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It's Time for Technology to Disrupt Education

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I recently attended Imagine K12's "demo day" where a group of startups in the education space pitched their companies to potential funders.

As I sat and listened to these mostly young entrepreneurs, I wondered which ones might disrupt education just as technology has changed other industries such as the music and newspaper businesses.

While public K-12 schools are free and parents sometimes have a choice of where to send their child (including home schooling), education is one product families are required to consume. What's more, the people who work at these schools are in a position of authority over their customers. The grades that teachers hand to students can have an enormous impact on their future. That sure is different from the commercial world where the customers' collective satisfaction, in most cases, determines the success or failure of the business.

It strikes me that it's time for technology to start disrupting education. I'm not calling for the abolition of schools. My wife and daughter are public school teachers and I am the beneficiary of 20 years of public education with three degrees from state universities, including a doctorate in education. If anything, I want to see more resources going into education.

But I want those resources to be used smartly, not just by taking advantage of hardware and software that can improve education, but also by using social media to supplement what teachers do and make it increasingly possible for people to learn outside the confines of a classroom.

Khan Academy is an example. This not-for-profit free Web resource offers thousands of videos on academic subjects "to help you learn what you want, when you want, at your own pace." The quality of the instruction is world-class. And there are plenty of other great sources of educational videos, e-books, learning games, academic papers and other resources available to anyone with an Internet connection.

You can even "go" to Harvard and MIT without being admitted, paying tuition or leaving home. The two universities last week announced a $60 million partnership called edX that lets anyone in the world take online courses for free. Stanford, Yale and other universities have similar experiments.

Clearly, there are lots of new ways to learn. But there is often a disconnect between what people know and what their "credentials" say they know.

What should matter is not so much your degree or grade point average but how well equipped you are for the next stage in life. Unfortunately employers and colleges often either ignore those real-life credentials. It's understandable, especially at places that have far more applicants than openings, but it's also regrettable both for capable people without credentials and employers and schools that may miss out on some great candidates because they can't easily quantify their skills.

For that reason I was particularly intrigued by LearningJar, a startup that allows you to "easily validate and store" what you've learned whether it's from an online source or an offline experience. The site lets you document your experiences including educational videos you've watched or courses you've taken on or offline. It categorizes them by subject and, according to the site, "monitors your learning progress and uses algorithms to create a dynamic learning graph, so you can track your development."

Another company that caught my eye was TapToLearn, which is developing casual games to teach young children subjects such as math and grammar. These apps, which run on iPads and other mobile devices, both deliver and test children in ways that are fun and compelling. Where is it written that math, grammar and spelling have to be boring? I recently agreed to be on an advisory board for PBS Kids, which is also developing some great learning games for children to be used both at home and school.

Socrative showed off a product to change the way teachers deliver quizzes. Rather than passing out those dreaded paper tests, teachers who employ the Socrative student response system have them pull out their laptop, iPad, iPod touch to answer true/false or multiple-choice questions, engage in interactive learning games or type in their responses to questions and issues which can be immediately projected on a screen and shared with classmates. Depending on the creativity of the teacher, technology like this could be used to either automate old-fashioned testing or innovate with new ways for learning, sharing and evaluation.

Although they weren't at the event, I'm also impressed by Grockit, which uses social media to empower students to help each other prepare for standardized tests. I'd like to see this technology expand beyond test preparation to broader learning.

It strikes me that some of the world's best teachers have never donned caps and gowns. They are the people around us ranging from that brilliant auto mechanic down the street to that insightful social anthropologist 12,000 miles away. Thanks to technology, the world can be our teacher and the Internet our classroom.

This article first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News and LarrysWorld.com.

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