Smart World

I spent the last 2 years and more than $1 million trying to get a couple high schools (initially, just the 9th grades) open in NYC and Newark.  States have created elaborate charter review processes intended to result in quality schools.  And baked in is the twenty year tradition of growing good new small schools one grade at a time.  In 5 years we can confirm that it is a good school; in ten years you know that it is a good network.  It takes a long time and is very expensive.
What if it was possible to create school-as-service and you could just turn it on and it worked well anywhere anytime?
Software as a service (SaaS) made it easier and cheaper to use computers especially for those of us that use multiple devices; it’s software on demand anywhere anytime.  It’s no longer necessary to load computer programs with a disk, you can access almost any kind of program—spreadsheet, word processor, customer relationship manager, or tax preparation software—on the web.
As Digital Learning Now recommended, the shift to school-as-a-service starts with a statewide commitment to every student as a digital learner.   Where states reduce historical barriers, the shift to personal digital learning will mean school-as-a-service: access to quality courses and teachers from multiple providers.
Utah Governor Herbert signed a bill yesterday that introduces SaaS education.  Florida SB1620 and Idaho SB1184 will do the same.
The emerging vision for education is school-as-a-service: open your browser and you have learning options, multiple providers, multiple devices, customized engaging learning anywhere anytime.
These bills are also important because they introduce performance-based funding; a portion of the funding is withheld until students successfully complete the course.  This is a step toward states funding outputs not inputs.
SaaS education changes the basic assumptions—it doesn’t need to be time and place bound.  That doesn’t mean it will all go virtual—for the foreseeable future at least 90% of families will enjoy the benefits of local schools—but it does require a new mindset, new staffing patterns, new budgeting strategies, and new ways to communicate with students and families.   School districts should get on the SaaS bus.
Imagine what it would mean if twice as many young people were prepared for the knowledge economy.  If two-thirds rather than one-third of U.S. students were college and career ready, it could mean an extra million participants in the idea economy.
A McKinsey achievement gap study suggests that if US did just as well as Korea, it would add $1-2t to the economy.  Doubling workforce ready graduates would probably add 3-5% to GDP.
Doubling idea economy preparation could mean another million young people in other developed countries, maybe 10 million worldwide.  It would almost certainly reduce poverty, incarceration rates, and improve health outcomes.
For the first time, I think this could actually happen and quickly, not the typical generational change trajectory, but in less than ten years.   Personal digital learning makes this entirely possible.  Some U.S. students will receive tablets this fall loaded with a comprehensive core curriculum, with lots of free resources and helpful applications.  For them it will extend the learning day and year.  It will provide access to great teachers when they are not available locally.  It will provide learning options.  By 2013, tablets should be standard issue for most students replacing those big backpacks.
Doubling worldwide college and career preparation could create more unrest among the educated and unemployed like the revolution in Tunisia that kicked off unrest in the Middle East and North Africa.  It will create more expectations of affluence that, could increase green house emissions, but maybe be we can all get smarter about that too.  While there are potential unintended consequences, the benefits of educated populations far outweigh the consequences.
We’ve long sought massively scalable solutions—they are here. Blended school models powered by online learning, cheap tablets, and expanded broadband access are game changers for the U.S. and the world.
Utah just passed a law that provides choice to the course level so every student has access to multiple providers offering a comprehensive rigorous well supported curriculum.
Imagine if every state followed the Digital Learning Now recommendations and removed barriers that exist for every student to have access to a good math courses, all Advanced Placement courses, every foreign language course—all offered by high quality providers with effective teachers.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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