors convey content, and students struggle, cram, test and forget.
As a former business executive focused on technology and employing best practices, I wondered: Why couldn't America leverage technology, knowledge and economies of scale to create a national, smart "digital education cloud" that could engage every student with a truly world-class education at lower cost per student?
The world has experienced revolutionary change over the past 150 years. Education has not. Instead of the telegraph wire, we have the smart phone. Instead of potbelly stoves and iceboxes, we have microwave ovens. Yet, in the typical U.S. classroom, a single instructor still uses a textbook as the primary learning tool to teach students sitting at desks the same content at the same time, at the same pace and in the same way.
America has 4 million teachers in 14,000 school districts who are not empowered to apply cumulative knowledge and best practices. Don't our teachers and students deserve better?
Imagine a fourth-grader, Sally, with a dedicated wireless smart "PAL" — personal assistant for learning. From home, Sally logs on to the "education cloud." "Hi, Sally. Great job in today's math class, you earned the third-highest grade." A pride-filled smile flashes across her face. Then Sally's PAL reminds her about the science project due Friday and Thursday's history exam.
Next it suggests that she complete tonight's math homework and then study for the exam. After Sally masters an easier homework problem, her PAL responds with more challenging questions. When Sally makes a mistake, her PAL provides an expert tutorial (incorporating the knowledge and experience of our best educators) to help her solve the problem.
Sally lives in a lower-income, single-parent family. Her mom works two jobs. Around 8 p.m., her mom arrives with a big smile. "Honey, you made my day. Work has been tough lately. When I received the PAL text, I felt so proud of you." Sally's mom had instructed "the cloud" to notify her via text message whenever Sally scored above a 90 percent (or below a 70 percent) on an exam.
Before class, Sally's teacher, Mr. Jones, logs on to the cloud using his PAT, "personal assistant for teaching." He receives a complete class profile of last night's homework results. His PAT identifies concepts that should be reviewed in class and suggests several "best practices" approaches.
Students use their PALs to explore, learn and demonstrate their knowledge of these new concepts at the rate and level consistent with their ability. Students may work independently or in "cloud" teams. From his desk monitor, Mr. Jones receives real-time feedback on student progress. The monitor alerts Mr. Jones that Joe needs assistance. Mr. Jones' PAT recommends material/approaches that may be most effective for Joe. Mr. Jones provides this one-on-one support without impeding the progress or wasting the time of his other students.
Each student's PAL acts as a virtual tutor that tests, tracks and maximizes cumulative learning. Content delivery is customized for the student's specific needs (learning style, rate and level). Research on positive reinforcement, learning styles and long-term knowledge retention is incorporated into the PAL's artificial intelligence. The student's PAL provides 24/7 support — evenings, weekends, vacations and summer breaks. It recommends a summer "refresher" and, if appropriate, a "catchup" schedule.
Today's decentralized education system creates a fragmented market of expensive, inferior education products. Wouldn't you prefer to pay $10 per course module for a world-class education? Consider spending $400 million to create a fourth-grade math module in the "cloud." The project would be cost-prohibitive for every individual school district and most single states. Fortunately, state lines do not alter the rules of math. This module only needs to be developed once. We have 4 million fourth-graders in the United States. Amortizing the development over a 10-year period would result in a cost per student of $10.
In Disrupting Class, Harvard professor Clayton Christensen's research suggests that by 2019, 50 percent of high school courses will be delivered online. Instead of abandoning teachers and classrooms for remote online education, wouldn't we better educate our youth by supercharging teacher performance with classroom-based interactive learning? Let's challenge the leaders in education, government and technology to embrace a learner-sensitive, smart vision for American students.
Robert S. Fisher Jr., who lives in St. Petersburg, is president of the National Education Empowerment Foundation, which advocates superior, relevant education and informed career choice as the foundation for student success in the global workplace. Its nonprofit, nonrevenue website is www.collegecareer lifeplanning.com.