Software's Pull on Hard-to-Reach Teens

Forget teachers unions, undisciplined classrooms, social promotions or any of the other usual complaints about public secondary education. The real problem is that we are not playing to our children's strengths. In an age when teenagers master complex video games, track down arcana on the Web in a blinding flurry of keystrokes, pull things out of their cell phones that their parents never knew were in there and love every bit of it, we make them put all that aside at the classroom door. We tell them to sit quietly in groups of 25 or 30 and usually (with apologies to the many brilliant teachers who are out there) listen to a mediocre presentation of an uninspired curriculum.

Our family's first experience of the potential of software to transform education came back in the mid-1990s, with a game called "Oregon Trail." By today's standards, it was primitive, but both of our elementary school children played it obsessively. In the process, they acquired a startling amount of knowledge about American westward expansion. In later years, we watched them play the progressively more sophisticated versions of "Sims Civilization" and puzzle-solving games such as "Myst," with analogous results.

Socialization is a central function of those early years of education, and the classroom continues to play an important role.

Those products came to market as games, designed to be lots of fun so their creators could make lots of money. Yet they were teaching tools of great power. The mantra of progressive education-to teach students to acquire information on their own instead of making them memorize boring facts-is rarely implemented in public schools. Good computer games do it routinely.

Now those games are augmented by a large assortment of educational software. What's missing is an integrating vision. The right software is not just a useful addition to pedagogy in a traditional classroom. It has the potential to replace the traditional classroom.

For elementary school, we should move deliberately. Socialization is a central function of those early years of education, and the classroom continues to play an important role. But by seventh or eighth grade, most of the socialization consists of teenagers socializing other teenagers-not necessarily a good to be cherished. The advent of puberty also marks the moment when large numbers of children become bored with school, resistant to adult authority and hard to teach. Yet those same eighth-graders who won't engage in the traditional classroom are immersed in the hardware and software of the information age. They are still reachable-if we don't insist on the traditional classroom as the way to do it.

Now think about the possibilities if we were to combine great course software with virtual classrooms and distance education. Online secondary schooling is not just a possibility for the future. Even two years ago, 170 virtual charter schools already enrolled an estimated 1 million students nationwide, a number that continues to grow.

In his new book, "Saving Schools," Harvard's Paul Peterson gives a detailed description of how such schools operate, using Florida Virtual School near Orlando as a case study. The short story is that virtual education works and is getting better and better as technology advances. One of the great aspirations of education is within our grasp: to provide education with content that is tailored to the needs of the individual student, taught in formats and at paces that let students go as fast as they can or as slowly as they need to. This capability comes at a time when budget crises throughout the country mean that educators have no choice but to find ways to make education less labor-intensive.

The potential of educational software and virtual schools to transform secondary education exists. The federal government has enormous influence on how local school systems behave and the innovations they can be encouraged to try. We have a president who needs attractive new initiatives that don't cost much money. Bringing 21st-century technology to bear on public education is a movement that President Obama can champion and Republicans can support and that can open up a new world of learning for our children.

Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at AEI.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto/Maxim Kazmin

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