It’s time for educators to learn new tricks

Written by Luke Johnson. First published in the Financial Times on 30th July 2013.

The west needs more students qualified in science, technology, engineering and maths

I have seen firsthand how the online revolution has inflicted convulsions across various industries, including retailing, the media business and financial services. Soon it will start to affect public services such as education profoundly. This shake-up will no doubt prove traumatic for participants, but in the longer run it could prove hugely beneficial for society and students. Many developed nations need more productive schools and better educated citizens. We spend too much to accomplish mediocre results. The way to achieve improvements is through technology – and altered attitudes among educational leaders.

Currently teaching is delivered in much the same way in schools as it was 50 or even 100 years ago. A single teacher talks to a classroom full of pupils, who work with textbooks, paper and pens. Few pupils are examined online. Libraries are still full of reference books but no tablet devices. Not only is this model out of date but in many countries, including Britain and the US, it is not proving effective – especially at teaching the skills employers want for the workplace.

High levels of youth unemployment in many developed economies are partly blamed on a failure to provide our children with practical qualifications. Curricula are not fit for purpose, while bureaucracy and vested interests stop the necessary reinvention. Meanwhile, many are criticising the ballooning cost of higher education. From the scepticism of the billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel to a recent book by the former US secretary of education William Bennett called Is College Worth it? doubts are springing up about the value of an academic degree. This relates not simply to the cost of being on campus, but the types of courses taught, their content and how they are delivered. Who truly believes that attending a traditional lecture is the way to understand and remember a subject? And in a fast-changing society, can we really afford classic tenured professors?

Social and for-profit entrepreneurs are building powerful learning machines in the form of massive online open courses (Moocs), which are simply the latest wave in a series of dramatic changes that will hit the teaching profession. Companies such as Coursera, Udacity, edX and Khan Academy are starting to gain traction. There have always been correspondence courses, but these enterprises are scaling much more dramatically than classic distance learning. Doubtless there is hype surrounding these developments, but already the internet has transformed the way we acquire knowledge; this shift will soon be transmitted to educational institutions too.

Unfortunately, the educational establishment, at both secondary and university levels, is too slow to change. I suspect that a resistance to new techniques of learning is partly about protecting jobs and defending senior staff whose skills are outdated. Why on earth do schools in Britain still put so much emphasis on teaching French? They should be teaching languages more relevant to the 21st century, such as Mandarin or Spanish. Why can’t schools equip pupils with up to date information technology skills? Perhaps their instructors are not up to the task – or possibly their processes are wrong.

State schools in countries including Britain, the US and Brazil are almost staffed entirely by unionised teachers. These unions defend current teaching systems, long holidays, lack of teacher assessments and other anachronisms that inhibit progress and promote teachers’ entitlements over student opportunities.

Schools and universities must become more entrepreneurial to help their students cope with globalisation. Of course, student-teacher interaction still matters, institutional reputations matter, laboratories still matter and brilliant teachers will always matter. But to remain competitive, the west needs more students qualified in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and fewer in the liberal arts. Schools and colleges must dump archaic pedagogic practices and prejudices, and exploit technology to teach life competences.

Morally we cannot allow our young people to waste their critical years and everyone’s resources acquiring outdated certificates by antique means. The education world needs to face the future using market solutions and innovation to boost outcomes.