The next time your child groans and asks why he has to go to school, or tells you she is absolutely certain that she’ll never use math, steal a little wit and wisdom from Salman Khan. The Silicon Valley innovator, whose online educational videos have grown to nearly 200 million lessons, kept an auditorium full of high school students rapt earlier this week as he urged them to consider a future in computer science.
“I think there’s a misperception about it being a very, I don’t know, kind of dorky field, for lack of a better word,” said Khan to laughter. It helped the joke that he was sitting next to Andrew Ng, the Stanford computer scientist who runs the University’s Artificial Intelligence Lab and developed the platform for Coursera, the program that allows millions of people to enroll in online courses offered by the nation’s top universities. “Thanks, Sal,” broke in Ng good-naturedly.
But when Khan delivered the real punch line, the students were speechless and dorkless. “You go to Google, Facebook, any of these companies right now; they’re offering six-figure salaries to 21-year-olds, and they cannot find enough people.”
Khan, Ng, and Catlin Tucker, the high school English teacher and author of the book Blended Learning for Grades 4-12: Leveraging the Power of Technology to Create a Student-Centered Classroom, appeared on a technology and education panel moderated by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at Sequoia High School in Redwood City. It was the first stop on Duncan’s cross-country “Education Drives America” Back-to-School bus tour, which is aimed at showing students, teachers, and community leaders how “education drives American prosperity and competitiveness in the 21st century information economy,” according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Dreaming of electronic textbooks
The most popular suggestion from the panelists was about switching to online textbooks. Sequoia High senior Alejandro Arreola said he and a friend have felt for some time that laptops would be a lot easier, lighter, and more efficient. “We won’t even need backpacks,” he said. “We would have all our files in there and we could send homework to teachers by email.”
His classmate Albert Vargas has another reason for wanting to go digital: “I’m a slow reader; if I don’t understand something, I can re-read it, but it’s going to say the same thing,” said Vargas following the panel discussion. “If it was an online textbook, it would be easier for the creators of the textbook to share links on the site so students that have a hard time understanding a certain subject would have easier access to more information about the topic.”
Interestingly, at the end of the day the panel of ed-techies argued that teachers, rather than being displaced by technology, would have a stronger role in the classroom.
“More important than student to teacher ratio, is the student to valuable time with the teacher ratio. If the teachers’ time is all spent grading homework or handling paperwork, that’s time lost from the students,” said Khan. “Everything we do in our mission is how can we use technology to make classrooms more human, to liberate teachers so they can be more free to lead their students in a self-paced environment.”
The biggest applause followed teacher Catlin Tucker’s comment when she said, “I don’t think technology is going to save education; I think great teachers with great tools is going to save education.”