Education Reform We Can Download

A short time ago, I published an article on the real cost of education in Puerto Rico. Based on hard numbers, Puerto Rico currently spends between US$9,000 and $11,000 per year per student, with less than stellar results.

Criticism is easy, especially when it is deserved. However, it is much harder to come up with alternatives that are both reasonable and politically feasible.

That means that sometimes we have to think out of the box of our own personal viewpoints and principles. While I support privatizing schools and voucher programs, or taking government out of the education business entirely, those ideas may not resonate with voters on the island.

So what else can be done right at this time to improve efficiency, lower costs, and produce greater results? One thing that comes to mind is the utilization of technology.

Did you know that a junior-high science textbook can cost between $80 and $200 to replace? I learned this after one of my kids “lost” a textbook or two. Lucky for us, we found them and were able to return them before the bill came due.

That wake-up call made me wonder: why do we as a society spend so much on textbooks that have to be replaced every five to 10 years — reprinted and redistributed in hard copy — in an age when e-books are available?

Coursera offers free online courses from leading universities around the world. (Coursera Facebook)

After a short search with my friend Google, I found websites that had free electronic high-school textbooks. They offer books for lower grade levels too. In fact, entire course materials are available online.

You can even go to college online, if you are so inclined, and whole lecture series can be found on iTunes, many for free. MIT, for example, offers free audio and video course material.

Granted, online learning takes children out of the classroom and keeps them from having the hands-on experience of laboratory work. But who says a combination of distance learning and on-site lab work and testing cannot be used instead of full-time class work?

Consider that at full enrollment, according to the Puerto Rico Education Department, there are 400,000 students at all levels in the island’s schools (numbers I’m not convinced of). For Puerto Rico to buy a simple tablet-style computer for every one of those students would be about $40 million. Under contract, the tablets could even be leased, to allow for regular updates and replacement.

For textbooks, if buying new English or Spanish-language textbooks proves too expensive, what would be wrong with contracting local university professors and educators to develop new textbooks locally, in electronic form? Those textbooks could then be made available online for other Spanish-speaking jurisdictions and nations. Puerto Rico could even sell the new texts to help fund its own education programs.

Furthermore, by developing digital texts locally, instead of purchasing new editions, each could be updated regularly without need for printing and distribution. The department would only have to pay for the actual text changes, which could be as little as a few thousand dollars per course — far less than $80 dollars per book, multiplied by 400,000 students.

In addition to preparing students for a technological future, an e-book system would also limit the total number of days students actually need to be in the classrooms. Teachers could give their lessons online, and even do so live if needed. Presentations could also be recorded for days when teachers have to be absent (they are humans after all).

In other words, the digitized approach would save on electricity, water, transport, and wage costs.

E-Books Just the Start for Education

Speaking of humans, Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates is bringing robots into the classroom to teach math and other lessons. The interactive devices help students learn and have their questions answered.

But technology doesn’t stop there.

How hard would it be to purchase licenses from companies such as Rossetta Stone for language lessons? Can you imagine how many students could be fully fluent in both English and Spanish using a system like that? How about 100 percent, if it were made one of the prerequisites for graduation. More languages could be added to the curriculum than the island has teachers qualified to teach.

The beauty of this system is that it could be tailored for self-paced studies. Students who learn and master fundamentals faster could graduate earlier. Slower students could take the time necessary to learn well, and teachers would have more time to help those students. Meanwhile, all students would have access to the exploding range of digital materials from around the world.

The only additional costs of this system, applicable beyond the island, would be for improved wi-fi service in and around schools, along with insurance for replacement costs of damaged, stolen, or lost tablets. Parents could well bear some of the responsibility for those costs.

There is also no reason why this system could not be started in trial form. Pick a few schools or districts, or even the best students across the island, to try this out, and see how it goes. I imagine, as with every new system, there would be hiccups and revisions, challenges and solutions. But the status quo is not working, and change is desperately needed.

I also imagine that the Education Department would reject such an idea outright, for the simple reason that the education they offer is not about teaching our children or helping them learn. Unfortunately, modern education is oriented towards control.

Voters, on the other hand, would embrace the idea. It would both lower their tax burdens and free the minds their children.

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