With each fundamental shift in America’s economy, our public education system has also transformed to meet the needs of both student and industry. When we were a primarily agrarian nation, schools focused on the liberal arts and operated on a schedule that coincided with the cycle of planting and harvest. Following the Industrial Revolution, schools adopted a more regimented model focused on rote and routine, and added a more specialized curriculum designed to meet the insatiable labor needs of our mills and factories.
Today we are well into the Information Age, where we need students knowledgeable in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in order to satisfy employment demands for a wide range of industries. Yet our students are being instructed on a 20th Century standard and, as a result, are graduating without the STEM skills needed for today’s jobs and unable to excel in a digital environment. That’s unfortunate, because never before have we had so many innovative tools and methodologies that can make learning easier.
Rather than confine our students within the staid walls of academia that the Harvard Business Review says are disconnected from how the world works today, it’s time to knock those walls down and engage students by bringing the promise of technology to bear in our schools. It’s time to flip the classroom and change dynamics that engender educational ennui in our children before they disengage.
The concept of a flipped classroom was first explored by Harvard’s Eric Mazur in the 1990s as a response to his experience teaching an introductory physics course, but it has come a long way since.
The notion of using the flipped classroom to help guide students to greater understanding by connecting them to true subject matter expert resources is the approach behind the Khan Academy, whose founder, Sal Khan, started by recording simple but engaging math lessons for a young cousin, and posting the videos on YouTube. The videos not only helped his cousin, but soon tens of thousands of people were viewing and gaining the benefit. The popularity (and efficacy) of Khan’s approach was not lost on the education-minded Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has funded the Academy and its ongoing innovations.
As Khan demonstrated, the flipped classroom is especially important in STEM education, where teachers can leverage technology to deliver coursework to many more students, use real-time analytics tools to help recognize when and how to intervene with students who need it, and encourage others by guiding them toward resources that they can engage outside the classroom. This approach gives students the ability to use in-class time to apply their newfound information and to complete assignments. Addressing STEM education in this way helps to keep students engaged, developing vital skills in those who might otherwise lose interest and find themselves unprepared when they move on to college.
Taking the flipped classroom farther by more fully leveraging learning technologies could make a big difference in addressing some of our schools’ biggest challenges, such as establishing a solid STEM foundation at the elementary level that can later feed our high schools and colleges. This need is especially acute in poor and minority communities, where attracting the best and brightest teachers and having sufficient resources to nurture all students is at crisis levels.
Transforming public education would be a major undertaking, but the means are well within our grasp, and many other innovative programs at all levels of education are employing technology in new and exciting ways. In California, KIPP charter schools are flipping K-4 classrooms with dramatic results, using the approach to raise kindergarten reading comprehension scores from 36 to 96 percent. Even the Department of Defense is getting in the game with a mobile application that helps young children gain a stronger appreciation for science by guiding them to resources and answers, and debunking common misconceptions that stymie interest and progress in STEM.
These methods more closely resemble today’s business environment, where technology is used to bring virtual resources to bear, fostering a collaborative, highly mobile workforce that draws on an abundance of available information to learn, make decisions and create value. Workers are no longer tethered to a cubicle; with mobile devices and analytical tools, they can be productive from just about anywhere. The careers of tomorrow (such as data scientist, identified by the Harvard Business Review as the “sexiest job of the 21st Century”) demand it.
The good news is that, just as businesses are transforming their processes by investing in technologies such as cloud computing and big data analytics to lower operating costs, increase quality, make better decisions, and boost productivity, schools can do the same. Cloud computing can serve as the basis for a fully integrated educational platform that gives students, teachers, parents, and administrators an easier way to participate, administrate, evaluate and educate.
That was the conclusion of the Education Data Systems working group of the non-partisan Digital Promise initiative, which recommended the adoption of “data-enhanced teaching and learning environments through the creation of data collection, access, and interpretation tools and systems that connect and foster virtual teaching and learning communities.”
Public schools are already spending nearly $10 billion per year on their IT systems; it makes sense to invest that money in ways that can increase teaching efficacy while lowering operating costs. Even in a challenging economy, businesses are investing in transformative technologies and innovative business models because they must in order to remain competitive. If America is to remain the leading force of innovation, it must apply that same logic to public education.
This post orginally appeared on Forbes.com on November 27, 2012.