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Imagine standing on railroad tracks while a locomotive is bearing down on you. You would have a unique perspective and should be a good judge of the speed and mass of the train that is about to hit you. On the other hand, you would not be able to choose what type of train hits you. Further, be it steam, diesel or electric, it’s very likely that you’ll be flattened.

To all of my friends who believe that education reform will take place sometime in the distant future and that we can shape and deliberate about what the school-of-the-tomorrow will look like, I have the following warning:

YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE!

YOU ARE ABOUT TO BE FLATTENED BY A SPEEDING LOCOMOTIVE. IT IS NOT A QUESTION OF IF, BUT A QUESTION OF HOW SOON. IT IS NOT A QUESTION OF HOW, BUT A QUESTION OF HOW BLOODY.

Okay, that’s a little dramatic and I know some of you are still skeptical. After all, change doesn’t come that easy, right? As Nicolo Machiavelli once famously wrote:

It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things; for the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order; this lukewarmness arising partly from the incredulity of mankind who does not truly believe in anything new until they actually have experience of it. 

It’s really a philosophical look at Newtonian physics. An object in motion will stay in motion and an object at rest will stay at rest unless it is acted upon by an outside force. In this case, we’re not given the option to stay in a lukewarm state. To understand why, we need only consider what happens when public policy meets economics. If the population at large wants reform but it isn’t economically feasible, it will never happen. This is how it’s been for many years. Those who are “profiting from the old order” are actively resisting change. In fact, they are resisting change louder and more vigorously than ever. (I wonder what that means.)

Economics is the outside force. The population at large may resist change only to the point that it is economically feasible. Once economics is against them, lukewarmness transitions to boil and the train has a full head of steam.

I like to think I am an advocate for school choice, but that’s really sort of silly. It will happen or not based on economics. To advocate for school reform would be like standing on the track cheering the train on or wishing it to stop. The best you can really do is size up the mass and speed.

Or, like the teacher unions and the other defenders of the status quo, you can throw your shoes at the oncoming train like Luddites, but we all know how successful they were.

Okay, now that my train metaphor has worn thin and I have been reduced to name calling, I am about to lose all credibility. Still, the Luddite analogy is apt because it is technology that will make education reform not only economically feasible, but economically necessary.

It’s time to bring on the facts. I could write forever about the various educational groups and companies working to reform education. Instead, I present links to a very small sampling of some of reformers and you can check them out for yourself.

For example, many are surprised to learn that McGraw Hill, Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and all of the other textbook companies have largely given up on printed textbooks. That’s not wishful thinking, that’s just a fact. (Check the links.) Not only does this make more economic sense in that the books do not have to be printed, warehoused, and shipped, but the books are instantly updatable, the publishers can receive feedback from teachers and students about the books, and the publishers can monitor how the books are used to better understand what works.

The Apple iPad, the device that changed everything, is now “changing the classroom.” Amazon’s Kindle claims that it’s the best choice for education but Barnes and Noble disputes that and claims that the Nook is the best device.

There seems to be an endless number of players, large and small, in the “Learning Management Software” space. There is a lot of overlap between companies, but most have unique specialties. Blackboard, and the open source Moodle are very popular, but SAP offers LMS too. This is a huge wide-spread business and it will surely result in consolidation in the near future as best practices become more apparent.

Large media companies such as NBC Learn, News Corporation’s Wireless Generation, Disney Educational Productions, National Geographic Education, and many more are fully invested in expanding into the education market. Discovery Education is the biggest of them all. They have a vast educational media library, they offer courses, create virtual textbooks, they have administrative testing services and much more.

K12 Inc., is likely the largest online for-profit curriculum provider, with schools in 29 states and the District of Columbia. They also provide their curriculum on a course-by-course basis to public and private schools throughout the country. Further, they have an international virtual school offering an American high school diploma to anyone in the world. PA Cyber, which serves more than 10,000 online students in Pennsylvania, may be the largest non-profit cyber-charter school. They have served as a model for other cyber charter schools and even traditional bricks and mortar schools are beginning to copy their best practices.

Many not-for-profit organizations are working on what the school of the future will look like. Among the most well-known are the Gates Foundation, Michele Rhee’s Students First, and Knowledge Works. Even the Department of Education website has many reports on how educational reform must embrace technology.

Then of course there are the grassroots innovators. YouTube for Schools for example is a version of YouTube catering specifically to the education market. Khan Academy, which began as one man’s attempt to tutor his cousins, is one of the most visited education sites. Facebook Education is a page about how educators can best use Facebook. Google also has a site about using technology in education.

Then we have Sparknotes, Spelling City, Quizlet, Thinkwell, Brainpop, and on and on and on.

Given the influx of technology and the seemingly endless resources on the internet, no one could possibly believe that the future of education will look very much like it did in the 1970’s. What education will look like ten years from now is, I admit, debatable. Nonetheless, whether it’s steam, electric, or diesel, the train is bearing down right now.

There is one dramatic new trend in education that is already taking hold and will have a huge immediate widespread impact on education and it involves social media.  I will write about that next time.

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  1. Bjorn Vilhjalmsson
    Enjoyed very much reading this one and I agree with you.  If you put on your visionary hat, how do you expect education to change, for example looking at a new employee.  Today he is sent to classroom trainings, given access to various wikis, e-learning repositories and virtual/video training sessions.  With so many sources of training/education coming into the picture, even Youtube becoming a very important source for training, it is becoming more chaotic to control or guide someone in this space towards the most effective tools and sources available.  I expect that the social factor is going to be very important factor with ratings, tags etc. helping both the employee and employer maximizing the bang for the buck/time spent.  Is there an LMS out there that has some good social features like these or you know is focusing on building these into their product? 
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  2. Ajay Das
    I agree completely. Look at the online courses offered by Harvard, MIT and others. I use some of the web based learning tools/platforms myself (for my kids) and do see the unique benefits they bring. Traditional barriers of class size, location, age group, time constraints are all gone (or will go away soon).

    Looking at the possibilities technology has enabled it is hard to imagine that classes/schools of tomorrow will look anything like today.
    I recently moved back to my country and it was a shock to see how many well-funded companies in online/cloud-based education space are advertising and how ambitious and aggressive they are about future.

    I for one think all this change is mostly good.

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