More Americans go to college than ever. But how many think about the return they will get from tuition payments that can easily reach $200,000? Up to half are unemployed or underemployed a year after graduation. And two-thirds say they need further training and instruction to enter the workforce, reports Accenture.
As student debt balloons, it’s time for society to re-evaluate postsecondary education—and our entire system. We need to create new and innovative systems that help individuals achieve their potential.
The Web is changing many important functions of modern society—how we transfer money, communicate, purchase products, and more—but has been slow to transform the critical task of educating the next generation of citizens and leaders.
American education remains basically modeled on an approach hundreds of years old. Students with varying levels of ability sit in classes organized by grade level before a “sage on the stage” who teaches reading, writing, arithmetic, and a bit of science. That system, at least in the U.S., doesn’t seem to work well enough. Among developed countries ranked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. is 31st in math achievement, 24th in science, and 21st in reading.
It’s time for education to catch up with our technologically enhanced society. Students deserve a relevant, modern, customized education that helps them acquire 21st century skills. So does American society.
Take computer science, for instance. Employers nationwide lament a massive skills gap, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics says there will be a million more job openings than trained workers to fill them by 2020. Yet, according to Code.org, an organization that encourages more students to learn programming and coding skills, only 1 in 10 American high schools even offer a computer science class, let alone Advanced Placement in the subject. And fewer than 3 percent of college students earned a C.S. degree in 2012, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Curriculum is not the only part of the system ripe for change, of course. The delivery mechanism has also remained unchanged for generations. Teachers run classes as extended lectures and send students home to complete homework assignments, often alone and confused. It’s a practice that’s particularly disadvantageous for students who lack a conducive home environment.
We need pioneering innovations to make their way into more of our schools, like the “flipped classroom” model made possible by, for example, the extraordinary Khan Academy video lectures. In this model, educational material like lectures and other video is consumed by a student alone outside of the classroom, while “homework” and other practical learning-oriented exercises are done in school, where students have access to resources and assistance.
My company, Codecademy, offers instruction in computer programming and other skills online. While millions of people have used Codecademy outside the classroom to learn digital skills essential to the 21st century, schools have begun to extensively use our educational material in the “flipped” model. Codecademy provides curriculum and lesson plans through an After School Programming component of our website. Teachers are able to function as facilitators of student progress instead of instructors, which eases the massive shortage of C.S. teachers in the U.S. More than 8,000 schools use this approach.
For decades, change to the staid American K-12 system and the “ivory tower” of higher education has come too slowly. Though charter schools, teachers unions, school boards, local activists and others have worked to reform the system, it has often seemed impermeable. Technology may be the silver bullet to enhance the material and the way we teach. Our students already live in a tech-saturated culture, so they will certainly welcome such change. Technology can help America’s students better prepare for the future, and keep preparing—since learning will increasingly need to be continuous as the stunning pace of technology change further accelerates.
Zach Sims, 24, is cofounder and CEO of Codecademy, which teaches programming online. The company was named a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum and Sims was one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2013.
This article was originally published in the Techonomy 2014 Report.