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The Education Game-Changer

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Charter schools, standardized tests, merit pay, teacher tenure -- worthy topics, but ones about incremental movements in an American educational system desperate for a game-changer.

In his recent State of the Union, President Obama detailed how our current generation faces a Sputnik-moment, where we must "win our future" through innovation and education. Last month, he proposed the formation of a new agency within the Department of Education mirrored after DARPA to invest in educational technologies to improve how we teach our children.

A noble ambition, but the truth is we already have the technology to transform education and return American schools to their preeminence in the world. The game-changer is the creation of a first-class, digital educational platform with enhanced, immersive lessons across a range of subjects at all grade levels. Technology will be in our schools, the focus should be on the quality of content on their screens.

For generations calculus has been taught the same way. Students sit in classrooms, textbook in hand, following along with the teacher at his/her pace. Rote memorization of equations, homework drills and fingernail-biting tests were the path to mastery -- at least in terms of a letter grade. Whether one actually understood calculus and its power depended on the ability of the instructor and whether his methods suited how the individual student learned. The results are not encouraging. In 1992, 600,000 college freshmen took calculus. 250,000 failed.

Now imagine learning calculus in a new way. Color tablet computer in hand, students choose their preferred learning style (lecture-based, symbolic, text, or visual). They set their own pace and level of interactivity. They select the avatar of their choice to deliver lectures (will.i.am, anyone) and how often they need to be quizzed to determine/aid retention. The standards of what is taught do not change, but their presentation is remarkably transformed. Instead of a blur of equations and two-dimensional graphs, imagine calculus illustrated with 3-D animations and defined in terms of its real-world applications. Solving a differential equation to determine trajectory is a lot more interesting if we make it about a doomsday scenario of an asteroid crashing into Earth -- or just missing. Such video game-like techniques would be part and parcel of this new platform. Add in a social network, where students can interact with their peers, and an "app" market where experts offer their own pieces of the puzzle, and this platform comes even more alive.

All of this is quite exciting. But the true power of this educational platform derives from the data it would produce and the ability to constantly improve the material. Individual teachers will know where the gaps in student understanding are and focus on these within the classroom. Researchers will be able to determine what examples best serve to illustrate a topic, what kind of interactivity engages students, and how frequent and what type of quizzes reinforces lessons most. Adjustments and updates to the platform could be continuous. In short order, this new system could advance pedagogical research light years beyond where we stand now.

Now this educational platform will not come cheaply or easily. This is a go big or go home moment, Sputnik indeed. Open source systems are not the answer. Free is not the answer. Students must have a coherent platform that is modular and builds understanding in a logical way. This will not happen in a digital dumpster filled with lessons from thousands of hobbyist-teachers, no matter how well-intentioned.

To build an effective platform, we need harness the best minds and talents. Think of the brightest and most engaging teachers providing the base content for each subject, say Brian Greene on physics. Think of Google supplying the digital backbone and data-mining software for the system, Apple designing the user interface, Disney and Pixar creating storylines and animations, Electronic Arts building game interfaces, and Facebook providing the social network infrastructure.

A conservative estimate of the seeding cost of such a system is likely $500 million dollars. A lot of money, yes, but this is less than the cost of two F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jets. Or put another way, Avatar, the James Cameron epic, was estimated to cost roughly $400-500 million to produce and promote. The credit rolls at the end of the Oscar-winning film list over 500 individuals, including illustrators, animators, set designers, musicians, and cinematographers. Shouldn't the same effort and range of talents be invested to create an educational resource of such paramount importance?

The advantages of such a platform are profound. Schools could replace costly textbooks with a much more effective learning tool tailored to individual students. Researchers will obtain hard and fast data on how best to present subjects for mastery. Students will face a much more level playing field, where a dysfunctional teacher or school will not be the determining factor of one's future. Teachers will celebrate an end to homework assignments and quiz grading.

Most importantly, classroom time will no longer be wasted on lecturing from the textbook on the basics of a subject. Spelling lessons and how to diagram a sentence is the kind of training that this new digital platform will excel at providing. This will free our English teachers to educate our students to communicate effectively in the written and spoken word. With this platform, a physics teacher can spend less time training students to understand the differences between speed, velocity, and acceleration, and more time educating them on how to design and build a machine that takes into account the fundamental laws of our universe. Creative, critical, and collaborative thinking could re-enter the classroom, and this is the type of schooling that will offer students a comparative advantage over their peers around the world.

All of the technology exists today to create such a digital educational platform. The question now is who will take on this necessary challenge to revolutionize how we teach our children. A visionary entrepreneur? A bold policy maker? Maybe a single meeting, with the right people in the room, could be the trigger. Regardless of the answer, we must act to succeed in the dynamically competitive 21st century.

(This post is a collaboration between Neal Bascomb and Dr. Woodie Flowers, a Professor Emeritus at MIT)