If We Don’t, Someone Else Will

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

The United States is falling behind. For many, that’s not a surprising statement, but others will find it hard to believe.

We see statistics summarizing our declining science education, our lack of world-class Internet infrastructure, and many more. What we haven’t seen much of are examples of us falling behind in innovation. Yet, that’s exactly what’s happening. It’s been predicted for quite a long time now by some more pessimistic prognosticators but not demonstrated.

My field is science, and my current work centers on technology to support science education. It’s no surprise that my example comes from that area. For years, I’ve watched as company after company (and even individuals) make science simulations and attempt to sell them as science “labs.” Of course, they’re not truly labs, but that’s beside the point.

sebit2These companies all have produced essentially the same product. It’s a Flash-based animation system wherein students make some choices of parameters and see the result. These animations are two-dimensional and have little support added online for learning and essentially none for tracking. I don’t have to list them here because a quick Internet search for “virtual lab” will give you lots of examples.

So, from where does the first visually appealing, three-dimensional simulation system sold in the United States come from? Turkey! You may have thought of Turkey as some backwater country with lots of small, dusty villages. Not so. It’s a vibrant, secular society that’s put a premium on education in general and science education in particular. Furthermore, they’ve committed to using online education to reach their goal of an educated society. Sebit Technologies has been created by Turkey’s telecommunications leader, Türk Telekom. With all of the money at their disposal, they have made some real waves in online education.

turk_telekomYou can bet that Turkey will not be the last place we see new competition for United States education dollars. Unless our country gets moving with true innovation, we’ll watch as more and more foreign-created innovations take over our schools (and other business markets).

As I’ve suggested before, teaching itself could eventually be handled offshore. Your children or grandchildren may be learning from teachers in India or China. That might sound quite cosmopolitan but will have a huge impact on one of our most stable professions — teaching.

We shouldn’t give up without a fight. It’s time for our government to foster real education innovation. I don’t mean with tax breaks or allowing free market forces to work. We must have serious investment by government in technology infrastructure for education. We may even have to put tariffs on these sort of imports for a while in order to get our companies back into the game. The alternative is just to sit back and let the rest of the world take over education in the United States.

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