The Education Glut

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- If you want to know where the gluts are in our economy, just look at the billboards.

Personal injury lawyers and college education are the big advertisers where I live. The lawyer glut should solve itself -- they can sue each other to death.

The education glut is more serious.

Some of that glut is a disconnect in the economy. Jobs are hard to come by and judges won't limit the for-profit sector's loan-writing ability. It's a perfect storm of desperation, a bubble that is bound to pop.

But the bigger story is technology.

There are three things teachers do: present information, measure progress or test, and guide learning. Networked computers already do two of them very well.

MIT and Stanford are both offering engineering courses online, and Stanford has an online high school. Systems like uLearn are used on many college campuses to deliver, grade and manage homework. Real colleges like Troy State in Alabama and Central Michigan have long used online tools to expand nationwide through small offices.

In the private sector Apollo Group ( APOL), parent of the University of Phoenix, and DeVry ( DV), are both worth over $2 billion each. The Washington Post Co. ( WPO) is no longer a newspaper outfit, but is evaluated by analysts as the Kaplan SAT group with some media subsidiaries.

It's the same kind of technology disruption that has hit every other industry over the last 30 years. Most see the current battle over education as a political struggle, but the politics is more a reflection of economic change. It's the John Henry story all over again.

I covered education technology as my kids were going through school, and until recently K-12 tools were non-starters. Computers became obsolete before teachers could be trained in their use. But the Internet is a more stable platform. A PC from 2005 with WiFi on it can be just as effective a learning tool as one bought today. Prices have fallen to within most family budgets.

Internet education -- teaching kids how to find what they need to know, how to join and profit from online communities, how to organize fire hoses of data into something coherent, useful and specific to their needs -- that's today's big education challenge. Do that right and most kids can do the rest themselves.

Of course, you say that to someone in the K-12 field -- teacher, parent, or administrator -- and their first thoughts will be fearful. How do we keep kids away from predators, away from leisure, away from any thought or feeling we want to protect them from? The Internet, for educators, represents a huge issue of control.

But once kids really learn to use the resource education becomes self-service. There's a saying in the teaching profession: Out with the sage on the stage, in with the guide at the side. Spend less time presenting and testing, spend more time explaining, demonstrating and finding that "teachable moment" where a young mind gets it.

How many guides do we need? How much presentation is required? What about accreditation, which may be the only thing now keeping a whole generation of young people out of MIT?

Working off the education glut is going to be one of the most fascinating economic stories of this decade. When I see those signs, in the media or on a billboard, I see opportunity.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

At the time of publication the author had no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.

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