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The future of education...

The Shape of Things to Come
by Win Wenger, Ph.D.

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Headline:   "Billionaire Pitches Cyber-U to Businesses" (in the Washington Post, B-2, 3/17/00).

Part of story:   "MicroStrategy CEO Michael Saylor spun his vision for a free online university to local business leaders yesterday and announced the appointment of three interim advisers who will help get the project rolling.
"His formal announcement that he will spend $100 million as a deposit toward creating the university, with more to come...."


Since then, MicroStrategy's stocks led the rollercoaster dip that flurried through NASDEQ, and a few of Saylor's billions evaporated, at least for the moment, before rebounding. But apparently that project is still on. Saylor's move to create an entire university and curriculum, a total education free on the web, is a huge step toward the way things have to become. If Saylor weren't doing this, other billionaires and other interests would be and no doubt are.

Before distance electronic learning can become truly effective, it will have to adapt methods featuring in-person student-to-student interactions, not just student-professor interactions, but that is bound to come. What is clear is this:

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What's on the way
The entire, and we mean the entire curriculum — high school, university, graduate and post-grad, plus whatever specialized community and industry/occupational courses — will be free on the web as a public utility.

Whether Internet baby billionaire Saylor's project makes it or not, university-level education is about to become a free public utility in much the same way that the Internet already is. And many new enterprises will emerge in its context just as have happened with the net.

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What's held up Distance Learning?
The main thing preventing distance learning from taking off as yet is that no one has provided an effective system for cueing student-to-student, face-to-face interaction as per our Dynamic Format. You want students interacting on a face-to-face level for all the reasons you want them interacting with the course or program content.

Especially important:   keyboard and screen are too narrow a context to learn in. Most people cannot transfer most of what they learn there to other contexts, or generalize it. You do get that if you have several students to a terminal buzzing the key points with each other face-to-face.

These are the same advantages you get if you have well-focused buzz-grouping in well-managed interactive in-person classrooms, and almost the same advantages as if you were one-on-one in person with a Socratic instructor.

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The new avalanche of enterprises
Within this new distance-learning public utility will flourish a million and one special enterprises. These will provide services such as guidance and evaluation (of students and of programs and courses). They will help or arrange logistics for in-person get-togethers of students to reinforce some of the courses and processes used. Yet others of these new firms will, of course, provide electronic instructional materials, and techniques, to various of the course providers.

They will provide a host of other conveniences and products and services beyond prediction, just as what is now on that other public utility, the Internet, would have been difficult to predict 15-20 years ago. Already, some electronic tutoring services are beginning to emerge online, the very front end of an avalanche soon upon us.

A second major change coming onto education is the re-re-re-re-rediscovery that nearly all the information and understanding sought, in present educational efforts, is already within each learner, by various means and exposures, and needs merely to be Socratically drawn forth into focus.

Once that core is focused and conscious, whatever learning remains to be done can then integrate quickly and easily around that already-known core, a core of experiences and understandings which is in every one of us — even in that slacker over in the corner, and in that lout in the back row, though he wouldn't think so either.

This is the area where most of the Project Renaissance education-related methods are currently engaged. Many more, and perhaps better, methods than those presently available will emerge from these same principles. With some of the current Project Renaissance methods, one may already acquire years of proficiency or skill in almost any given skill or topic or subject, in only days. The front end of this avalanche, also, is already here.

Further, it has become clear that we get most of our learning and nearly all of our growth from the point where we are getting back something of what we put out. Feedback. Reinforcement. Not just feedback from the environment — maybe nine-tenths of it or more is feedback directly from our own ongoing output, to which the environment is almost incidental.

New information can come in, but mostly it has to ride the feedback loop like on a carrier wave. (See the article, Approaches Toward Our Feed-the-Loop Model.) I think this theory is our most significant step in what we're attempting to evolve. We stand on the shoulders of Montessori, Moore, Santiago Ramon y Cajal, and Marion Diamond, but in this we're a step beyond even these.

This profoundly clarifying Feed-the-Loop model, though arrived at only in 1999, is so generative of new insights and new methods that it seems fair to characterize this model as the third hugely transformative issue now breaking upon us and upon all of education.

A fourth transformative issue: — today, anyone's reasonably competent PC has more and better access to more and better information than did even the top universities just ten years ago. How long can schools continue to try to do business-as-usual as the source and authority of knowledge over the tabula rasa students and in society generally? Schools have to redefine their roles and how to fulfill them — right now — or be blown away utterly in the next several years, even were not the other factors afoot.

Is there anyone reading this today who does not know the meaning of the word, 'to Google'? It was just a decade ago that Google announced its objective to make all printed human knowledge available to everyone everywhere on the planet. As it nears that goal, competing search engines are seeking also to fulfill that goal or to go beyond it. You don't need to pay $100,000 tuition to sit down online and be able to find the information you are looking for.

We no longer need the sociotectonics model, which has been tracking other factors, which predicted the sudden astonishing fall of the huge Soviet empire, to see that great socioquake coming in American institutionalized education (and perhaps in institutionalized Western education generally)!

The fifth transformative issue, of course, is how poorly schools were and are doing that job even before that role disappeared on them. They were driven to that point by certain incentives, described below.

The sixth transformative issue is a perverse incentive structure. As various levels and programs of governmental aid, funds and money are poured into those schools which do the worst job, trying to staunch their emergency, other schools, which make the mistake of improving what they are doing, get disqualified and cut off from assistance. This is the main source of the disease which has been eating away at American schools since the late 1950s.

How general incentives work, good or bad, is not on major decisions but on a host of minor decisions, cumulatively, where it's correspondingly easier to go on in one direction than in another, over a long period of time. Individual teachers and schools may resist the general trend for a time, but the system as a whole drifts irrevocably in the directions pointed by the general incentive. We pointed ours wrong and it's still driving us in wrong directions.

A seventh transformative issue is the emergence of cardboard computers, battery-powered, with radio modems, so cheap they can be air-dropped to blanket every jungle backwater and extend not only the Internet but that free university education to every child on the planet.

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