Back to School: The Rise of Customized Education
Lindsey Burke /
Customized learning has led the education news cycle over the past few weeks as back to school season gets in full swing. And for good reason. Every day there is growing evidence that a seismic shift in the delivery of instruction is underway, bringing with it a tidal wave of educational options for families.
Earlier this month, the news site Education Week published an inside look at one family’s hybrid schooling experience.
Emmy Elkin’s school day starts with a cooking show.
The 10-year-old and her mom, Jill Elkin of Peachtree City,Ga., are up at8 a.m., making breakfast along with “Iron Chef America” and chatting about algebra. Last week, Emmy left home after breakfast to meet a new Japanese tutor, around the time her sister Kayla, 14, dragged herself awake to get her independent mathematics study done before a friend came over for a joint British literature course. The sisters spent the afternoon working through a chemistry course online, with Jill Elkin giving more individual coaching to her younger daughter.
Kayla and Emmy are part of the modern generation of home-schooled students, piecing together their education from their mother, a former Fayette County math teacher, other district and university teachers, parent co-ops, and online providers.
Education Week goes on to profileBaywood Learning Center in California, which provides courses à la carte to homeschooling families:
Parents usually design a patchwork quilt of different classes and activities for their children,” [school director Grace Neufeld] said. “What I see is they sign up for various classes being held in various locations like science centers or museums or different places. They also add things like music lessons, art lessons, sports, or martial arts.
Bill Mattox of the James Madison Institute wrote early this week in USA Today about a 14-year-old entrepreneur who has earned enough money to buy her first house, a foreclosed home that she purchased with her savings and a little extra help from her mother. Her business model—turning treasures found at yard sales for a profit on Craigslist—is made possible in part by the flexibility her school, the Florida Virtual School (FLVS), offers her:
Willow says taking classes online gives her the scheduling flexibility she needs to run her business. “On trash days, being able to go out and get the good stuff that people leave on the street is really important,” Willow notes. “If it weren’t for FLVS, I’d never be able to do this.”
In The Wall Street Journal last week, Juan Williams relayed the success of an elementary school in Mooresville, North Carolina, which has shot from the middle of the pack into a tie for second place on student achievement on state tests. The school has embraced online learning and customization in a major way:
All of their textbooks, notes, learning materials and assignments are computerized, allowing teachers and parents to track their progress in real time. If a student is struggling, their computer-learning program can be adjusted to meet their needs and get them back up to speed. And the best students no longer wait on slow students to catch up. Top students are constantly pushed to their limits by new curricular material on their laptops.
Higher education is also becoming increasingly customized. Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, an online learning platform that offers free courses to anyone in the world from some of the U.S.’s top universities, explains the massive potential customization that online learning holds. Koller describes how one of her Stanford colleagues had over 100,000 students enrolled in a machine course online. “So to put that number into perspective, for [the professor] to reach that same size audience by teaching a Stanford class, he would have to do that for 250 years.”
Koller goes on to describe a Princeton Sociology 101 course hosted on Coursera, which included a question-and-answer forum. Students from all over the world enrolled in the course, which meant that if a student was up at 3 a.m. working on an assignment and posed a question, “somewhere around the world, there would be somebody who was awake and working on the same problem,” Koller explains. As a result, in some of their courses, the median response time to student-posed questions was just 22 minutes, “which is not a level of services I have ever offered to my Stanford students.”
For their part, policymakers should ensure that education funding is free from 19th-century ideas about schooling, in order to empower families to enjoy the benefits of 21st-century delivery models. School choice—whether vouchers, education tax credits, education savings accounts, or virtual schools—ensures that families won’t be left behind when the online learning revolution is in full force.