School's Out Forever

Do we still need brick and mortar schools? Why haven't we progressed to the online classroom?

The System, By Rosscott

We've been hearing about this for years: the online classroom will break down barriers to learning, allowing students from all locations and all walks of life to get a decent education. However, our current school system has not changed substantially in over a hundred years. Parents still consider the school district and facilities as part of the process in deciding where to live.

Students still have to walk, or bike, or get bussed to a big brick building with hundreds or thousands of other students to spend a good chunk of their day learning from old textbooks, on old, beat up furniture, eating lousy cafeteria food and waiting until 3pm to get beat up by the school bully. I'm exaggerating, of course, but how many students are in this exact situation?

Watch your local news. How often do you see stories complaining about overcrowded schools, antiquated teaching materials, underpaid teachers, and schools that are literally falling apart due to lack of maintenance funds? A lot of the blame for this lies squarely on the shoulders of politicians pulling funds away from education and spending it on pet projects.

Obviously, some schools are more advanced; colleges and universities make money from tuition, government grants and donations, and in turn can invest this money back into the schools. Private schools, using various teaching methods, are also supported in the same way. The public school system suffers in comparison. Affluent neighborhoods end up with better schools; poor neighborhoods end up with sub-par, often dangerous schools.

The public school system is funded by tax dollars. Whether you have kids to send to school or not, everyone that works and pays taxes pays for schools. And even though politicking can negatively affect funds that go to schools, if there was no tax money for schools, there would be no state-run public schools.

Our current level of technology allows for a much better way of teaching students than what is currently provided. More than ever, we have the capability of one person broadcasting to many people over the internet, both recorded and live. So why can't we harness that technology for teaching out kids?

Sure, the new Cisco commercials show Ellen Page going into a classroom and watching the kids interact with children in a Chinese classroom on a large screen over the internet. But that is still limited by the brick and mortar of the old school system. Why can't we "unbundle" the teaching/learning services from the "hardware" of the physical school building?

You could still require that kids log in at a certain time every day if you're worried about attendance. You can make sure they're paying attention by having them respond to a prompt regularly. They can sit in front of their computers using interactive whiteboarding software, and watch their teacher on a video stream. The teacher wouldn't even need a blackboard/whiteboard--they can use the same software that the students use.

There are tons of benefits to this. The first is no physical school to deal with. No construction, no land, no plumbing, no maintenance, no lunch lady. The services themselves can be farmed out to online broadcast hosting providers, like WebEx.

Without having to pay for that antiquated infrastructure, you could afford to pay teachers a decent salary. You could afford to have more teachers. The teachers could get better, more modern training. School supplies would not be necessary; everything could be done digitally, including textbooks and exams.

The major cost per individual would be computers for the students to participate. Some schools already provide computers for the students. There are home computers and laptops that are dirt cheap. And if you really want to make a difference, give the parents a tax break for providing a computer for their kids to use instead of letting the education system pay for it. Everybody wins.

There's one final benefit from this. Geographic, cultural and economic barriers would no longer be an obstacle to getting a good education. The internet is one of the great levelers for communication. Why can't it be one for education as well?