Economists, technology experts and health care leaders predict that the pace of change in our everyday lives, already too fast for many, will only accelerate. Within a decade, they say, educators will face a major challenge preparing the people responsible for keeping it all running.
If it’s not already a cyberworld, it’s getting closer. By 2017, the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies projects, advances in miniaturization and wireless communication mean technology will be almost invisible, but it will be pervasive, threaded throughout bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, living rooms and workplaces.
Schools are searching for novel ways to keep up. Quite likely, shifting demographics will mean many children won’t be going to school at all. They’ll be learning at home, instead, at a cyberschool.
The networked classroom
Tiny Branson, Colo., is proof that the information highway can take you anywhere. Faced with declining enrollment at its traditional schoolhouse, Branson started offering an online public school education to students in far-flung areas of the state.
Branson’s population may be just 100, but via the Internet, 850 children go to school there. One of them is Riley South, an eighth-grader who “attends” class from his family’s ranch 165 miles away in Penrose.
Riley gets up on his own and is on the computer between 6:30 and 7 a.m. everyday. “The best part is I can get my school work done earlier and I can get my horse exercised and rode every day,” he told NBC’s Kevin Tibbles.
“Good teaching is good teaching,” said Troy Mayfield, Branson’s school superintendent. “The only difference is how we do it.”
Christina Narayan of Colorado Springs has taught online for five years, even though she has never been to Branson.
“No matter which city my students live in, how far they are from me in terms of distance ... they feel like they’re part of a classroom, part of a family,” she said.
Some experts agree, saying students can get more one-on-one attention than they would in a traditional classroom.
“Online teachers actually report that they know their online students better than they know their classroom students, because they’re constantly interacting by e-mail, by phone [and] in discussion boards,” said John Watson, a consultant with Evergreen Consulting Associates, a network of professionals in online education.
According to Mayfield, the future of education is a lifeline in the present in Branson.
“I think it would be realistic to say if the school wasn’t open, the town would probably no longer exist,” he said.
‘A whole new range of talents’
Halfway around the world, they have a different philosophy. In China, more and more parents are stretching their thin budgets to find intensive personal tutoring for their children.
One recent morning at 8, you can find You-See Tan in her piano lessons. By 9, she is in roller-blading practice.
At 10:15, she is hard at work on teamwork and confidence-building exercises.
You-See is 4 years old. And it is Sunday.
“Talking about the future, the biggest word I’m concerned about is ‘competition,’ ” said Joseph Tan, an automotive executive in Shanghai, who spends $160 every month to send You-See to what are called “early MBA” lessons.
Such lessons are all the rage across China, where a whole generation of children is being groomed for success, encouraged by affluent middle-class parents who did not have the same opportunities when they grew up.
“I think we have to provide her lot of chances for her growing,” said Ronald Sun, who sends his 5-year-old daughter, Rona, to golf school.
At a learning center in Shanghai, 3-year-old boys line up to have their fingerprints scanned into a computer. Parents pay up to $60 to have their sons’ prints and brain waves analyzed to figure out what subjects they should specialize in.
“Society demands a whole new range of talents,” Li Yue Er, a child education specialist, told NBC News’ Mark Mullen. “It’s more fierce than any time in the past 20 years with a market for jobs that never even existed in the past.”
Parents say they are acutely aware that at least 10 million Chinese are born each year who will one day join others competing for those positions. Striking the balance is the challenge for Joseph Tan and others with generational ambitions.
“All I’m trying to do now is, number one, to make her happy,” he said, and “number two, to make sure she is prepared.”