How Computer Technology Will Transform Schools Of The Future

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In the 1800’s, students sat in a classroom, listened to a teacher and took tests. In 2014, students do exactly the same thing, with maybe the addition of a pocket calculator and some slides.

Nearly every other industry has been changed beyond recognition by the invention of computers.  Why not education, arguably one of the industries with the most to gain?

The answer is probably some combination of rank incompetence, institutional conservatism, and perverse incentives. ¬†It’s a mess, but the good news is that it’s going to change — a lot — soon. ¬†The situation as it stands is fundamentally unsustainable, and new titans are emerging from the startup world, ready to wipe the floor with traditional academic practices. ¬†Today, we’re going to be talking about¬†the five biggest ideas that are going to change education more than you’d believe.

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5. Virtual Reality is Going to Change Field Trips Forever

Plenty of research shows that interactivity and education-by-example is one of the most important factors in educating children.  Field trips in particular seem to improve retention of knowledge and context, and improve comprehension.

Children have reduced capacity for abstract thought and a lower threshold for boredom, which means that the most effective way to teach them is to physically embody the concepts to the greatest extent possible, and to try to make sure that they’re having fun while they learn, hence the enormous popularity of hands-on children’s museums and educational games and television shows.

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Students whose teachers emphasize higher-order thinking skills and hands-on learning activities outperform their peers significantly. Students who engage in hands-on learning on a weekly basis outperform those who engage in this manner of instruction on a monthly basis. Students whose teachers conduct hands-on learning activities outperform their peers by 72% of a grade level in math and 40% of a grade level in science. This study indicates that the most effective classroom practices involve conveying higher order thinking skills and engaging in hands-on learning activities.

-Education Testing Service, 2001

Unfortunately, many schools are eliminating this kind of educational content due to pressure to cut costs under programs like No Child Left Behind.

How could this tie into the recent rise of virtual reality, with the Oculus Rift?  For a relatively low cost (less than $1,000 per unit), every classroom could be provided with a few virtual reality headsets and PCs capable of driving them, which would open up immense educational opportunities.  If you want to teach a child about the solar system, the ability to physically drop them onto the surface of Mars and show them what the gravity there is like is an incredibly powerful educational tool.

If you want to teach them about dinosaurs, giving them the experience of the creatures towering over them will help to ensure that that lesson sticks.  History class could take students to recreations of ancient cities and historical events, and even math classes would benefit from the ability to generate 3D, spatial props to demonstrate abstract concepts.

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Furthermore, if the software used can run in largely autonomous mode, without direct teacher supervision, we could cheaply provide inner-city students with first-class educational resources, despite a lack of funding and a deficit of competent teachers in those districts.

One compelling, life-changing educational experience may be all it takes to change the course of one inner-city student’s¬†life for the better. That one headset and computer could replace traditional textbooks, teacher time, educational props, and field trips, which cost far more than a VR headset.

So-called “blended” elementary schools (which combine computer education with human teachers) are already coming into existence without virtual reality, and are proving to be enormously effective at improving test scores in low-income students. ¬†Virtual reality will only make these resources more engaging and more accessible. In fact, it has the potential to turn every¬†primary education experience into “The Magic Schoolbus.”

4.¬†Campuses Don’t Make Sense

There’s just as much room for improvement at the college level as there is at the elementary. ¬†It’s becoming clear, as average student debt rises, that making students pay to come live in a concrete box full of other¬†adolescents for four years is not actually a sane use of student money, or a good way to foster a productive educational environment.

While dorm living is a rite of passage in middle-class American culture, it’s also expensive, inconvenient, and can damage the learning environment (“party schools”). Campuses are nice, but the ivy is just not pulling its weight in terms of cranking out people qualified to participate in the new global economy. ¬†The Manpower Group reports that more than 40% of all employers can’t find enough qualified graduates to fill the jobs they have available.

We are now in the seventh year of a worldwide talent crisis. Over one-third of employers are reporting that they are unable to find the talent their organizations need, according to ManpowerGroup’s 2012 Talent Shortage Survey. This number is up from under a third, just three years ago, during the worst part of the recession. As economies improve, the talent crisis gets worse.

The expense introduced by physical campuses (which has increased more than five-fold since 1985) is simply out of reach for most low-income students.

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Distance learning via a computer is increasingly a more economical and more productive option for getting an education for students on a budget. ¬†The software available for it right now isn’t great, but if software has one notable property, it’s that it gets better over time. ¬†And, lest you decry the loss of face-to-face lecturing, remember that…

3. Lectures Are Broken

There is no reason to believe that making teenagers wake up early, sit in a room, and listen to someone talk for an hour and a half is a productive way to get knowledge into their heads.  Making matters worse, research is where funding comes from, so the lecturers themselves are generally hired for their research ability, and not their capacity to teach.

Actually educating students is just a messy necessity for the benefit of the taxpayers, and many lecturers hate it. ¬†The result is that, often, you’ll have classes taught in such a way that neither the professor nor the hung-over students really want to be there, and that’s not good for the students’ chances of coming away with very useful knowledge.

Khan Academy, a web service that provides online courses on topics including¬†math,¬†science,¬†history,¬†economics and even¬†computer programming, shows exactly what’s wrong with the traditional lecture, as those of you who have used it know. ¬†We’ve written¬†about Khan Academy before, back in 2010, and it’s only gotten better since then. ¬†Khan academy lectures are broken up into bite-sized videos, about five-minutes each, which teach you one concept in a succinct and simple way. ¬†The lecturer is unseen, and the focus is on the voice and a virtual blackboard that becomes filled¬†with illustrations demonstrating the point in question.

This format introduces crucial advantages over the traditional lecture format: if you get tired, you can stop between videos and go get a snack or take a walk.  If you get confused in a given video, you can rewind it, pause it to Google something, or otherwise consume it at your own pace and your own convenience.

The videos are short enough that fatigue isn’t an issue, and students can watch them at any time, which means when they’re awake. ¬†Students who are confused can post questions under the video, and the lecturers (or more advanced students) can get back to them, allowing students to see not just the answers to the questions of a few classmates, but the answers to the most prevalent questions of millions of classmates.

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Khan Academy is freely available everywhere on Earth, and has been translated into 24 languages by volunteers. ¬†The goal of the nonprofit startup is to provide a world-class education everywhere on Earth, and they’re largely succeeding.

Khan Academy has six million students log on each month, making it the largest university on Earth, and is an official or unofficial part of the curriculum in 20,000 brick and mortar schools (in dozens of nations) around the world, with growth that shows no sign of stopping. ¬†It’s also obviously the future of education.¬†In ten years’ time, it and its competitors are going to wipe the floor with traditional colleges all over the first world. ¬†The Economist reports that economist Alex Tabarrok believes that online universities can offer a fundamentally, economically better value proposition that brick and mortar schools.

[A]s prices converge towards marginal cost, there will be little scope for undercutting the competition. Instead MOOCs are likely to compete on quality. […] Higher production costs are a small price to pay to attract much greater numbers of students. Such markets often evolve into winner-take-all, ‚Äúsuperstar‚ÄĚ competitions. The best courses attract the most customers and profit handsomely as a result. In this respect online education may more closely resemble information industries such as film-making than service industries such as hair-cutting.

On the for-profit side of things, Coursera and Udacity are both cheap, online institutions that offer university-level academic and vocational courses in a variety of fields, and issue certificates that are rapidly becoming respected throughout industry.  Even the big ivy-league universities have started putting their lectures online in reasonably-sized pieces, and have seen an enormous response.

2. Robot Graders are the Future

The thing that comes along with online lessons is online assignments, which have, so far, not been that great. ¬†Those of you who have used Mastering Physics know it as an expensive, buggy, finicky waste of everyone’s time. ¬†However, it’s worth taking the time to see how close Mastering Physics and its ilk are to something really useful.

Instant feedback is crucial to student learning, and having a human on hand to grade every assignment in real time just isn’t practical.

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Luckily, we have robots for that now.  Khan Academy includes exercises after every few lessons to let you test your knowledge of the material covered, and users instantly know whether or not they got the exercise correct, and can access hints on solving the exercise.

Users have access to an infinite number of machine-generated problems, so they can keep going until they’re sure they understand the material,¬†and¬†then move on. ¬†This kind of automated homework grading is rather limited in some ways¬†currently– it works well for math problems, and topics that can be graded via multiple choice, but less well for topics¬†like English and programming, where creation of complex structure is a vital part of the curriculum.

1. Tutors are Better than Professors

There will always be situations, for most people, where it’s necessary to actually speak to a live human being in order to understand a topic or get feedback on an assignment. ¬†In that case, rather than having a single full-time human employee to do this for one or two hundred students, it makes more sense to have something resembling a call center of tutors, who can use Skype, chat, and communal drawing tools to clear up points of confusion and provide feedback on assignments that computers can’t.

The technology would¬†provide¬†access to similar collaboration tools as are available in person, but allows tutors to constantly log in and out from all over the world. Tutors can be called as a subroutine in the software, appearing when they’re needed and vanishing when they aren’t, without the necessity of paying them for¬†unused hours.

Tutors can pop in to give advice on a single problem, without requiring students to save up their questions and dispense them all at once when they have time to go see a tutor.  Services like these already exist, including InstaEDU and Kaplan Kids.  These services will only become more commonplace as they fill in the gaps for services like Khan Academy.

What do you think the future of education will look like? Will it become more remote and computer-centered, or will humans remain in the traditional style of classroom instruction for the foreseeable future? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

Image credits: white robot Via Shutterstock, “Campus Lake View“, by momo & her bffs, “Forschungs Campus Garching”, by digital cat, ¬†“Large Lecture College Classes“, by Kevin Dooley, “”Untitled“, by Renee Barron, “Homework“, by Sean, “Robot Kids Camp: Virtual Reality“, by Michael Janssen

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16 Comments - Write a Comment

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David Winet

Having taught online in real time I can say that much of the above is true but overstated. The major problem with online learning is that it assumes students WANT to, are EAGER to learn such topics as Advanced Calculus, etc, and are EAGER to do the problem sets, etc. This just isn’t so, especially for the underpriviledged who often come from families where higher education is not seen as an absolute necessity like breathing, unlike the case for upper-middle class families.

Put baldly, the element of COMPULSION/COMPASSION is largely missing online. A teacher, and a classroom, and all the graduation requirements, etc, are a kind of in loco parentis character for students up till about 30 and maybe even beyond. And students actually need someone to more or less force them to study, or at least push them pretty hard because bottom line, it’s a drag to do it! Think about it for yourself and tell me I’m wrong. That’s what online hasn’t been able to provide

Andre I

Forcing people to learn is a much higher energy and more expensive intervention than providing the resources to learn, and I would suspect has a smaller payout per unit effort.

The people who have historically changed the world tended to be internally driven and primarily self educated. Even being able to provide resources to those few percent of people currently living in poverty would be huge. It might prevent the species from wasting the next Einstein. And, by lowering the barrier to entry for self-education, we increase the value of improving early elementary education to the point that it inspires a love of learning, rather than merely baby sitting.

Richard

The way to motivate people is through incentive, not compulsion. Let them struggle to get by with a crappy job. Those who come back to improve themselves are highly educable. Those who don’t probably never were. Of course this is not a perfect solution — it is simply more perfect than current solutions involving compulsion.

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dragonmouth

What you propose is just another experiment du jour in educating our children. Since I finished my education way back in the last millenium, I’ve watched successive experiments by pedagogues, reformers, progressives and politicians, each designed to be the “better mouse trap” of education. Just like with mousetraps newer and different is not necessarily better. There are close to a 1000 desgns for a mousetrap but only 4 ot 5 sell well consistently. The best selling model is one of the oldest.

Same goes for education. The old model of a teacher imparting knowledge to the students in a small group environment still results the best educated students. Unfortunately we expect our teachers not only to teach but to entertain the kids, be their baby sitters, be their therapists. Initiatives such as No Child Left Behind and Common Core not only tell the teachers WHAT to teach but also HOW to teach it.

When I went through primary and secondary schools, the students were divided into classes based on their learning ability, bright kids were all in one class, average kids were in another class and slower kids had a class of their own. In each class everybody learned at about the same speed and the teacher rarely had to stop for an extended period of time to help any particular student. Everybody was happy (considering they were in school) and engaged. Then the psychologists, psychiatrists and educators decided that differentiating based on ability was bad because it negatively impacted the self-esteem of the students and caused irreparable damage their egos. Besides, it was not politically correct. So ability-based classes were done away with and replaced by homogenized classes. Suddenly nobody was learning or was engaged in classroom work. While the teachers were spending time with the slower students trying to bring them up to speed, the brighter kids were bored out of their minds. When the teachers tried to challenge the brighter kids with work commensurate with their ability, the subject matter was over the heads of the slower kids and thye were bored.

To add to the mess, more emphasis was put on more standardized state-wide tests. It became more important for the students to pass a standardized test than to learn a subject so teachers had to teach to the test, rather than teach a subject. In the latest wrinkle, in New York State, the politicos decided to institute more standardized tests and then to use the results as the basis for the teachers’ performance reviews. Needless to say the first series of test turned out to be an unmitigated fiasco. State-wide only 53% of children that took the tests, passed them. The results showed either that the condition of the education system in New York was way worse than anybody expected or that the tests were formulated improperly. The State Education honchos decided to invalidate the tests and their results. They went back to the drawing board.

College costs have gone up 2, 3, 4 or more times the rate of inflation. So it is not the economy that is forcing colleges and universities to raise their tuition, it is their greed. The attitude of many colleges, especially the private ones, is that if Americans cannot pay the costs, there are plenty of foreign students who will gladly pay. Why can some states offer the residents low tuition at their universities? If inflation is the cause for high tuition costs, how can Canadian universities, such as McGill, offer tuition one third to one half that of colleges in the US?

The problem with colleges is that it the student has to make a big attitude adjustment between high school and college. In high school you have to go to class and you have to stay in school until you finish your senior year. In college nobody really gives a damn if you show up for class. If your grades suffer, too bad. If you flunk out, too bad. Most kids coming out of high school, at 18 or 19, are not ready mentally and emotionally for that kind of responsibility.

Some years ago I took an night course at the local community college. Our professor taught the same course during the day. Our class met twice a week and the day class met 5 times a week. The day class was made up of kids who just graduated high school whose tuition was paid by mom & dad. The night class was made up of working adults who had to pay their own way. Our class finished the syllabus in about two thirds of a semester and then the professor taught us more advanced topics in the subject. The day class barely got through the syllabus by the end of the semester. While this is anecdotal, I have seen similar results in other classes. The attitude of adults taking night courses seems to be “teach me something” while the attitude of the kids during the day is “I dare you to teach me anything.” It would be nice if the educational system did not insist on kids going to college straight out of high school. It wpould be better if the kids were gainfully employed for a couple of years, or went into the military, before going to college. Might teach them the value of education.

Robb Lightfoot

Thorough, thoughtful and well put.

montana

Very well put. As someone that tried to teach in NYC, I can tell you that those tests were NOT formulated improperly. The “education” was that bad. Another point that has not been addressed is the mediocrity of the public school system administration. The political appointees and the patronage that goes with is a major part of the problem. If we can find a way to change that, then real progress can be made.

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Petraeus Prime

A lot of words and you didn’t touch on the real purpose of education. Its to separate those into “haves” and “have-bots”. Do you really think those at the top of the power echelon who have degrees from the “Ivy League” want to upset the status quo and allow any poor nobody to become president? HAHAHAHAHAHA, get real. Its money and power, control as always.

dragonmouth

Let’s inject some class warfare into the discussion.

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Leonardo

Having taken both online and in-class courses, I can definitely see the potential uses of technology in education. However, I feel that there is still some serious work that needs to be done before online assignments can really become more useful than “old style” assignments.

I don’t agree that subjects such as math can be easily graded by a computer. In fact, in my experience, math has been one of the worst subjects when it came to doing online assignments. Especially when it comes to the higher levels of math, it doesn’t really make sense to evaluate students using multiple choice tests. At these levels, the process of arriving at a solution is much more important than the solution itself. On multiple choice tests, it’s often easy to arrive at the correct answer to a problem with really understanding what is going on mathematically. I personally think that multiple choice tests are much better suited for factual subjects such as history and biology.

Also, although Mastering Physics could use some improvements, it’s fantastic application when compared to one of its counterparts, namely: Mastering Engineering. Just thinking about it sends shivers down my back. When using Mastering Engineering, it really felt like they were brutally punishing me for not fully understanding the subject matter. To be fair, both Mastering Physics and Mastering Engineering give a large amount of control to the instructors, and the later don’t always do a good job when implementing the software.

I don’t know how soon, or how, or even if computer technology will change the education system, but I believe there are some much needed improvements that do not require computers. For one thing, standardized tests are not a good for evaluating the level of understanding of students. This is simply because different people think and understand things differently. It just doesn’t make sense to try to have all students understand a subject in the same way. Secondly, because students generally want to do well by getting high grades, they start putting more of their energy into finding “mechanical” ways of answering questions rather than into actually understanding a subject. They study to pass the test, not to understand. The two are not mutually inclusive. I personally believe this to be a major problem. I’ve especially noticed this behavior in my math classes. I’ve seen students who can easily find the area under a curve using an integral, but they don’t know why it works! All they know is the teacher told them to “use an integral when finding the area under a curve”. But they don’t even bother to ask why it actually works. They just go with it. I think this is a terrible problem because understanding a subject is the only way to truly progress into that subject without the constant guidance of an other person.

Paul

Hi Leonardo,

It is possible to treat any subject as a “factual subject”, but as a biologist, I can assure you that treating biology as a factual subject completely misses the point for all but the most basic concepts. It would be like saying math is a factual subject because we all memorize our sums. Because the rules of biology are not nearly as well defined (or definable) as those of math, the conceptual framework is derived from ideas that are likely, less likely or not likely. Deep understanding can not be achieved through rote learning.

With regard to distance education, my sense is that some components already exist, but many proposals regarding the future of education are either nonsense or are currently in a very rudimentary form. I think that when it does arrive, it will seem rather sudden. Large first year university lectures are not much different from distance education. That will likely be the first domino to fall.

Leonardo

Hi Paul,

Thanks for pointing out my misconceptions about biology. I have to admit that my experience with biology is rather primitive. Also, I think your right that any subject can be treated as “factual”.

I guess the point I was trying to make is that multiple choice tests are only good for testing someone’s knowledge of the facts, but not their understanding. As you pointed out, in order to really go deeper than just the “most basic concepts” , a certain level of understand of the rules is required. I simply don’t believe that multiple choice tests are a good way of assessing this understanding. In my experience this has been one of the biggest limitations of online courses and how they evaluate students.

Ultimately, I think that the major problem, at the moment, is that too many subjects are being taught with an emphasis on the facts rather than on understanding. This has been my experience so far.

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Ricky Bohannon

This article was written by someone who seems to know next to nothing about the actual process of education. As a result it’s filled with the typical buzzwords and points of view that shout much but say very little. Anyone connected to education (and who gives a damn) will tell you that the model has challenges. But the fact is that it’s real challenges aren’t solvable via technology. If the author spent any time in a classroom (not as a student or guest speaker but as someone responsible for the whole of the experience) he would know that.

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Chris

They have recently started renting special Android tablets to primary school students in Texas and I think that this will help with the push towards online classrooms. Not to mention the advent of the Chromebook which will likely pervade classrooms to an even higher degree.

To be perfectly honest, it depends on the instructor and the student whether or not this will be better.

Most (over 75%) instructors in college teach math and science classes via PowerPoint and no one in class pays attention because they will download the PowerPoint later and go over it on their own because they are sleepy or bored during class time. If the students are going to do this anyway, we might as well focus on giving them better digital content.

On the flip side, it has to be done correctly. I had one professor who would tape his lectures during class and it was awful. He would only teach every other lecture and use the video from last semester to teach the material he skipped so we were essentially attending double the normal number of lectures. Not only that, but the videos were poor quality (not technical quality, he was just a bad instructor) and they were an hour and a half apiece, sometimes more. In the end, I turned to Khan Academy and it saved me from almost certain failure.

I firmly believe that this kind of inverted classroom is a wonderful idea because it makes sure that everyone has something worth doing in the classroom. The faster students gain teaching experience and the other students get the help they need.

And as far as students needing to be compelled to learn, well that is their fault if they really refuse to work. When they fail a grade, then maybe they will realize that they need to work to achieve goals. I don’t believe in teaching to the lowest common denominator and it appalls me to see people getting high school diplomas when they don’t actually understand the material. The point of a diploma is to let people know that you have the basic knowledge required to get one and by lowering that standard because some kid doesn’t like learning is just awful.

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Denise E

I remember being set an assignment where we thought about “schools of the future”. I imagined a school where everyone attended lessons by skype – so that neither the students nor the teachers had to leave their rooms.

To be honest, I was pretty skeptical when I read the title, and am not sure how I feel about the article now that I’ve read it and read the ensuing comments.

School isn’t just a place for learning about stuff like history, geography, sciences, mathematics, languages and so on. It’s also a place where students learn valuable transferrable/lifelong skills such as cooperation, communication, discipline (like getting up on time/being on time for classes, sitting down and practising something, etc..). So I don’t really like the idea of introducing learning in one’s own time, (thereby removing a degree of structure) particularly when some people need a little more encouragement to learn discipline as a life skill. Therefore I am in support of having schools remain as physical learning centres, because school isn’t just about learning facts and getting good grades, but a great place to socialise and create a sense of community. Digitising everything and allowing remote learning in itself isn’t going to destroy socialising, but it does reduce human-human interfacing. I for one would not like to sit in front of a screen all day, nor would I like my child to be doing that. It’s already bad enough with the increase of personal laptops and people spending lots of time on the internet – I think having a place and time where people actually have to interact face to face is pretty important.

Yes, you can say, if the student doesn’t like learning, then too bad. But wait! what about kids who mature slower, and take a longer time to realise that learning is important? When I was 15, I hated learning history. 10 years later, I find that history is really interesting, and perhaps if I had sat in a history class now, I’d have fun and enjoy learning.

Everyone is different in their learning speed and rate of maturity. Take parental pressure into consideration as well, and you will find yourself with very different individuals. Where technology might be more useful would be to get involved in tailoring learning for each individual or stratified groups of individuals based on a profile – in other words, to back up the approach where students are classed based on their abilities. Perhaps a programme that creates a very detailed and accurate profile of each student?

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Eduardo Souto

It is already changing a lot!

As an English teacher, I see technology inside the classroom every day!

Students are already avoiding the books, they prefer Ipads, Cellphones and technological devices!

I am open-minded, so, if there will be more technology or not in the future I intend to follow the world trends about teaching :)

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James Heywood

An excellent and well written article. I teach English as a Second Language online to students in a developing country. So my comment is relevant only to my experience with students who are living in a country with a rather broken education system. My task is to supplement the learning that occurs within the bricks-and-mortar environment.

Other writers have written about views that parents in developing nations and developed nations hold towards education. Developing nations often value education more because it is a necessity to improve the quality of life, not a desirable add-on. In countries like Australia, Canada and the US, you won’t starve without an education. A social safety net will catch you… you may not do too well, but you will survive. Not so in other places. The developing world is not just hungry to learn, it is ravenous, because education can improve your life drastically.

This hunger complements developing nations’ increasingly high rates of internet penetration and usage. Students in developing nations can access some of the education they need by learning online. If the national education sector is broken, they spend their money wisely and hire the native-speaking English teacher 10,000km away.

As a tutor, I do not think that I am better than a professor. However, my skills are now easily available to the people who want it most. Teaching online is extremely rewarding for me, and I believe it provides students with access to a better sevice. They don’t need to be in a classroom and they can take advantage of a service that is not readily available in the country in which they live. Besides this, I feel they value my service and in return I feel rewarded. I don’t teach tudents by the hundreds any more. But I am happier.

Computer technology has not yet tranformed brick-and-mortar schools in the way is should have, but it has already transformed effectively the delivery of education for many.

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