Our education systems are one of the great, enduring achievements of the 19th century. They were designed to prepare children for success in a burgeoning industrial economy, and they did their job well. But a 21st century services-and-knowledge-based economy has altered the landscape, and it requires different skills and ways of learning. If we hope to help our children achieve their potential—and realise the potential of a smarter planet—then school itself will have to get a lot smarter.
As a start, we can better integrate the collection of cottage industries that make up today's education "system." There are more than 15,000 local school districts in the United States delivering K-12 programs, and they face a conundrum. Local involvement is crucial, but local districts suffer from the inefficiency of separate operating systems, measurements and management processes, wasting precious resources. Developed countries, on average, spend nearly 4% of their GDP on education, and costs are rising—up 42% between 1995 and 2004, according to an OECD study. And the situation is similar no matter where you look. In China, there are nearly 500,000 primary and middle schools, each managing its own infrastructure.
A smarter education system would start by reducing waste and upgrading aging infrastructure—crucially important during an economic crisis, when funds are needed for improved instruction. But most importantly, smarter education will reshape learning not around administrative processes, but around the two key components of any education system: the student and the teacher.
Consider a town in Illinois, where educators are mining student data electronically—from academic records to information on student mobility and attendance. Or a Florida county with one of the largest school systems in the U.S., whose Teacher Workbench provides teachers with instructional resources linked to timely student data. This information will help teachers to identify what each student needs and thus individualise instruction to improve student achievement, while protecting confidentiality. Smarter systems also ensure that schools don't bear the education burden alone. They enable the inclusion of supporting organisations and communities—from colleges to health and social service agencies to families—transforming schools into a student-centered educational ecosystem.
In China, the Ministry of Education is expanding access and improving knowledge sharing through its open source "Blue Sky" e-learning platform, which has been used by more than 780,200 Chinese students and teachers since July 2006. The state of Brandenburg in Germany is harnessing Web-based tools that help teachers and other education experts across a widely dispersed region to connect systematically for the first time. In Broward County, Florida, parents can access a "virtual counselor" to track their children's attendance, assignments and progress. In Ohio, student data is feeding performance dashboards for teachers, helping them to share courseware and lesson plans. On the horizon is the opportunity to create education "clouds"—like the one North Carolina State University uses to provide computing power and IT tools to students and faculty for research, student learning and administration.
Despite intense fiscal pressures around the world, economic stimulus programs offer the opportunity to foster real innovation in the way education is delivered. Many regions, states and provinces are exploring new models, including shared service delivery for routine functions. And the savings that result can be invested in improved teacher compensation and new hiring in key areas such as math and science. Because in the end, the chief beneficiaries of smarter education must be those who teach and those who learn.
Let's build a smarter planet.