How to Liberate Learning

Friday, October 9, 2009

Terry M. Moe and Eric A. Hanushek discuss Liberating Learning (Jossey- Bass, 2009), a new book co-written by Moe and John E. Chubb.

Eric A. Hanushek: Your new book is about technology and American education. Why do you call it Liberating Learning?

Terry M. Moe: In part, the title reflects what technology has to contribute. We are in the midst of a revolution in information technology that is transforming human society around the world, and it can’t help but have profound implications for student learning.

Hanushek: How is it going to be beneficial?

Moe: Through programs of online learning, coursework can literally be customized to the needs and learning styles of each child. Kids can get instant feedback on how they are doing; they can get extra help on the material they don’t understand; they can work at their own pace and according to their own schedules. And regardless of where they live, from Detroit to Appalachia, they can gain access to a vast array of the best courses the world can provide.

Compare this to the traditional model of schooling: twenty-five or thirty kids sitting in desks in a classroom listening to a teacher lecture and being offered a standardized, one-size-fits-all curriculum that leaves some kids totally bored and others way behind. There is no need to be trapped by tradition. Education can now be customized to each child.

Hanushek: But is it economical to customize education to each child?

Moe: In fact, online learning will make the education process far less expensive. For the first time in modern history, it is possible to substitute technology for labor in the education process—because tech can do much (but not all) of the actual teaching. And because tech is cheap and labor is extraordinarily expensive, this substitute makes it possible to spend the nation’s scarce resources much more productively. We can get much more bang for the buck this way. This is another enormous benefit of technology.

Hanushek: Isn’t there a danger that computers will take over and that kids will be learning at home, isolated from teachers and from social interaction?

Moe: Not really, because people don’t want that. We think that in the future, most kids will still “go to school” but that the typical school will be a hybrid of the traditional and the high tech. There will be fewer teachers per student, and kids will get much of their academics online; but there will also be plenty of social interaction and personal attention.

Hanushek: So, with all these benefits, do you expect the American public school system to embrace technology with open arms? It seems to me that technology has barely made a dent in the schools so far. What’s going on?

Moe: This is the other side of the equation. Precisely because technology has the potential to transform the fundamentals of public education, it is threatening to the established groups that operate the existing system, and these groups are politically powerful, especially the teachers’ unions. They are by far the most powerful players in the politics of education. They are using their power to resist the advance of technology and to make sure it does not transform the education system.

Hanushek: Why do they find technology so threatening?

Moe: Because fundamental change affects everything they care about, especially jobs and money. As I said, these innovations allow us to substitute technology for labor in the education process, which means fewer jobs for teachers. Also, because online schools can be located anywhere— geography is unimportant—they can attract students and money away from the local school districts. All this is deeply threatening. The United States has never simply been able to do what works in reforming its schools because the major reforms are off the table—or are gutted or weakened.

“There is no need to be trapped by tradition. Education can now be customized to each child.”

Hanushek: Then why would technology be any different?

Moe: Technology is not really a reform but a massive social force that is changing the whole world. The unions can’t keep it out. It is already seeping in—and this will continue. As it seeps in over a period of many years, it will have a surprising set of consequences—automatically and without anyone’s intention. And this will transform the politics of education. Let me give two examples:

One, it generates a substitution of technology for labor in education— which means that there will be fewer teachers per student in the future and fewer union members. Sheer numbers are the key to unions’ power, so their power is going to suffer.

The second has to do with geography. The traditional system concentrates kids and teachers within schools and districts—and makes teachers easy for unions to organize. But when online schooling proliferates, kids and teachers can be anywhere—they don’t all need to be in any one place—and many teachers will be widely dispersed rather than concentrated. This will make them much harder for unions to organize.

These are just two of a number of forces that technology generates— all of them working together, without intending to, to undermine union power.

Hanushek: So if the teachers’ unions become less powerful over the years, what effect will that have on American education?

Moe: This is the true meaning of the liberation of learning. When the unions can no longer block reform in the political process, technological innovations can flow through and provide kids with tremendous benefits for learning.

But that’s not all. With the unions unable to block them, the full range of promising reforms—true accountability, real choice, pay for performance, getting bad teachers out of the classroom, and much more—can flow through too.

“Because technology has the potential to transform the fundamentals of public education, it is threatening to the established groups that operate the existing system, and these groups are politically powerful.”

More generally, politics will give much higher priority to the best interests of kids and allow policy makers to do whatever works—whether high tech or not.

The result will be a new era in American education that may take a few decades. But the nation will finally be able to adopt reforms that make sense for kids and schools—which it’s never been able to do before. This is what we really mean by the liberation of learning.