Friday, February 13, 2009

The Disintermediation of Education

Is the K-12 model outdated?

Just as the QWERTY keyboard was designed to prevent hyper-nimble fingers from overwhelming the mechanical key strike mechanism, is the thirteen year K-12 program an artificial restriction on learning?

A case could be made that access to learning resources - materials, books, teachers and classrooms - required a lengthy multi-year program. But in today's connected world, any child with an Internet connection has access to every book ever written. Amazon's vision for Kindle "every book ever printed in any language all available in 60 seconds,"stated goal with the Kindle, is to offer "every book in any language in 60 seconds". Google's stated vision is to catalog all human informaiton. Language translation software will soon allow any document or video, in any language to be understood by any person in his native language.

Did the human brain evolve around a 13 year pre-college curriculum. Of course not. "Caveboys" were were either finding food or avoiding becoming food, long before their 18th birthday. Old Star Trek episodes depict a brain-erased person restoring all knowledge in some time-compressed process taking hours, not years. And there is no reason why that science fiction will not become possible someday.

The primary result of the K-12 and four-year college program is to introduce young people into the work force at approximately voting age. Thus school serves a social development mechanism as much as a learning process. Home schooling may provide insight into that thesis, in that home-schooling removes a social element from a child's development. Exposure to the parental belief system 24/7 is probably not in the child's best interest. Many home-school advocates do so because of strong beliefs rooted in religious or social bias. Exposure to different beliefs and different people during childhood are essential to a healthy involvement in a complex adult world.

There is another side to this issue - cost. The cost of a K-12 program is the largest or 2nd largest budget item in every state in the country. And in many third world and emerging markets, access to K-12 education is limited by resources. This is the primary motive behind programs like OLPC, One Laptop per Child Laptop. The Internet allows those countries to educate more children, while this country could educate children with less money.

When I entered a Southern Methodist University at age 18, there was a student who was only 12 years old. And he graduated before I graduated. He was probably in a hurry to leave an environment where he did not fit in. Participation in dating, drinking, and intra-mural sports was simply impossible for him. But what if half the student body was near puberty? What if the average age to enter the work force were to drop by 20%? Is this a good thing? And is it inevitable either way?

No comments: