david_gelernter's picture
Computer Scientist, Yale University; Chief Scientist, Mirror Worlds Technologies; Author, America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled our Culture (and ushered in the Obamacrats)

What will change everything? The replacement of 90% of America's teachers at every level with parent-chosen, cloud-resident "learning tracks"; the end of conventional centralized, age-stratified schools & their replacement by local cluster-rooms where a few dozen children of all ages & IQs gather under the supervision of any trustworthy adult; where each child follows his own "learning track" at his own level & rate, but all kids in the cluster do playtime and gym-type activities together.

Thus primary & secondary education becomes radically localized & delocalized simultaneously. All children go to a nearby cluster room, & mix there with other children of all ages & interests from this neighborhood: radical localization (or re-localization, the return of the little red schoolhouse). But each child follows a learning-track prepared & presented by the best teachers and thinkers anywhere in the nation or the world. Local schools become cheap and flexible (doesn't matter whether 10 children or 50 show up, so long as there are enough machines to go around--& that will be easy). Perhaps 80+ % of school funding goes straight to the production of learning tracks, which accumulate in a growing worldwide library.

This inversion of education has bad properties as well as good: it's much easier to learn from a good teacher face-to-face than from any kind of software. But the replacement of schools by tracks-and-clusters is the inevitable, unstoppable, take-it-or-leave-it response to educational collapse in the US. "A nation at risk" appeared in 1983. Americans have known for a full generation that their schools are collapsing—& have failed even to make a dent in the problem. If anything, today's schools are worse than 1983's. Tracks-&-clusters is no perfect solution—but radical change is coming, & cloud-based, parent-chosen tracks with local cluster-rooms are all but inevitable as the (radical) next step.

None of today's software frameworks for online learning is adequate. New software must make it easy for parents & children to see & evaluate each track as a whole, give learners control over learning, integrate multimedia smoothly, include students in a net-wide discussion of each topic & put them in touch with (human) teachers as needed. Must also make it easy for parents & "guidance teachers" to evaluate each child's progress. It's all easily done with current technology—if software design is taken seriously.

Any person or group can offer a learning track at any level, on any topic. The usual consumer-evaluation mechanisms will help parents & students choose: government & private organizations will review learning tracks, comment & mark them "approved" or not. Suggested curricula will proliferate on the net. Anybody will be free to offer his services as a personal learning consultant.

Track-and-clusters poses many problems (& suggests many solutions). It represents the inevitable direction of education in the US not because it solves every problem, but because the current system is intellectually bankrupt—not merely today's schools & school districts but the whole system of government funding, local school boards & budget votes, approved textbooks., nation-wide educational fads & so on. It's all ripe for the trash, & on its way out. US schools will change radically because (& only because) they must change radically. Ten years from now the move to clusters-&-tracks will be well underway.