An education system for the facebook generation

One of the biggest complaints I hear from my many friends who are K-12 teachers is that they have to spend a huge amount of time preparing lessons. Sure, lesson preparation is extremely important, but the curriculum is standard across the school board and hundreds of teachers teach similar concepts year after year. Why don’t teachers share the lesson planning load? It turns out that most teachers do not share this carefully and expensively prepared material and I was shocked to hear that many teachers guard their lesson plans like they were state secrets.  This must lead to extraordinary duplicated effort and wasted cost and is no way to run an education system! Two fantastic ideas in human communication that promise to significantly speed human progress are open access and social networking. Open access has revolutionized publishing (think wikipedia) and software development (think Linux), and social networking has revolutionized how internet users communicate (think facebook).

My proposal is that these ideas should be applied to improving the education system, which still runs much like it did hundreds of years ago in the proverbial schoolhouse – one teacher lecturing to many students. Basically, a social networking site would be created linking all teachers who share a given curriculum. Teachers would be required (or encouraged) to upload their prepared course materials for each teaching module and these would be tagged using relevant terms from a controlled vocabulary, such as concept taught, grade level, teaching style and class size).  Other teachers would be able to surf the network (called ‘teachbook’, ‘teachnet’ or ‘teachspace’?) for interesting lesson plan ideas. As usual for open access communities, author attribution would be carefully tracked and used to reward contributors. Popular ideas would be downloaded more often which would lead to their higher ranking and kudos for the author, just like on youtube (which has already resulted in many new jobs for aspiring actors). The network would be a forum for communication, with the ability to comment on what works and what doesn’t work with a given lesson plan. This would enable a wider flow of ideas between teachers and would lead to better lesson plans. A teacher would know who downloaded his or her lesson plans, which is important for community building.

This system will not be easy to build technically and will need to be supported over many years before it is effective. New lesson plan ontologies will have to be developed (take a cue from the semantic web) to structure this knowledge and make it computable. There will also be major social challenges to overcome. For instance, it is likely that younger, more computer savvy teachers, will see the value in the system more than established ones. Thus the system will likely only work well once the internet generation is more established.  This may take another decade.

Learning is clearly an incredibly complex process and we know very little about how it works and so many factors will influence whether a given lesson idea will work for a particular constellation of students in a class. Building a lesson sharing system for teachers will provide an incredible opportunity to learn more about how we learn. You could imagine the equivalent of clinical trials (evidence-based research) being run to test new education concepts with tens of thousands of students. Make student information available to the system, such as grades or personalities (learning phenotypes), and researchers will be able to run association studies to find what teaching styles work well with what types of students. The ethical, social and legal implications of the research aspects of the system will clearly need much study, but this research could lead to significant advances in education and directly lead to society improving breakthroughs in a number of fields, including education, sociology, human-computer interaction and psychology.

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