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The Future of Education

June 12, 2012

One of the ways to think about economic growth is sector by sector. The larger a sector is, the bigger the impact on total GDP when it changes. Housing has a tremendous impact on GDP because it comprises around a third of the economy. Education, on the other hand, is a modest 5.7% of the economy, approximately 1.9% of that is private, and 3.3% state and local government. But, education is a technology accelerator. Educational productivity matters not just for the part of GDP it composes, but also because it makes other sectors more productive and enhances the speed of innovation.

The Technological Frontier
As technology progresses, it becomes harder and harder for students to reach the edge of what is known, and thus harder for them to advance the frontier. All the easy discoveries have already been made. To even get to the unknown, you have to spend upwards of 10 years studying a subject. An inefficient educational system makes this “getting to the frontier” burden even heavier. Discovering ways to get students to the frontier quickly becomes just as important as advancing the frontier itself. Simplification and streamlining of material is just as important, if not more so, than coming up with the material itself.

There is an intense debate in academia over whether college improves skills (human capital) or just sends a signal about a student’s abilities. My personal intuition is that it is mixed. I learned a lot of useful skills in college and studied hard to acquire them, but some classes were pretty useless, and there are some strange phenomena that are hard to explain without some reference to the signalling theory. The problem with signalling is that individuals often gain quite a bit by signalling, but for society to advance, schools need to create engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs who actually build, discover, and create. The signalling theory is somewhat hopeful, because if a way could be found to clearly transmit the signal on the cheap, tremendous resources could be saved and reallocated toward building human capital.

Technology is rapidly changing the tools educators have to teach students. Computers are able to do tasks that were once thought impossible to automate, such as grading essay questions. Students can watch lectures at their own pace online, take online quizzes to test their knowledge, access any academic paper online, and use blogs to learn from the world’s leading experts on various fields. The common theme for all of these new models is unbundling. Currently, students going to college are buying food, board, landscaping, architecture, social events, signalling, training, references for their resumes, entertainment, and whatever else comes with the standard college experience. The future of education lies in breaking up each of these pieces and providing each one as efficiently as possible. Lectures can be provided by online videos, which can be replayed as many times as the student wants. Grading can be farmed out to contractors or automated. Tests can certifications can be provided online, although there are some problems with cheating. Networking, motivation, and personalized instruction will probably prove harder to spin off. I am most hopeful for improvement among the world’s poor, who may soon gain access to much higher quality educations than before, which is increasingly important in today’s labor market.

Further Reading:
Flipped Classrooms
The current model for schooling is based training factory workers
Future of Teaching
Unbundling Graduate education
Facebook of Education
College builds relationships
Khan Academy
MITx, MIT’s new online academy
A list of places to educate yourself online
Kling on the fate of teachers
More on unbundling

6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 12, 2012 6:38 pm

    I feel like you have almost have something here… looking forward to seeing it develop

    • June 12, 2012 7:21 pm

      Which part would you like me to expand upon? I personally thing the “reforms” part is the least developed, although perhaps some navel gazing on the future might be worth a post. Once these new organizations get going, I can post more about their actual performance.

      • June 12, 2012 8:07 pm

        Yeah, obviously, the reforms form the most “interesting” part of this idea. Some talk about the historical development of the knowledge frontier could be neat, too. For instance: Would Leonardo Da Vinci have become as amazing a Renaissance man if he’d been born in modern day? Or would have have specialized? Interesting thoughts…

  2. June 14, 2012 4:34 pm

    There’s no way someone like Leonardo would be as generalized as he was. His inventions weren’t designed thuroly enuf to be built into a functioning device. Today, at best, he’d be hired as a concept artist for a video game. He’d need to specialize to be taken seriously. People in the past could know everything, because there wasn’t that much to know.


  1. The Frontier of Knowledge « azmytheconomics
  2. Massive online learning and the unbundling of undergraduate education « Benjamin Lima

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