Richard Larson is Professor of Engineering Systems and Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT. Professor Larson is a pioneer in applying technology, science and engineering to a wide variety of problems in services industries, from technology-enabled education to urban service systems. His interests in emergency response systems have led him to organize initiatives for applying engineering principles to planning and responding to global pandemics, such as the ongoing H1N1 flu. He also leads MIT’s overall efforts to establish an inter-disciplinary services science initiative.
I met Dick Larson when I first joined MIT’s Engineering Systems Division as a visiting faculty member, almost four years ago. Dick is one of the MIT faculty members I have worked closest with since then, so I am comfortable referring to him as Dick instead of Professor Larson.. He is one the best role models I know of the kind of systems oriented, market-facing engineers that we increasingly need to help us tackle the highly complex, multi-disciplinary problems we are facing in the 21st century.
One such problem is education. Dick just published an op-ed article, Education: Our Most Important Service Sector in Service Science, a relatively new online journal focusing on state-of-the-art research and development in service sciences and related areas.
He starts the article by reminding us that: “Education is a service industry comprising 10 percent of the US GDP, second only to health care at 17 percent. In the U.S. and over much of the world, classroom education remains a labor-intensive craft profession, essentially unchanged since the 19th Century. . .”
“. . . The usual mode of educating students, whether k-12 or tertiary, is the teacher in front of the class lecturing and interacting with the class. Service delivery is labor intensive, repetitive, not scalable and highly dependent on the teacher’s skills and knowledge. Each individual teacher crafts lessons plans, placing immense pressures on new teachers who have to plan and teach almost simultaneously. . .”
“Education as a service industry is crying out for serious research . . . much as has been the case with retail, banking, and supply chains and logistics.”
The research arm of the US Department of Education has a budget of $160 million. Given that there are about 56 million school children in the US, this amounts to less than three dollars per child per year. The NSF Education and Human Resources Directorate has a budget of around $750 million focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education at all levels. This a very important mission, just somewhat different from research in education in general.
The article cites several examples where information technologies and engineering practices have achieved significant progress in education. Sloan-C, for example, is a consortium of individuals, institutions and organizations “dedicated to integrating online education into the mainstream of higher education, helping institutions and individual educators improve the quality, scale and breadth of online education.”
Sloan-C just celebrated its 15th anniversary at a conference with over 1,400 participants. The Sloan-C leaders estimate that over 4 million students took online courses in degree programs this past year, and the number is growing at approximately 20% per year. They feel that done properly, online courses can help remove significant teacher labor content, thus freeing up students and teachers to better interact and communicate than in regular campus-based lecture style courses.
Another example is LINC - Learning International Network Consortium, which Dick Larson founded in 2001 and serves as director. LINC is operated by a growing team of MIT faculty, students and staff volunteers. It is built around a simple, basic premise: “With today’s computer and telecommunications technologies, every young person can have a quality education regardless of his or her place of birth.”
Linc is a collaboration of educators from around the world who share best practices and learn from each other how to best develop higher education distance learning projects in emerging countries.
“LINC is a hybrid, a professional society whose participants include scholars, practitioners, students,corporate executives, government officials and foundation professionals. Their goal in collaborating through LINC is to help build on-the-ground expertise and virtual distance learning communities in each of the respective countries seeking such assistance. Their focus is not on the narrow engineering aspects of technology but on pedagogical issues, educational content, financial planning, political constraints and organizational issues. Technology fits into this in a natural way – as defining what can and cannot be done in various regions.”
One of the more interesting projects sponsored my LINC is Blossoms - Blended Learning Open Source Science or Math Studies. Blossoms aims to develop a large free repository of video modules created by gifted volunteers from around the world to assist school teachers with math and science courses.
Each module builds on prerequisite material that the class has already learned. It then presents a new math or science concept in a very exciting way. Dick calls the Blossoms pedagogical model “a Teaching Duet, with the in-class teacher and the video teacher being co-teachers to the class.”
“Each video is designed for viewing in brief segments, allowing the in-class teacher time between segments to engage the class in active, goal-oriented exercises. Students in the classroom watch a segment of a Blossoms video, no segment lasting longer than about 5 minutes. Then the in-class teacher guides the students through an active learning exercise building from the video segment. After the learning objective is accomplished, the video is turned on again for another short segment. This iterative process continues until the exercise is over, usually lasting a full class session."
Blossoms is a partnership between MIT faculty members and educators in Jordan and Pakistan. I have personally seen some of the Blossom modules, such as Taking Walks, Delivering Mail: An Introduction to Graph Theory. The lecturer in this module is Karima Nigmatulina, a doctorate student in MIT's Operation Research Center. As I watched Karima explain graph theory and its applications, it was clear her lecture would be of value not only to kids in Jordan and Pakistan, but to students everywhere, including those attending the best private schools anywhere in the world Please take a look at soem of the modules in the Blossom video library.
Education is one of our most critical societal Grand Challenges. Technology and innovation are badly needed, but progress has been painfully slow. Other such societal problems, like the search for clean, plentiful energy, and the design of an effective healthcare system are just as complex and important, but you get the feeling that we are getting better organized to finally do something about them.
I don't think that we have quite seriously stepped up to bring education into the 21st century. From 1997 to 2001 I served in the President’s IT Advisory Committee (PITAC). One of the reports we produced and sent to the President was Using Information Technology to Transform the Way We Learn. One of our most important findings in the report was:
“Information technology, used both within classroom settings with well-educated and motivated teachers and by individuals, can provide access to world-class facilities and experiences. It has the potential for simultaneously providing many of the benefits of one-on- one tutoring and group interactions.”
There was no question that information technologies could have a significant impact. For example, our panel of experts wrote:
“In certain circumstances, one-on-one tutoring has been found to benefit instruction, improving the mean of student performance by two standard deviations (2σ) with an accompanying reduction in variance (or spread). This benefit is roughly equivalent to raising the achievement of 50th percentile students to the 98th percentile level. Other research has demonstrated the importance of group interactions in the absorption of knowledge.”
“Gibbons, for example, has found that students who viewed videotaped university-level lectures in an active discussion group performed half a grade-level better than those who attended the lectures in person. Since one-on- one tutoring is unaffordable in most cases, our goal should be to use new methods and technologies to achieve similar results at reasonable cost while at the same time realizing the benefits of group interactions (perhaps over long distances).”
This finding, as well as the seven others listed in the report led to our overarching recommendation:
“Make the effective integration of information technology with education and training a national priority.”
“More effective – and cost-effective – education and training are key to our well being, as individuals, families, communities, and as a Nation. Information technology, in the hands of well-educated teachers and trainers, has the potential to provide enormous leverage in the pursuit of better and less costly education and training. Pre-kindergarten, K-12, and university education are conducted primarily at the state, local, and private levels, and training is conducted by the military services, thousands of companies, professional schools and societies, and the like. This widely dispersed effort has its merits, but the diffuse operational entities are unable to fund the type of far-reaching research proposed here for a national initiative. The Federal government has to take primary responsibility to fund the research required to improve the processes executed by these many thousands of operational entities.”
I went back and looked at our PITAC report on Learning as soon as I read Dick Larson’s article. Three major things have changed in the intervening nine years or so. First, the information technologies now at our disposal to help us significantly transform learning and training are much more powerful and less costly. Second, the key technology-based capabilities that just everyone cites as most helpful to transform education - personalized education and training; and group interactions and collaborations, - have made huge progress in the last decade.
Finally, as our world has become increasingly global, fast changing and unpredictable, the need for top talent at all levels, as well as the education needed to develop such talent, are more important than ever.
As Professor Richard Larson asks in his article:
“Is there any more important service sector for our nation? Our world-leading prosperity in the 20th Century relied on creativeness, ingenuity, risk taking, and brainpower, leading to huge breakthroughs and new businesses . . . Our plea is to extend your interests in services beyond the traditional financial services, retail, transportation/logistics, communications, etc., to include education. The fate of our nation, of every nation, is at stake.”