On Monday I attended an education technology conference—a few hundred people reviewing very simple education tools. On Wednesday I attended a military learning technology conference (I/ITSEC)—16,000 people experiencing sophisticated and realistic simulations of flying a fighter, piloting a battleship, and patrolling a village. US education and defense budgets are roughly the same size, but the Department of Defense spends 15 times as much on research and development and in a much more focused way. The DOD is a much better and more efficient learning system than the distributed K-12 ‘system.’
Retired Vice Admiral Al Harms, who led the learning revolution in the Navy, was the star participant on an education panel. Harms described how the US is slipping in international academic ranking and noted the unsettling implications of what will soon be a billion middle class citizens in India and China consuming education and energy at increasing rates.
Richard Boyd, from Lockheed’s virtual world lab, discussed the use of simulations in building ‘rapid pathways to mastery’ in military, medical, retail, and transportation applications. He is confident that virtual worlds, simulations, and learning games will allow young people to learn more, faster, and cheaper than ever before.
I left the Orlando conference with three observations:
- If desired competencies can be clearly identified, it’s possible to build learning experiences and assessment systems to develop and certify them.
- If improvement incentives exist for the system and participants, both will invest in seeking the most efficient path to mastery.
- Innovation diffusion occurs within well-managed organizations and/or healthy markets.
How do these observations square with US K-12? States flocking to the Common Core may mark progress on desired outcomes but the endless debate on ends will likely continue—‘what graduates should know and be able to do’ won’t ever be as simple as learning to drive a tank. Improvement incentives remain weak for schools and some students, but the upcoming reauthorization of major federal education bills is an opportunity to improve both carrots and sticks. Some innovation diffusion occurs across well-managed networks and districts but the fragmented sector remains highly inefficient.
Many at the military conference, including Admiral Harms, thought the most important national security issue was not the technology displayed at the conference but what happens in American classrooms over the next 10 years. Unless the sector, beginning with the Department of Education, embraces the private sector, creates a substantial and focused R&D agenda and encourages private investment, US education won’t make much improvement and we won’t learn all that we could from the world’s best military (and learning organization).