Online Education is Coming, And Fast

An in depth piece in the New York Times magazine looks at an effort to improve teacher quality through training. While this particular initiative may be better than the hundreds of other such initiatives, I find myself wondering if teacher training is indeed that big systemic change that the school education needs. Is it just tinkering with the edges when what we need is seismic shifts?

There are a whole host of problems facing the school education system in the US. Teacher training is just one of them.

The sheer number of teachers required and the low pay almost ensures that the average school teacher will not be anywhere near the best that American colleges turn out. If you think about it, isn’t a school teacher’s job, in whose hands we leave our children’s education, much more valuable to society than a lawyer’s or a banker’s. Unfortunately, society puts a really low price on it.

So we have the teachers we have. Can we do a better job of teaching with the lot we have? Clearly, teacher training can be effective, as the NYT article points to. But to improve any system, you need to be able to measure performance. That’s how you know, as you make changes to the system, if they are being effective or not.

Unfortunately, school teachers’ unions in most states vehemently oppose the validity of measurement systems and common sense changes like tying teacher pay to performance. So you have a public school system, which is what most Americans use, which is not delivering the goods and resisting all efforts to change.

HBS Professor Clayton Christensen and colleagues have written an interesting book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. The lecture/classroom model of teaching was a response to society’s need to provide an increasing level of education to every American citizen. It wasn’t always this way. As the number of students in the school system started shooting up (both number of years and number of students being educated was going up) the school system responded by adopting a mass production system, on the lines of the changes going on in manufacturing at that time.

The biggest theme of that mass production of education was standardization. Put more students in the class, teach them the same way, at the same pace. Standardized text books, standardized tests – everything was based on the assumption that in order to scale up the throughput of the school system, we had to standardize.

And they were absolutely right. By any metric of success, the school system in the US, rose to the challenge of educating Americans in much larger numbers. The system delivered. Until the 70s.

Once the challenge of scale was met, American educators started worrying about the quality of education. But try as they might they haven’t been able to improve that over the last two decades. The monolithic school system was designed very well for mass production of education, but was resistant to change.

The biggest problem in today’s schools is standardization – a teaching paradigm of one size fits all. Students have different learning styles and capabilities. A classroom, even if the teacher is great, pushes the onus of adjusting learning styles on to the children.

The authors then go on to say that technology will change all that. Computers can enable what they call “Student centric learning” – where the path and pace of the lessons adjust to the student’s learning style. In addition, the online content can reflect the best teaching out there. To use a music analogy, today’s classrooms are the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of live performances done by artistes, some good, some bad, some average. Online education can be like digital music – the rendition isn’t as life like as a live performance, but everyone is listening to the original composition.

The authors believe that student centric online education will disrupt the classroom education paradigm. At first this will happen slowly, but soon it will become this irresistible flood that will forever change our education system. By 2014 online courses, they predict, will be 10% of all high school courses in the US. By 2019 that number will be 50%. Today it is just 1%.

Christensen has written a management classic – The Innovator’s Dilemma. I was deeply influenced by this book and its successor Innovator’s Solution because they related so well to how Offshore Services were disrupting the IT Services industry. He applies the same principles to predict how online education will disrupt classroom education.

I find online education a fascinating study. I just registered my daughter for some online supplementary courses from Johns Hopkins CTY Online. As I learn more about it from her experience, I am sure I’ll be returning to this subject here.


  1. Amy says:

    Here's a great opportunity for teachers to make money online.


  2. Krishna says:

    Basab, I felt you were carping about standardization (or lack of individual attention) while saying "The monolithic school system was designed very well for mass production of education, but was resistant to change." But then you seem to endorse Christensen's hope of online education disrupting classroom. I find it a bit curious because in a classroom, many a alert teacher would spin away from the blackboard and bean a slacker with a fully loaded eraser to get him back on. When it's online, even this bit of attention would be absent unless they conjure up something like beaming a laser ray on the slouching student to rev him up 😉


    1. A teacher in one of my classes used to regularly throw chalk at students who were catching a snooze in his class or chatting with their neighbours. If he couldn't lay his hands on chalk he would throw the duster. Luckily he never beaned anyone with the duster.


  3. Ranju says:

    Hi Basab,
    thanks to your post, i looked at CTY as well and found the course work interesting. However, it seemed like there was a qualifying test to enroll. Am I looking at the wrong thing?


    1. Ranju – Yes. there is a qualifying test. Depending upon the age of the child the test might be different. The website is not very well organized. I had to call them to get things clarified.


  4. RadhaJ says:

    Three separate comments (background:I am a univ teacher who teaches online sections of courses as a matter of course)

    1) Online or physical: the key metric is class size. It is physically not possible for me to teach multi hour classes while keeping track of everyone in a non-small (eg. >12) class. As Basab says, online helps by reducing costs.

    2) At school level, teachers often teach subjects that they are not specialized in (eg. Physics grad teaching History or vice versa) . This is wrong. Online helps by connecting resources to places where they are needed.

    3) Nothing broken with American education: however, the idea that everyone NEEDS to get a highschool (let alone college degree) strikes me as silly. It is at best elitist (eg. do I really know more about life than my neighbor?) , selfserving (eg. teacher salaries going up in a recession) and detrimental to the creative and resourceful young mind whose talents might lie elsewhere.


  5. I just found this site a while ago when a buddy recommended it to me. I’ve been an avid reader ever since.


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