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FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
Summer 2004
Volume 57, Number 3
FAS Home | Download PDF | PIR Archive
Front Page
FAS Plans Learning Game to Train First Responders
Diesel Hybrids: Back to the Future?
The Hype About Hydrogen
Congress Cools on New Nukes
Senate Committee Forgoes Action on Crucial Small Arms Treaty
Space Assets Can Be Protected Without Space Weapons
Secrecy Project and the Abu Ghraib Prison Scandal
Kelly Calls for Private Sector Investment in IT Learning R&D

Kelly Calls for Private Sector Investment in IT Learning R & D

by Henry Kelly

The United States spends about a trillion dollars a year on education and training. As a service sector, it is second in size only to health care. But it has remained almost completely innocent of the computer and connectivity-driven revolution that has revolutionized service quality and increased efficiency almost everywhere else.

This is the single greatest failure of the American economic and political system in this century. It’s a national scandal and there’s plenty of blame to go around.

It’s not because we’re failing to invest. Schools, universities, and training institutions are spending about $5 billion a year on information technology. Things start falling apart when you ask how schools are using this stuff.

Any CEO knows that just laying IT on top of what you’re already doing simply adds cost to the bottom line. Instead, you have to answer fundamental questions about the needs of your customers and identify new services and effective business processes to meet those needs. This means having the guts to make fundamental changes in operations, products, and job descriptions. Today’s workplace looks nothing like it did 100 years ago–why is it that our schools and training classrooms do?

There is overwhelming evidence that there are better ways to teach people than lecturing at them. Learning by doing, instruction tailored to individualized needs, question asking, frequent feedback – these teaching methods dramatically increase how quickly and well students learn. Students taught by even mediocre tutors perform much better than students in 30-person classrooms and with a much lower range of outcomes – and virtually no one is left behind.

Technology can make many of these ideas affordable. In the private sector, companies invest billions to create detailed profiles of individual customers so that they can shape messages and offer products precisely tailored to their revealed knowledge, needs, interests, and desires. The cookies on your kid’s computer probably know more about her than her teacher. Help-desk service centers spend billions to understand customer and employee questions and craft answers for the person asking (check the cookie) and the context of the question. Well-designed systems are smart enough to know when the automated system is failing and get a real person on the line.

Computer and video game designers are creating compelling challenges in beautifully rendered artificial worlds that worry endlessly about keeping players on the edge of anxiety. These services and products are routine parts of our lives, yet walking into a classroom is like entering a time warp to a world that would be familiar to Millard Fillmore.

To fix this problem, government has to use its limited leverage where it matters most, in R & D and demonstration. The private sector can’t pick up the tab for all education research any more than it can foot the entire bill for health research. The nation needs a tightly managed program of basic and applied research, built around a well-designed plan that embraces all needed disciplines and encourages public/private partnerships.

Ironically the US military leads the world in using sophisticated training technology. It’s the only way they can have millions of service people and contractors prepared to use advanced equipment to deal with the unexpected anywhere on the globe. Why are these ideas trapped in the Pentagon?

What about the nation’s diverse workforce of emergency responders – firemen, police, doctors, nurses, Army medics, and the like? Why do we allow their training, retraining, and updating of knowledge to stay stuck in Millard Fillmore’s age?

Education managers have to stop raising the bogeyman of faceless corporate management; they should accept how much business can contribute to a revolution in learning in the classroom and beyond. But I throw my largest stone at the business community for its “soft bigotry of low expectations” for the entire education enterprise – including their own training operations. Business has the most at stake – for starters, a decline in the skills of the workforce. Business leaders have a unique vantage on what can be done improve service delivery to a diverse customer base. And they know how to manage innovation.

The FAS’ Learning Federation project has benefited from government, non-profit, and private sector support. To carry out our next phase, in which our mission is to see that research, development and demonstration goes forward, the support of business will be critical.

Henry Kelly is the President of the Federation of American Scientists.