Interactive online technologies have transformed entertainment. Could they also improve education? Universities and individual innovators are beginning to demonstrate how online learning can stimulate students, aid teachers, and involve parents. I believe the opportunity is huge.
For decades, technology has inspired hopes for dramatic improvement in learning. While video and computers have become important educational tools, their overall impact has been quite modest. There’s good reason to be humble about technology in education.
Still, I think the promise is very exciting. Technology can help a teacher track students’ individual progress at a glance and then guide them each to the online lecture or reading that is best for them, given their progress. I think the potential is very exciting.
This potential is attracting innovators who are beginning to realize how the digitization of education can lead to big improvement. MIT has put many of their courses online, making video lectures and course materials available free to anyone. Carnegie Mellon University has created an interactive online statistics course that allows students to move at their own pace. Some students complete the course in half the time of a normal classroom course.
One of the most exciting innovators is Salman Khan. A former hedge-fund analyst, in 2004 he began creating instructional videos to help his cousins with their schoolwork, even though he was in Boston and they were in New Orleans. At www.KhanAcademy.org, Sal has now created and posted more than 2,000 videos on math and science topics. They’re viewed more than 100,000 times each day by people around the world.
Sal is expanding Khan Academy to include online exercises that diagnose students’ weak spots and guide them to additional material. Khan Academy also is creating an online “dashboard” to help teachers use the site in their classes. The dashboard tells the teacher how each student is doing, pinpoints where they’re having difficulty, and suggests exercises to help.
Online learning will never replace teachers and classrooms. That personal connection and social interaction are very important to learning. Working in classrooms and on the Internet should be complementary. Using both for what they’re best at, we should blend technology with great teaching. If we do, I think young people will be much more excited about learning, more will succeed in school, and learning will become a lifelong pursuit that everyone has greater access to.