I was listening to npr this morning and they were discussing etextbooks.  It led me to thinking that it’s probably inevitable that whatever happens with the paper book, learning is about to evolve beyond the textbook.  And of course, that made me wonder further, clearly the model of education that we use now has not aged particularly well.  So, what might change in the next decade or two?

First, the aforementioned texts.  The democratization of information has changed the world.  Fifteen years ago I worked in a library and we actually had people that would answer the phone and look stuff up for you in giant leatherbound tomes.  Well, I think it’s clear that those days are far in the rearview mirror.  At one time, the best source of, say, macroeconomic information was probably a college textbook.  Now, is there any question that the internet contains vastly more and more updated information than a printed book ever could?  The world changes at such a fast pace now, how could someone expect to use a textbook published even last year to learn about a world that changes… daily?  Hourly?  By the time you finish reading this sentence?

The rise of the ebook reader has conclusively proven that people can accept reading from an electronic device (trust me, this really was a legitimate question at one point!).  Once that became clear, it was really only a matter of time, I suppose, before “e” invaded every fortress of the printed word.  A medium that is cheaper, dynamically updatable, more portable, more convenient and more available is so clearly a winner in retrospect that I’m kicking myself for waiting so long to buy a kindle!

The next place I expect to see change is in actual classroom instruction.  Teachers vary in quality, obviously.  Does it make more sense to take the very best teachers in the country and have them virtually teach massive classes through their proven methods and materials?  And then have students ask questions virtually in smaller groups with discussion guides?  Inequality in education is a major limiting factor for many that come from impoverished communities… how much would those students benefit from the level playing field of an equal primary education?  Getting the very best teachers in the country in front of every single student just seems more efficient than having 100,000 different teachers teaching multiplication in 100,000 classrooms in 100,000 different ways (there are approximately 100,000 public elementary and secondary schools in the US).

Finally, I think brick and mortar schools are also going to change, if not disappear as single purpose (for the most part) buildings.  Schools serve many purposes, one of which is education.  If you remove education, though, and focus on the other needs (socialization, day care, nutrition, exercise, etc), I think you’ll find that the school as we know it today might not be the best way to meet those needs.  Think of what kids do in the summer compared to during the school year.  Think about what you did during your summer vacations when you were a kid.  I’m going to go out on a limb and guess here, but I’d be real surprised if a lot of people had a big problem with *not* going to school all summer.  The fact of the matter is that sitting in a classroom all day is completely against the nature of childhood!  Doesn’t it make more sense to educate children in a way that works with the tendencies and interests they have rather than trying to get them to conform to a stale ideal of what education should look like?

So yeah, those projections are a bit of lunacy.  What would this even look like?  Well, a virtual education allows us as a society to create learning centers that cater to different learning styles to meet different needs.  If my son or daughter is an auditory learner, they could be in a place with other auditory learners participating in a learning experience that was customized to their needs!  They could be assisted by members of the community in a community and recreation center where learning could be combined with recreation, socialization and participating in community activities. If my child is a particularly fast or slow learner, a virtual arrangement allows him or her to pace themself, focusing on areas that are more difficult.  If my child really has a passion for something that very few other people care about, chances are good that there are people somewhere else in the virtual classroom just as interested that my child could learn together with.

I don’t think there’s much of a question as to whether education will change in the next twenty years, I think it’s more a question of how.  Further, I don’t think a virtual classroom is much of a reach given the success of online universities coupled with the fact that children now grow up using technology in a way that would make all of this extremely natural and easy to understand.  The first time your son or daughter comes home from school and logs into a virtual chat room to work on homework… that will be the beginning.  Keep your eyes open and keep thinking about what’s going on around you!

Of course, I’ve been wrong before….