FUTUREPERSPECTIVE - A Vision of Education for the 21st Century


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Technology is on the verge of fundamentally reshaping the American education system. In particular, the technology to deliver full-length courses online is rapidly becoming a reality. The creation and delivery of courses over the Web will be the driving force for educational change in the 21st century.

The computer will allow the creation of "learn by doing" courses designed by the best and the brightest experts in any given field. Quality universities will put their names on these courses, and companies will create them, guaranteeing employment to those who pass them. This will create tremendous change for everyone involved in the education system.

New role for teachers

The teaching of traditional academic subjects, first in high school and later in elementary school, will be increasingly done via online courses. Eventually school libraries will contain hundreds of these courses. Teachers will be left to provide things that technology cannot: personal one-on-one tutoring; teaching kids how to work in a group to accomplish something; and teaching crucial interpersonal relationship skills.

Initially teachers may feel disenfranchised by this. But an important opportunity will emerge for teaching social skills that students desperately need, and teachers will understand they need to be the ones to fill this role. Today there is a push to measure teachers by their students’ test scores. Tomorrow, teachers will be judged by more meaningful measures as we begin to value them for their human qualities.

Not only will teachers act much more as social workers or guidance counselors in the future, they will also lead courses that explicitly focus on developing social and interpersonal skills. In many ways these courses will resemble the kinds of programs provided by Outward Bound. The teacher will be an advisor to the team, or a guide on an expedition. Right now teachers are authority figures. Once teachers move out of that role, they will eliminate a roadblock that prevents them from connecting with the students who need the most guidance.

Changes in primary education

One of the biggest problems we have in elementary school is the amount of time kids are forced to sit still. Sitting still is so hard, and it’s the last thing young children want to do. I’d rather see kids spending more time playing than doing academics. While I think there is a valuable lesson in teaching a seven-year-old to sit down and focus on a task, that task shouldn’t be doing 1,400 multiplication tables.

Elementary school should be simply about reading, writing and arithmetic, about acquiring good work habits, and perhaps most importantly, about instilling a love of learning in each child. A lot of what in today’s school system is considered extracurricular, like putting out a school paper, ought to be the curriculum. Students learn more that way than any other way.

New roles for schools

We are moving in a direction where everybody is staring at a computer or a television all day and all night and not interacting with other people in a meaningful way. I think the schools will have to be the counterbalance to this trend, to actively provide opportunities for social interaction and to teach the skills required for successful interaction with other individuals. Part of the job of the school must be to help students learn how to work together and to be a functional part of society.

The school itself will evolve into a sort of student or community center, where kids are engaged in a variety of activities and projects. There will be a tremendous range of activities, but they will not be as purely academic as they currently are. When students are not participating in these activities, they will be taking online courses at home, or if the supervision there d'esn’t allow it, at school.

Schools will become much more connected to the community around them as activities bring students more and more into contact with their community. They will also become more connected to local businesses, as students have the opportunity to engage in real-world jobs with local employers. The school will become the center of the community in a much deeper way than it currently is.

Centralization of curriculum and instructional development and academic tutoring

The advent of ubiquitous networking technology will lead to the centralization of key functions in the education system, just as it has in the business world. I see this happening in three key areas.

First, the delivery of education via online courses will change the entire landscape of course development and control of the curriculum. Each academic field will supply its experts to help create the courses in that field. Consortiums of academic experts, educational technologists, and businesses will work to develop, update, refine and improve these courses. As a society, we will be able to realize tremendous efficiencies by developing these top-quality courses one time only. We will also realize a tremendous improvement in course quality control. All students in the country will be able to select from a wide range of top-quality courses in any subject that interests them.

Second, the fiction of local control of education will become evident and a panel of education experts, rather than local groups of well-meaning, but uninformed parents, will develop the curriculum. There will be no point of local school boards arguing over which courses should or should not be offered, when every imaginable expert-built course is available. A central body, comprised of the country’s best experts on education and learning, with representatives from the various academic fields, will assume control over the curriculum represented by the online courses.

Third, the advance of technology, in particular live videoconferencing, will lead to the creation of a centralized pool of tutors for various subjects. Just as today’s companies have centralized phone centers where customers can call in for service, we will see the creation of one-on-one tutoring services provided via live videoconferencing. Having trouble with some calculus problems? Just connect to the calculus tutoring center for a face-to-face session with an expert tutor. These learning service centers will provide students across the country, no matter what community they live in, with access to the best coaches available.

How it will happen

Universities and their partners are beginning to develop and increase the amount of money being spent on online courses. Soon after they are made available at the university level, these courses will find their way to high school. Why? The most in-demand courses in universities today are freshman introductory courses: calculus, biology, physics, economics, psychology, etc. So, from an economic standpoint, it makes sense that these high-enrollment courses are likely to be the first online courses developed. These are the same courses that students are taking as Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high school. This will be especially attractive to those schools who can not offer all the AP courses their students wish to take [Editorial Note: This is already happening. See http:www.apex.netu.com].

Eventually it will be possible to take an entire first year of college in high school and receive college credit. Once this happens, the AP system as we know it will disappear. There will be no need to have an arbitrary test determine whether or not students get credit for a course. They will take the same course college freshmen are taking and get college credit directly. As I said, the availability of online courses in high school is going to happen slowly, but it’s going to happen. It’s easy to imagine that it may not be the case in two years, but it’s much less easy to imagine that it won’t be the case in five years.


The primary driver of change in our 21st century education system will be the creation of online courses that will remove the responsibilities for teaching academic subjects from teachers. Instead, teachers and schools will focus on combating the increasing social isolation that our society will face. Schools will become activity centers where students will work in groups on real-world projects, go on trips, and participate in the community. While students may also use schools as locations to engage in online course work, this course work will be just as available at home. The advent of online courses and associated networking technology will also lead to a centralization of course and curriculum development.

The Internet economy has created the "first movers advantage" — the first to enter a new marketplace often maintains an advantage over competitors. Our country must seize the opportunity to be the "first movers" in creating a new approach to education.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.