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Rethinking the Learning Experience: Part I

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Okay. I know we are very early in this series of posts brought to you by the good people at Rethink Education, but I'm about to get meta on you.

If you are reading this article, and you are of legal age to marry or join the military, whether you are 24 or 54 or 94 years old, I bet I can sum up your K-12 school experience pretty darn accurately.

Here it goes.

You woke up every morning, commuted to school and spent the day with a group of kids your same age shuffling between rooms where various pre-determined subject matters were presented for your consumption. Even though each of you varied in learning speed and overall grasp of the material, every student in your class studied the same content at the same time, and moved onto the next subject as soon as the chapter ended -- regardless of mastery.

Your teacher would stand in front of the entire class and lecture, conserving time by offering the same assistance to every student at once (the sheer monotony of which likely led you to either drearily stare out the window or engage in the fine art of doodling). Each night, you would go home and read from the assigned textbook, answering questions corresponding to the material you read (and possibly understood).

You sometimes wrote essays that took your teacher a week or more to review and return, at which point the feedback was no longer fresh or relevant -- but most of the evaluations of your academic credentials came in the form of a paper-based questionnaire that typically tested your skill at cramming and short-term memory, and was identically constructed for everyone in the class.

When the school year ended, you received another letter grade that roughly conveyed the sum of your work product in one easily relatable symbol and, unless you saved your class notes and dioramas, there was little evidence remaining of most anything you accomplished.

You then took off for summer camp, forgot the majority of what you had just spent the school year learning, and returned in the fall to repeat the process.

Did I nail it?

This has been the way we have educated our kids for centuries, this "sage on a stage" model where students are expected to absorb the knowledge and understanding of their lecturing teacher. It has gone unquestioned for the better part of 500 years because, quite frankly, there hasn't been a better option, and for the most part it has served its purpose.

This is no longer the case.

A combination of circumstance (i.e. a sputtering economy and an under-qualified workforce) and opportunity (i.e. smarter and more ubiquitous technologies) has led to a true inflection point in the world of education. In the United States, our test scores have been steadily declining over the past two decades. Where we once dominated the learning landscape in the K-12 education space, we now rank average at best among developed nations. The most recent OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, which compares the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in 70 countries around the world, ranked the United States 14th out of 34 OECD countries for reading skills, 17th for science and a below-average 25th for mathematics. On top of this, we are failing to graduate roughly 25 percent of our high school students, and nearly 50 percent of minorities.

While the American K-12 education system has steadily declined in results, our post-secondary education continues to lead the world, attracting the best talent from across the globe. However, all is not well on the higher education front. The cost of a four-year college education has gotten well out of hand, having outpaced the rate of inflation at a 2.5x rate over the past 25 years. Our national student debt recently surpassed the $1 trillion mark, meaning our college graduates owe more money to their schools than all but 15 countries produce annually in GDP. Of course, this happens to come at a time when a college education means more than ever, with college graduates earning 80 percent more in salary than those with only a high school diploma, and with 53 percent of leaders at large companies and 67 percent at small companies having difficulty recruiting employees in the U.S. with the skills, training and education that their companies need.

The good news is that there are systems in place that can revolutionize every aspect of the learning experience. The working world of today is a far cry from that of 20 years ago, and the working world our children are preparing for will differ even more greatly. We have little choice but to rethink our educational techniques and methodologies, and finally get each piece of the puzzle (from parent to student to teacher to administrator to government) talking to each other.

Over the next few weeks, I will be writing a series of posts explaining the current climate of the education technology landscape. It is my hope that by focusing on these five sectors of education, you will have a firm grasp of the schools of thought and design that will disrupt what we knew of the learning experience: Content and Curriculum, Measurement and Credentialing, Management and Information Systems, Delivery and Service Providers, and Context and Social Learning.

The quickest path to economic recovery is through an informed and educated workforce, and the quickest path to modernizing our schools is through an informed and educated parent-base. By understanding your options, you can help accelerate this transition today. You can express opinions at PTA meetings, speak directly with your child's teacher or principal about technologies they are implementing to make the classroom more efficient, have a deeper understanding of the education policies of candidates running for your local office, or even start a campaign of your own. More than any other political issue, education reform truly begins at the grassroots level.

Oh by the way -- even if you are not a parent, don't forget: Nothing boosts the value of your home quite as dramatically as a cutting edge school district!

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