Teaching, like virtually any profession in history, has struggled with the challenge of providing an effective service at an affordable cost. Primary education has to ensure students come out with the skills needed to be effective citizens, to qualify for basic jobs, and to enter into secondary education (if they so choose). Collegiate education must provide students with the skills to succeed in their field of choice. But the education budget is limited, and like most institutions, the education system has many internal pressures towards cutting costs. Thus, the modern education system has incorporated many elements designed to keep the fundamental cost of education low.
Take the basic idea of the curriculum. Since a core goal of education is ensuring that students leave with certain skills well developed, curricula ensure that students develop those skills within a certain time frame. This reduces redundancy in between courses, and favors the graduation of students at the same time. The use of curricula ties into lecture-based education, which is particularly prevalent in colleges: since a dense curriculum can require lots of teaching time, professors often need the entire class period just to cover the material, leaving little or no time for discussion. In this instance, the curriculum serves to reduce the class time needed to cover the material, reducing the cost of teaching it.
Standardized textbooks are another means that schools have adopted to control the costs of education. It costs schools nothing for students to read a textbook, and if that textbook is returned, they only suffer minor wear-and-tear on their property. Naturally, the use of paper textbooks is now a long-established tradition in both primary schools and colleges. The system continues without any major problems, so schools see no reason to change it.
In many ways, this is not a huge issue – schools and colleges continue to produce good students. But in others, it represents a missed opportunity, and is at odds with the way that today’s youth consume information.
To use a well-known example, look at Wikipedia. It may appear similar to a traditional encyclopedia with just a cursory glace, but resources like that did not coin the term “Wikipedia Effect”, wherein a reader starts out looking at one topic, but clicks on a related link, and before long wind up a dozen tabs deep into a string of related concepts. Modern purveyors of information do not present their resources in a linear fashion, like paper textbooks – instead that information is connected more like a web.
Another feature of contemporary media is that it can tailor itself to some extremely specific niches. Since the internet can connect people from all over the world, even individuals with extremely specific interests can find like-minded peers. Yet, our education system continues with the one-size-fits all approach. And, again thanks to the Internet, the people being left behind by this approach are more visible than ever before.
Some readers might worry that properly solving these issues would get too expensive – after all, the original approaches were adopted because they kept costs from getting out of hand while still ensuring reliable standards. However, the same Internet that has highlighted these problems has also made the solutions more affordable.
Whenever one teacher has an idea that they think would help with handling a certain subset of students, they can post it online for peer review, and if others appreciate it enough, it can be implemented nationwide. A shift from paper to electronic textbooks would enable cheaper revisions, would benefit from the use of modern computing to navigate between concepts easily and try out interactive examples, and would make specialized texts more feasible.
We are already starting to see changes take place – schools have been slowly increasing the use of electronic learning resources for well over a decade, electronic textbooks are starting to appear, and sites like Coursera are springing up based on successful ideas about how to teach. The more that people are aware of the potential of these changes, the faster they will go.