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Thanks to the Internet, Education is Finally Becoming Personal

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Having roiled the music recording and newspaper industries, the Internet is now churning through universities and colleges. Much media attention has been paid to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), where universities post course material online to be freely consumed by tens or even hundreds of thousands of citizens.

Making quality educational material available at no cost will obviously play a significant role in tomorrow's education system. But using digital tools to personalize the education process offers the biggest return on our scarce education dollars.

For centuries, our post-secondary institutions have relied on a rigid broadcast model of one-way teaching. A professor stood in front of a blackboard and delivered soliloquies to classrooms or large lecture halls jammed with students. Each student was expected to capture what the professor was saying, and then regurgitate or repurpose the content in exams.

Learners who do not respond to dictation and memorization techniques were deemed to be simply "not cut out for school."

In the broadcast model of learning, there is little opportunity for professor-student discussion or even student to student discussion. If a student doesn't understand an idea, there were few resources to help her get back on track in a way that was best suited to address her roadblock. The student risks falling behind and can eventually drop out due to frustration.

This is a big problem: the National Center for Educational Statistics reported that only 56 percent of students entering a four-year university program will earn a bachelor's degree. For the 44 percent who don't make it, this is an enormous waste of their intellectual and financial resources, and the nation's finite teaching resources.

We need to fully exploit the Internet to increase the percentage of graduates and give them the best education possible. A number of universities have redesigned their teaching approach around the concept of the "flipped" classroom. Students absorb lectures, videos, podcasts and written material online before going to class. The class time is now devoted to problem solving, discussion and responding to student questions. The Internet provides the foundation for a more intellectually nourishing two-way discovery in and outside of the classroom.

Rather than telling students the answers to questions, professors can pose questions to the students and help them discover new knowledge and engage through group discussion. Typically this means researching multiple sources of information, solving problems, distilling and synthesizing the material and developing a conclusion. Students learn how to articulate their views and put facts and knowledge into context. This supports the advanced skills that are essential in today's knowledge economy.

The professor is still critical to the teaching process, but now spends more time collaborating with students to help them spark engagement and achieve a deeper understanding of the subject. Educators are similarly stimulated, and find this educational model more rewarding.

Students respond instinctively to a blended classroom and online environment. This is the digital environment they grew up in, so they feel right at home. They find learning to be more rewarding. Their marks improve. Using social media tools similar to Facebook, Google and Twitter, students are able to continue their discussions outside of class time.

When much of the learning process is facilitated online, this spins off a tremendous amount of data that is useful to professors and students. Professors can monitor the progress of each student in the class based on performance data culled from each assignment, quiz and test. Automated alerts can flag students falling behind in a given class so teachers can help them.

Using the same data, students can compare and judge their own performance. They can see how much time they spend online compared to class averages. The data can be organized to display their strengths and weaknesses. Students can use this information to discuss with advisors course selections that would be the best fit.

Memorization techniques have very little future in today's knowledge economy, and our education methods must evolve. Online tools can help educators and administrators better engage students and inspire them to strive for maximum achievement.

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