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EconOptimisim

Technology to break the picket line

Unions often get a bad reputation for doing what everyone can be expected to do: working to advance their own self-interest.  However, if the teacher’s union in Chicago was sufficiently forward-looking, it would know to walk softly and carry a pen poised for signing a long-term contract: their days of teaching children are numbered.

Property taxes fund public school education in the United States.  Funding, and its corollary, quality, of education, varies throughout the country.  While nationally the majority of fourth grade students score at or above basic skills in math and reading, 82% and 67% respectively, in some pockets of the United States, the majority of students score below basic.

Online schooling, however, has no relation to property taxes: online means universal access.  Over the past several years, online education has gained credibility: MIT has online open courses; some colleges and universities use Second Life to run classes and create a community for students.

Beyond uneven funding, students have uneven motivation for education.  At eight years old it’s very difficult to see “the point” of learning in school.  Going to college and having a job are things that big kids and grown-ups do, which makes those long-term goals irrelevant to someone just learning multiplication.  Outside influences, like parents, provide the incentives to do well in school.  Incentives can be as comforting as a hug for a job well done or as harsh as punishment for a “B.”  The optimum technique is not the question, only that the child understands schooling’s relevance.

Rather than wait for a person to fill the incentives gap, educational gaming can deliver.  Jane McGonigal, a game designer and guest on TED talks, has argued that gaming can drive a person to greatness. In a game, a person receives a mission, which means actions matter, rewards exist in the foreseeable future and consistent feedback motivates improvement.  The basic framework has similarities to traditional schooling: the mission is to learn, grades provide a reward and teachers should give feedback.  An explicit gaming mentality could make education more compelling across the board.  As further evidence of a shift, the last several years, and particularly the past several months have seen great investment in educational gaming aimed at basic skill development.

If, in some areas, children do not learn the necessary skills by actually going to school and all children can potentially learn these skills elsewhere, then the value-add of a physical school must be its very physicality.  Schools offer “containment”: for a certain amount of time, five days a week for nine and a half months out of the year, kids have somewhere to go.  In some areas, schools can also provide excellent social environments.  But, kids can realize these benefits beyond a school.

While geography is correlated with distinct demographic patterns and dictates public education, technology adoption does not.  According to Pew Research, just 6% of non-internet users give a lack of access as their main reason for not using the Internet; whites and minorities have the same rates of smartphone adoption; greater age marks the largest disparity in technology adoption.  A curriculum that leverages educational gaming across multiple platforms complements technology’s current and projected demographic pattern.

Absent technology, certain pockets of the country become home to educational black holes. Fortunately, back-pocket technology exists to make escape possible, requiring only the simple swipe of a child’s finger.

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