Redefining Access to Education and Training

With the U.S. unemployment rate holding steady around 9 percent, job creation and education are top of mind as many fellow citizens are missing out on the economic recovery, and inadequate education is hampering many workers’ ability to obtain available jobs. Even in this week’s State of the Union Address by President Obama, we heard the words training and education over and over again. And for good reason.

America is no longer setting the world standard for leadership in quality education. A recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report measuring global student performance among teenagers shows the U.S. now ranks 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading out of the 34 OECD countries. American students are lagging behind their peers in other developed countries. Yet it is not merely an issue of quality. There are substantial disparities in access to education and educational tools in the U.S.

How can we work to change that? America remains the world’s center of innovation. New advancements in revolutionary technology offer unprecedented access and can be the tools to eliminate geographic and socio-economic barriers to world-class education, so we can prepare our citizens for jobs in the short term and lead the world in modernization in the future. And it’s beginning to happen already—both in expected and unexpected places. One solution we’re seeing – the democratization of learning through online methods.

From a higher education standpoint, Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun has taken a Silicon Valley approach to education, offering his “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course online at no cost to participants. Dr. Thrun’s remote students attended online video lectures, completed assignments, and took exams. More than 23,000 students from 190 countries passed the course, receiving a statement of accomplishment (in lieu of Stanford course credit).

Thrun’s online experiment seems to have been a glowing success in its ability to extend advanced learning far beyond the physical classroom. He is continuing the effort to reach many students with low cost online courses, such as CS 101: Building a Search Engine, delivered through  Could this bold experiment, and similar efforts like MIT Open Courseware, enable thousands of students to receive a rigorous higher education at a tiny percentage of the cost of Stanford tuition?

For K-12 students, a small but rapidly growing non-profit organization called Khan Academy is changing the world of education with technology. Supported by Bill and Melinda Gates and other philanthropists, they offer access to online lessons, interactive practice exercises, and assessments to anyone with Internet access. A recent article in The Economist shows how Khan Academy is being used both internationally and in U.S. classrooms. Teachers are using the solutions to make learning more social and are taking advantage of visual dashboards that allow instructors to see exactly where pupils are struggling or excelling, so they can refine their teaching methods and place attention where it’s needed the most.

The democratization of education is coming. Through efforts with mayors and broadband providers around the country, Microsoft is working on our Shape the Future program, which aims to provide basic device and broadband access for 1 million low income students and their families over the next few years. We recognize that access to technology can help to place students on a more level playing field, even for all of the online learning goals to come to fruition, in addition to the benefits it brings to the physical classroom.

Over the next several weeks, we will explore this story in greater detail, including barriers to access, visionaries in the field, and the technology that can and will empower citizens and make access to education a reality. We’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject: Leave a comment below, or chat with us on with the hashtag #DigitalDivide.

Comments (1)

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