jigsawresized-150x150Prior to the industrialization of education, the education model was centered around a single-room school house consisting of one teacher with many students throughout many grades. The teacher was a facilitator of an instructional design that had students teaching each other. The younger students benefited from the knowledge of the older students and the older students benefited by reinforcing what they had learned, encouraging their mastery of a subject.

As populations moved from rural to urban communities during the Industrial Revolution, the education system also became industrialized–which wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Schools were turned into factories and teachers began disseminating the knowledge. In fact, the new instructional design was purposely modeled after the factory to streamline learning. In the new factory model, students moved along from grade to grade and were imprinted with the required learning from the books and teacher of that grade. Let’s fast forward 100 years to today.

Today’s educational landscape

As we’ve continued to industrialize our schools, the system has become more and more like a factory, passing students through a conveyer belt in a ‘one size fits all’ approach.’ It’s no wonder that graduation rates and standardized test scores continue to decline. We have spent more than 100 years trying to improve upon the current instructional model, but perhaps the reason we’ve been unsuccessful is that the model itself is broken.

The current educational system is based on individual and teacher learning. However, this simply isn’t realistic in today’s classroom. Students are social creatures and their education should be delivered in a way that is more in line with their day-to-day interactions. The solution? Go back to the principle that worked so well in the single school house model: social learning.  Student-to-student and social learning has already proven to be effective and cost effective (it’s free).

As part of a redesign of our instructional model, students should be provided with the infrastructure to collaborate with each other live, in real-time, 24 hours a day. We should give students free, collaborative, multimedia online study rooms with access to standards-aligned content. We should do this because we have a social responsibility to do it, but it also makes good plain economic sense.

The economics of education

Let’s talk money. The cost of simply keeping schools open and running, including electricity, water, and maintenance, is a lot more than running computer servers. Maintenance and operations in schools is about $500 per student each year. With 65 million K-12 students, the total cost for school operations comes to $32.5 billion. But there’s more. We have about 3 million teachers earning approximately $50,000 each, which adds another $150 billion. So, schools and teachers, the backbone of our educational system, the people and places that shape our lives, are clearly not free.

As incredible as it would be, we cannot afford to make schools and teachers available 24 hours a day because we would more than double or triple the hundreds of billions of dollars we are already spending. But neither can we afford to leave our students without the tools and resources to extend their learning after school, across the world, and to each other. Servers and bandwidth are not free either, but relative to hundreds of billions of dollars, they are extremely affordable and they can run 24/7.

The most compelling economic argument, however, is that students collaborating and helping each other is, of course, free. Not only is it free, but also, there is a compounding effect on learning because the student doing the teaching learns as well as the student being taught.

Why limit your student population to a few hundred when you can leverage the knowledge of hundreds of millions? In the school of social learning, students from all over the world collaborate every day. The No. 1 asset any student has in school is their peers, and it’s our job as instructional designers and administrators to facilitate that interaction. By continuing to crowd source, filter, and raise the best questions, answers, explanations, and hints to the top, we reap the benefits not just as educators but as a society.

It makes sense for teachers, and students demand it

Teachers will be the first to tell you that managing a classroom of 20-30 students is not ideal. When I was a teacher, I had the same problem, and small group study was the answer. When I organized students into meaningful groups, provided them with some rules of engagement, and held them responsible for each other, student engagement and quality control improved drastically. The teacher is then free to facilitate the small group study interaction and provide more individual instruction for each student.