The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development administered a series of tests during 2011 and 2012 to thousands of people aged 16 to 65 in 23 countries. The tests covered literacy and basic mathematics, and in 19 countries there was a third test of problem solving in a technology rich environment. The top country in all the tests was Japan with Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway near the top. Spain, Italy and France were at or near the bottom for literacy and math. The U.S. ranked near the middle in literacy and near the bottom in number and technology skills (New York Times, 10/8/2013).
To quote from the Times article:
“…the American results were among the most polarized between high achievement and low. …the United States in all three assessments usually had more people in the highest proficiency levels and more in the lowest. The country also had an unusually wide gap in skills between the employed and the unemployed.”
It is reported that a significant number of jobs that have been added since the peak of the 2008 recession have been in lower paying industries like food service and retailing. Others have expressed concern that the U.S. is developing an economy in which there are a relatively small number of highly educated workers with very good salaries at the top while there is a much larger group at the bottom working for low wages. Yet there are anecdotal reports of a shortage of skilled workers. Is this shortage due to an under-educated workforce as the OECD results suggest?
Enter MOOCs, online education and the flipped classroom. MOOCs have exploded on the scene in the last two years. Coursera has a reported 5 million students taking its courses. During the last iteration of my MOOC on Surviving Disruptive Technologies I estimate there were students taking the course from nearly 100 different countries. MOOCs come in many different flavors; some are offered to students who are just interested as well as those who want to do a little more work to obtain a certificate. There are even a few colleges giving credit for MOOCs, generally when they are combined with additional work and often with proctored exams.
Then there is the Khan Academy a site with thousands of short video-lectures about a variety of topics with an emphasis on math and science. The mathematics curriculum covers topics from grade school through college and some school systems have integrated it into their curricula. Salman Khan narrates the videos and draws on a tablet computer just as a teacher might write on a white board. The lessons are short and to the point for each topic. A teacher using this curriculum assigns the videos as homework and students work on problem solving in class creating the “flipped classroom.”
Do MOOCs and flipped classrooms offer a path to improving education for those in the U.S. who fall into the bottom ranks for the OECD tests and those who are at the bottom of the rung economically? The Khan Academy videos could be used now for remedial education in mathematics for a large number of people who have difficulty with basic math concepts. There are also a lot of instructional videos on YouTube for how to use products or complete some task, for example, there are a half-dozen on how to change a car tire. MOOCs could be designed to prepare people for various types of skilled jobs with the cooperation of employers and educators, especially those who teach in technical colleges.
With all of the resources available online, a student with help from an advisor could create a customized curriculum to study topics where he or she is behind as well as topics that would increase skill levels for employment purposes. Certificates from the courses would serve as proof the student has prepared for a new position. If these efforts could be combined with an internship or apprenticeship, the results would help improve the economic outlook for millions of Americans and help reduce the shortage of skilled workers.
None of what has been suggested will happen on its own. The U.S. Department of Labor and state agencies would have to design curricula, sponsor or find sponsors to develop materials, and most importantly, prepare advisors to work with students to develop and monitor their programs. And of course students would need regular broadband Internet access and a device like a tablet or PC. At a time of shrinking budgets finding resources for efforts like the one outlined here would be very difficult. But there is a cost of not doing so in terms of greater polarization of the work force, higher costs for the safety net for the unemployed and under-employed not to mention the opportunity cost of lost economic output. Can the country afford to ignore the OECD test results and the plight of those whose lack of educational qualifications puts them at risk?