Poverty, technology, and the future of global education

| Staff Columnist

Jackie Reich | Student Life
Online learning seems to be quite a hot topic at Washington University and other major universities. The Clinton Global Initiative University (taking place at Wash. U. April 5-7) has announced Salman Khan, creator of the insanely successful online learning program Khan Academy, as one of its keynote speakers. Wash. U. has also recently joined a consortium of other elite universities to create the Semester Online program, which allows students to take video classes for credit from a number of other schools. The American education system is finally coming to grips with the fact that the Internet is going to massively affect the way kids learn. How the industry evolves and how education policy leaders react will determine the effects of this new technology. Will online learning provide new opportunities to millions of kids in less fortunate educational circumstances? Or will it simply deepen existing inequities in the educational system?

Khan has used the popularity of Khan Academy to promote a radical view of the future of education. In most public schools in America today, the teacher lectures in class, and then students do assignments to review material at home. Khan imagines a world where this system is flipped upside-down: students watch videos to learn material at home, then do assignments and ask their teacher questions in class. This is hypothetically a more efficient way to learn, because kids can pause and rewind the videos to learn at their own pace, then get more personalized attention from teachers in class.

Reversing the education system in such a radical way could also help reverse the growing trend toward education inequity. With the power of the Internet, there is no reason why a student at an elite boarding school and a student at an inner-city public school cannot both learn calculus from the best calculus teacher in the world. If you were a student in a disadvantaged school district, the possibilities could suddenly become endless—lessons from teachers all over the world, in topics ranging from science to literature to ACT prep, would be at your fingertips just by logging on to a website. And the benefits would not just be for American students—information technology could provide lessons to aspiring students in the most poverty-stricken, remote corners of the globe. The power of the Internet is creating an education revolution. Information technology could give students in disadvantaged educational circumstances the tools they need to compete with students from elite schools for college admissions and job opportunities.

However, it will take a lot more than technology to address the root causes of education inequality. Khan Academy is a registered non-profit, but if the new industry growing around educational videos starts charging high licensing and viewing fees, it could become inaccessible to the school districts and students who would benefit the most. And without motivated teachers to encourage students to take advantage of new resources, the technology would be going to waste. Other reforms must be made to make the United States the global leader in education again. Teacher tenure, charter schools, standardized testing, public funding—all of these issues must be addressed if we want to make our schools the best in the world. But until Congress and state governments get their acts together and start making substantive education policy reforms, private sector innovators like Khan will lead the way.

In today’s information-driven global economy, there is no reason why a kid at a Massachusetts prep school and a kid at a Brooklyn public school cannot have the same access to educational resources. There are a lot of reforms that need to be made in American education. But until those reforms happen, schools can use the power of the Internet and online learning to empower their students to do great things. Our society is more connected then ever—there’s no reason we can’t use those connections to combat education inequity and empower our students.

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