Star Trek schools: education... but not as we know it

Technology to help children learn, both in classrooms and out, has a bold future

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Those of you kind souls who have persevered with this column will know that I'm a man of obsessions. And one thing I can't stop thinking about is how the internet is changing every aspect of our lives.

Digital technology has already revolutionised publishing, music, retail and journalism. Only now, though, are we beginning to understand the impact the internet could have on another aspect of our lives. And the possibilities and potential are nothing short of thrilling. I'm talking about education.

In a speech to the Girls' School Association yesterday, that organisation's President, Louise Robinson, described the classrooms of the future as belonging to Star Trek schools. She talked about avatars and virtual teachers replacing actual teachers. A friend of mine who teaches at Sherborne was on much the same theme when, a few weeks ago, he told me that rather than tell his pupils to switch their phones off and put them away, he asks that they be put in full view and used as research aids.

Star Trek schools, and indeed universities, are certainly plausible. But I think there's an even more radical future for education in the digital age – one in which classrooms aren't just different, but abandoned altogether. We are entering an age where online courses could spell the end of traditional universities. That's the thinking behind the Khan Academy.

Set up by Salman Khan, a 36-year-old former hedge fund analyst, it has put almost 3,400 tutorials online (many made by Khan himself) and has 10 million students. No wonder Bill Gates calls him the world's favourite teacher.

Just think of what this means for pupils in countries where access to education is extremely limited. They can hear and see outstanding lectures by brilliant speakers, make notes along the way, and log off with imaginations fired and ambition bursting from their minds. Over the weekend I was speaking to a medical student who said she regularly holds conferences over Skype with her lecturers and fellow students. It saves everyone time and money because they don't have to commute. For students, who are poor at the best of times, this can dramatically improve quality of life.

Of course, there is so much more to university than virtual lectures could offer. And for those who care deeply for the combination of teacher, chalk and blackboard, Star Trek schools sound mildly scary.

Those who already get education will need to adapt, those who need it will get to adopt. Everyone's a winner.

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