Reinventing schools for the digital age

by Eric Hazan

The education system still performs the same function it always has, which is to “teach one to think intensively and to think critically . . . intelligence plus character, that is the goal of true education,” as Martin Luther King Jr. put it.

The curriculum has evolved, but the way it is taught is largely unchanged. Now, when (nearly) all knowledge is available online and machines are outperforming humans at increasingly complex cognitive tasks, educators must redefine “thinking intensively and critically.” Companies will soon require employees who can work with both digital and human colleagues on increasingly complex and collaborative projects. Can the teaching methods we have always used prepare students to do that?

In addition to this pressing need for modernization, we are seeing the ratio between the cost and the effectiveness of education deteriorate in most advanced economies.

Tertiary education in the United States is the most striking example of rising prices: the cost of college education has grown by an average of 5.2 percent per year since the beginning of the 1990s. A master’s degree now costs $30,000 in a public university and more than $120,000 in a private one. The consequence of this inflation is that the total debt of American students stands at more than $1.2 trillion—a financial time bomb that some economists compare to the subprime-loan crisis of 2008.

Although the rise is less spectacular in France, it is no less real. The Ministry of National Education shows in its statistical document “Repères et références statistiques” that domestic spending on education has risen by 93 percent in constant euro terms since 1980. More worrying is that it has grown faster than the country’s GDP, of which it now represents 6.8 percent as opposed to 6.5 percent a generation earlier. Moreover, since the 2000s, the contribution of households to this spending has been on the rise too, which more particularly reflects the explosion of the school support market or the constant rise in fees at the more prestigious schools and universities.

What are students getting for this cost? The indicators reflect a downward trend. A report done by the McKinsey Paris office in 2012 showed that there was a yawning gap between between companies’ need for certain skills and their availability in the marketplace. By 2020, this report foresees a shortfall of 2.2 million graduates to meet employer demand, while 2.3 million unqualified or underqualified young people will have trouble finding a job. Every year 122,000 young people, or just over one in six, come out of the French school system with no qualifications at all. In a recent study, the World Economic Forum made the same observation, this time worldwide, and stated that current educational systems prepare our children inadequately for the professions of tomorrow. In the United States, where the cost of college education hits the middle class especially hard, a debate is emerging over the “profitability” of higher education. The contrarian Peter Thiel is openly urging ambitious young Americans to drop out of universities and opt for the “school of life.”

The urgency of transforming schools

Faced with the twofold challenge of increasing skills while controlling costs, the education system has no other choice than to open up to teaching innovations, digital ones in particular. Let’s be clear: the digital transformation of education involves much more than simply installing a PC in the back of a classroom or issuing iPads. True transformation means totally renewing the teaching toolbox as well as the role of the teacher.

What this boils down to is questioning the school system’s monopoly. It’s comparable to what happened to banks with the emergence of fintechs. Customers who were held captive to banking institutions’ bundled services suddenly had the freedom to pick and choose from a range of products.

This kind of change is often imperceptible at first, with just a small number of early adopters who are seen as outliers. But things can accelerate quickly, and it’s easy to be left behind.

The early signs of the erosion of the school system’s monopoly are already visible. For example, the percentage of home-schooled children in France doubled between 2007 and 2014. Admittedly this is still very low, rising from 0.16 percent to 0.32 percent between these two dates, but as with other sectors, change can happen quickly.

The future of schooling: a digital tutor for everyone?

With the economies of scale made possible by digital technology, what was yesterday a privilege reserved for the elite—personalized teaching with a tutor who adapts the pace of learning to the pupil—could be made available to everyone and could even become the norm in the primary and secondary school systems.

In the field of higher education, even if the lectures continue to exist, they could easily take the form of online videos. More than 4,000 massive open online courses (MOOCs) are already available online free of charge, often given by prestigious university professors. However, the lecture format itself will also face fierce competition from “serious games” or “applied games” that combine education and entertainment, for which the market is rapidly expanding.

For children, group learning is critical, and should be done with a minimum of adult supervision. We know from the “hole in the wall” experiment by Sugata Mitra that children are capable of self-organizing to reach a teaching objective with a computerized tool. This combination of group learning, self-management, and collaborative learning does a better job of strengthening students’ soft skills than theoretical instruction on listening, showing empathy, and collaborating.

The role of the teacher will gradually become the high-value-added role of tutor and facilitator, assisted by algorithms and tools that use artificial intelligence and big data. These tools could replace the teacher in answering routine questions from students, freeing professors to work with students on areas that only a human can address. Chatbots could take on part of the role of the tutorial supervisor. An instructor at Georgia Tech tried this recently. Professor Ashok Goel created a bot teaching assistant that was tasked with answering students’ questions. Surprisingly, the students did not even realize they were interacting with a chatbox.

Automated data analysis could also help the teacher target and tailor advice to the students. Some American universities have already developed tools to identify struggling students by combining socio-demographic data with their grades. The tools then issue targeted recommendations: modules to be taken, areas of knowledge to be strengthened, exercises to be done, etc. The exam success rate rose by a third among certain vulnerable populations targeted by the automated data analysis. Similarly, the EM Lyon Business School developed an app called MakerMatch, which has students take cognitive tests to identify their learning-style preferences, such as memorization techniques, logical sense, or ability to work from texts, videos, or audio documents. Students can then adapt their courses to their profile and find likeminded peers with whom to collaborate.

Schools have everything to gain from rapidly recognizing this new landscape and taking action now. One-size-fits-all teaching doesn’t train children to think intensively or critically in an increasingly digital world. Instead, it produces graduates with increasingly obsolete skills.

Test-and-learn to learn

So will the education system become a crucible for these innovations? Or will it be too rigid to adapt to overwhelmingly rapid change? Will it be gradually deserted by families who have the means to do so? Will we see an unbundling of education? How can we enable the school system to remain in the race between technological advances and educational innovation?

Beyond those are even more fraught questions. What is the economic model for the education of the future? What must we teach our children to prepare them to become citizens, active and fully developed members of society, and economic contributors?

Education presents one of the greatest challenges that nations face. Already employers struggle to find suitably skilled workers, and the digitization of everything will only increase this problem. The education system simply must evolve. Three words sum up the change that has to happen: experimentation, independence, and sharing. We can look to companies all around the world that need to evolve in the same way. What do we observe in complex organizational systems, such as large corporations or indeed an entire education system?

We see that vision and drive from the top are essential, but are not in themselves sufficient to bring about transformation. The battle is won in the field. It is in the field that the players must be motivated and supported to question what they are doing, through an appropriate mix of teaching methodology, incentives and training. They must then be given the freedom to test, assess the experiments, abandon those which fail or are too costly, learn lessons, and disseminate and reproduce the successful ones on a larger scale.