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Two thousand years ago, somebody (like the future Alexander the Great) who wanted to learn from a famous philosopher (like Aristotle) had to visit him in person, or vice versa. Written correspondence was of course possible, but every letter had to be written by hand, and it could take months to reach its destination. It was hardly possible to have an ongoing, two-way exchange of ideas under these conditions.
With the invention of the printing press, it became possible for one teacher’s ideas to reach hundreds or thousands of students, and the mass production of books increased literacy rates enormously. Today, using the Internet to eliminate much of the traditional, but previously unavoidable, built-in waste of our traditional educational system is simply the next step in the evolution of information science.
Declining state revenues mean states like Pennsylvania are less able to fund their public education systems. Property owners, however, resist efforts to make up the difference by raising property taxes, and they are right to do so. Henry Ford prescribed the solution 90 years ago, although it requires thought and effort as opposed to the obvious alternatives of raising taxes or cutting teacher salaries.
“It is not good management to take profits out of the workers or the buyers; make management produce the profits,” said Ford. “Don't cheapen the product; don't cheapen the wage; don’t overcharge the public. Put brains into the method, and more brains, and still more brains—do things better than ever before; and by this means all parties to business are served and benefited.”
Ford achieved this in all his industries, including not only automobile manufacture but also a world-class hospital, a railroad, agriculture, and mining operations. The central aspect of his strategy was to identify and eliminate all forms of waste—with “waste” consisting of any activity that did not add value. In this application, value consists solely of education.
The question is therefore how to give taxpayers the low taxes and world-class educations for their children that they want, and teachers the high salaries they want. An off-the-shelf solution already exists in the form of Internet charter schools, along with the open-source software, Moodle (Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment). I recently finished a course on the use of Moodle in preparation for an online course I will be teaching later this year, and its capabilities are extremely impressive. Similar systems are doubtlessly available, and it is not this article’s purpose to endorse one over the other.
Moodle allows an instructor to upload lectures in both audio and text formats, which allows the student to use whatever format works best. It is of course faster to read the text than to listen to the lecture, but different people have different learning styles. It also offers discussion forums that allow parallel—as opposed to sequential—interactions between the students and instructor. There is no longer a need for people to raise their hands and take turns to ask questions or respond to what other people say. The system is also asynchronous, which means participants can log on and participate at their convenience.
Elementary school students may still need adult supervision to keep them on track, and Internet charter schools at this level seem to offer what is essentially support for home schooling. The charter school provides the content, but parents must put in several hours a day to make sure their children do the work. This changes when students gain enough maturity to work on their own. Then there is no reason whatsoever for students to wait for a school bus, or spend time on a bus, except for classes and activities like sports and performing arts that require the simultaneous physical presence of a group of people.
This in turn allows the total elimination of classrooms, the classrooms’ capital and maintenance cost, and the cost of routine daily bus transportation. The school building of the future can consist solely of a gym, athletic field, theater, music rooms, and facilities for shop classes and laboratory courses. Even some of the latter can now be taught by computer. A Google search on “virtual dissection” leads, for example, to Froguts.com, which allows students to learn on their computers about the internal workings of frogs and other creatures. The interactive demo teaches everything important about the insides of a frog in the space of 10 minutes, which is probably less time than a student with an actual frog would need to even set it up on a dissection pan. By the way, the content, facilities, and equipment for in-class dissection for which a school must pay are far more expensive.
Adoption of online education does far more, however, than eliminate the cost of school buses and traditional classrooms. It also means a teacher can provide instruction from his or her own home, and the money the teacher does not spend on commuting is effectively after-tax income. Elimination of the teacher’s commuting time is meanwhile a de facto salary increase even without the additional salary that the elimination of nonvalue-adding activities should make possible.
The fact that there are no snow days on the Internet suggests further that a school can function year-round. The summer vacation is a holdover from the time when many, if not most, students were the children of farmers, and had to work on their farms during summer. Elimination of the summer holiday would allow coverage of the existing four-year high school curriculum in three years, or could otherwise add a year of college-level courses. The latter would reduce the cost of college by 25 percent, and also allow graduates to enter the workforce a year earlier. Students would not, however, have to miss out on their favorite summer activities because Internet schools are asynchronous. If a student wanted to go to the swimming pool, a picnic, or a barbeque during the day, he could log onto his courses at night. If the student had a part-time job at night to earn some spending money, she could log onto her courses during the day.
Henry Ford could generally summarize an entire idea like this in a couple of sentences: “Only the old, outworn notions stand in the way of these new ideas,” he said. “The world shackles itself, blinds its eyes, and then wonders why it cannot run!”