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The Business of Learning

Donald G. Perrin

Popular sayings like “you get what you pay for” are used to rationalize failure. The assumption is, if you spend more money, you get a better product. Not so. Marketing gurus have discovered that, up to a point, if you increase price you make more. Beyond that point, buyer interest diminishes rapidly. That is why a packet of Corn Flakes costs $3 to $5 yet the raw ingredients cost a few nickels. Your price is what the market will bear. It is true, there are processing, packaging, shipping and inventory cost, but the true value is much lower than the market price. You continue to buy at slowly increasing prices until you reject it as “too expensive”. You are then wooed back by sales and discounts. Regardless of the price you pay, the product is the same.

Education does not fit this model because it requires human services by qualified teachers, counselors, administrators and other specialists. Even the best endowed private schools and universities subsidize tuition by 200-300%. Private and public education at all levels is struggling to provide quality education and contain the soaring costs. Many of these costs come from government regulation; others result from business and educational strategies that are inadequate in 21st century. It will require a paradigm shift to remove baggage from a century of growth and raise learning to a higher level.

The twentieth century education model was like a factory assembly line for batches of 25-40 students. In the early part of the century, emphasis was on developing “hands”, people with basic skills that would be compliant to the needs of business, industry and military organizations. After World-War II, seeds of technology and research from wartime training led to significant new theories and practices to improve education. This was further stimulated when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I on October 4, 1957.

The United States government funded new curricula in science and mathematics, new instructional technologies, and new methods of teaching. There was a decade of experimentation and growth before diminishing funds caused many classrooms to return to traditional methods of teaching and learning. Renewed growth resulted from Computer Based Training in the 70s, Personal Computers in the 80s, Internet Browsers in the 90s, and powerful Search Engines that heralded the Information Age and the new millennium.

Classrooms continue to resemble those of a century earlier in their pedagogy and physical appearance. Many have changed from homogenous grouping to a diversity of cultures and ability levels, larger classes, students with disabilities, technologies without proper training and support, and program changes dictated by politicians. Education is being asked to do more with fewer dollars. Band Aids are inadequate for the failing infrastructure. It is time to take stock and rethink education as we know it.

Education needs to be the pre-eminent industry of the new millennium. Currently, it has fundamental problems related to mission, competencies, and relevance for life in the 21st century. The solution requires public support for: research and innovation, relevant teacher training and curriculum, expanded resources for schools, colleges, universities, and lifelong education, and restoration of control and trust to educational leaders.

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