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Tracks and Clusters

David Gelernter is a computer scientist at Yale University, chief scientist of Mirror World’s Technologies, and the author of Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion.

What will change everything? The replacement of 90 percent of America’s teachers at every level with parent-chosen, cloud-resident “learning tracks.” The end of conventional centralized, age-stratified schools and their replacement by local cluster rooms, where a few dozen children of all ages and IQs gather under the supervision of any trustworthy adult and where each child follows his own learning track at his own level and rate but all kids in the cluster participate in playtime and gym–type activities together.

Thus primary and secondary education become radically localized and delocalized simultaneously. All children go to a nearby cluster room and mix there with other children of all ages and interests from the neighborhood: radical localization (or relocation, the return of the little red schoolhouse). But each child follows a learning track prepared and presented by the best teachers and thinkers anywhere in the nation or the world. Local schools become cheap and flexible (doesn’t matter whether ten children or fifty show up, as long as there are enough machines to go around – and that will be easy). Perhaps 80-plus percent of school funding goes straight to the production of learning tracks, which accumulate in a growing worldwide library.

This inversion of education has bad properties as well as good. It’s much easier to learn from a good teacher face-to-face than from any kind of software. But the replacement of schools by tracks and clusters is the inevitable, unstoppable, take-it-or-leave-it response to educational collapse in the United States. The National Commission on Excellence in Education’s report, A Nation at Risk, appeared in 1983. Americans have known for a full generation that their schools are collapsing and have failed even to make a dent in the problem. If anything, today’s schools are worse than 1983’s. Tracks-and-clusters is no perfect solution – but radical change is coming, and cloud-based, parent-chosen tracks with local cluster rooms are all but inevitable.

None of today’s software frameworks for online learning is adequate. New software must make it easy to see and valuate each track as a whole, give learners control over learning, integrate multimedia smoothly, include students in a Net-wide discussion of each topic, and put them in touch with (human) teachers as needed. New software must also make it easy for parents and “guidance teachers” to evaluate each child’s progress. It’s all easily done with current technology – if software design is taken seriously.

Any person or group can offer a learning track at any level, on any topic. The usual consumer evaluation mechanisms will help parents and students choose. Government and private organizations will review learning tracks, comment, and mark them “approved” or not. Suggested curricula will proliferate on the Net. Anybody will be free to offer his or her services as a personal learning consultant.

Tracks-and-clusters poses many problems – and suggests many solutions. It represents the inevitable direction of education in the United States, not because it solves every problem but because the current system is intellectually bankrupt – not merely today’s schools and school districts, but the whole system of government funding, local school boards and budget votes, approved textbooks, nationwide educational fads, and so on. They’re all ripe for the trash and on their way out. U.S. schools will change radically, because – and only because – they must change radically. Ten years from now, the move to clusters-and-tracks will be well under way.

From the book, This Will Change Everything.