Steamboat Springs Five minutes into his speech focusing on education reform, Harvard University professor Paul Peterson asked the audience members at the Strings Music Pavilion not to leave.
“This is sort of grim, and you’re probably ready to go out and have dinner right now, but please don’t,” said Peterson, moments after saying the U.S. education system has been losing ground globally over the past few decades. “We are at a moment in time when we have the best opportunity to change this.”
Peterson, director of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, delivered his speech titled “Saving the American School” in Steamboat Springs this evening to more than 500 people during the third installment of the Seminars at Steamboat lecture series on public policy.
Steve Hofman, who introduced Peterson, said the speech was about something bigger than education.
“The speech is titled ‘Saving the American School,’ but the real topic tonight is America’s future,” Hofman said. “Learners are America’s greatest assets.”
Peterson discussed what he called the stagnation of America’s schooling system and the positive changes he expects to take place in American classrooms in the future. He said high schools in the U.S. are not graduating more students today than they did in 1970, and some schools have become less receptive to customizable education as they become more regulated.
“We now have a new opportunity to customize the education system in this country,” he said. “We can do this through school choice and technological innovation.”
Peterson said a new “virtual learning” system would become more prevalent in the U.S. in the future as the costs associated with higher education continue to increase.
“Education is a very labor-intensive industry,” he said. “It has become an increasingly significant economic burden on the taxpayer to provide a system of education where we depend so heavily on paid labor.”
Peterson said online courses and new technologies could help alleviate that burden. He pointed to institutions such as the Florida Virtual School, which is projected to have had more than 200,000 course enrollments this year, as an example of the U.S. school system’s transition toward virtual learning. While he praised the ability to customize education, he said online education is still evolving.
“There are tremendous opportunities with online learning,” he said. “The courses that are online today come nowhere near the Hollywood movie level of technology that is conceivable if you put tremendous resources into the process.”
Peterson said new three-dimensional technologies could be one of the advancements that help online learning achieve that Hollywood movie level.
“With 3D presentations, it’s going to be possible to dissect a frog over and over again, and there won’t be a single amphibian dying in the process.”
Peterson admitted that the best online course isn’t always the best substitute for a learning experience in a physical classroom. He said that although the virtual learning experience would help schools teach to a student’s individual skill level, it would need to be transparent, accountable and flexible. After his speech, audience members debated the effectiveness of online learning.
“I think a warm, loving teacher is better than any online course,” said Willie Ross, who was concerned that online courses could negatively affect a student’s social behavior.
Steamboat resident Bob Miller thought differently.
“I thought his speech was very persuasive,” he said. “Virtual learning has got to happen. We cannot afford the schooling systems the way they are going now.”
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