The Future of Education

We can talk all we want about aggregate demand and what it will take to pull us out of this jobs and housing depression, but the key to longer term prosperity and American leadership in the world is improving our broken educational system.

My two years as chancellor of a major university system wasn’t long enough to make me an expert on education, but it was long enough to give me some opinions. One of those opinions confirms the conventional wisdom that U.S. higher education, especially at our elite research universities, is world class while primary and secondary education, especially in our big city school systems, are lagging badly. Overall, most trends are negative, and must be reversed. My experience made me pessimistic in that regard, but I recently discovered a ray of sunshine and hope that I will get to shortly.

We’ve all learned and probably all agree with the desirability of a low student-to-teacher ratio in the classroom. Teachers and students are both more effective in 10 or 15 student classes than in classes much larger. I believe that to be true.

However, when you think about it, a low student-teacher ratio goal, is specifically a low-productivity goal inconsistent with productivity increases needed to stretch scarce tax and tuition dollars. In most private sector businesses the opposite goal is the standard: higher productivity—more output per unit of input. Translated into the classroom, productivity increases would mean more students per teacher, as well as more students per classroom, per school or university administrator, per football team, etc.

Businesses usually increase productivity or output per hour worked by developing labor-saving devices and processes, in recent years that has involved computers. Several years ago, hopes were high that computers would revolutionize education, but it hasn’t happened. If a high school or college needs to add 20 percent to its student body, they assume they need 20 percent more teachers, 20 percent more classrooms, and 20 percent more money. Higher productivity conflicts with their accepted goal of low student teacher ratios and with conventional wisdom on what is required for quality education.

That professors and teachers would resist productivity increases and scalability through computer technology is not surprising. I have to assume that school administrators who never have enough money to meet their demands have tried to overcome that resistance. That it hasn’t happened on any kind of scale suggests that good alternatives must not exist.

That may have changed. Over the holidays, I belatedly discovered what may point the way to the future of education—the Khan Academy. I say belatedly because the Khan Adademy has already been featured on major TV and radio programs. But, better late than never I guess.

Salman Khan, a graduate of MIT and the Harvard Business School and obviously brilliant, started tutoring his Louisiana cousins in math via the internet. Before long, his primary teaching method became 15 minute lectures, which he uploaded to YouTube for all to see. The time limit was based on You Tube requirements, but he later determined that it was an optimal time frame for students. His math lectures must have been addictive because he went from algebra to trigonometry to calculus and back to basic arithmetic. He later expanded into many other fields.

I discovered Khan’s YouTube lectures when I Goggled the French Revolution, because of my interest in Frederick Bastiat, a French economist of the period. I watched and listened to several of Khan’s lectures on the French Revolution. You don’t see him, you just hear his voice while watching what he writes on his electronic blackboard. For a math guy, he is an excellent history teacher.

Khan has over 1800 lectures on YouTube that can be watched and re-watched at your own pace. If they become too hard, you can back up to catch up. Classroom teachers can substitute these excellent lectures for their own, or, more likely, given the vanity factor, they can assign them as homework to supplement class lectures. They can be used to liberate the better students from the pace of the slower ones, and vice versa.

The information economy is characterized by low to zero marginal cost of information once the fixed cost has been incurred. Khan has a low budget operation to begin with. His studio is a converted bedroom closet. However, even if the cost of producing the lectures were higher, they can be used over and over without additional cost. Poor neighborhoods, poor countries, and poor families have access to the same high qualityYou Tube education available to others.

This is the scalability needed to break the low productivity trap holding back traditional education. It isn’t sufficient, but it is necessary.

Kudos to Sal Khan.

Comments (2)

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  1. Harold Black says:

    Bob, Khan may be on to something. I have always said that isn’t it interesting that the same kids said to be “dumb” and incapable of learning routinely memorize the most intricate rap lyrics on one or two listenings? The kids aren’t dumb – just uninterested in dull material delivered via the boring method. I have had students say to me “I don’t understand why I am enjoying this course – economics is dull.” My response is “Economics is not dull – only economists.” If you got Jay-Z to rap War and Peace, inner city kids would know Tolstoy within a week.

  2. Bob McTeer says:

    Hey Harold, Good to hear from you. Football statistics are another example.

    Bob