Friday, March 25, 2005

An education strategy for Texas

The Feb 26 Economist has an interesting special report on higher education (alternate copy for nonsubscribers here). It talks about how globalization trends are bringing a new level of competition to higher education, especially to the government-run higher-ed systems in Europe. It got me wondering if there is some way Texas could turn education - K-12 as well as higher ed - into a global competitive advantage without busting budgets.

Texas has a rapidly growing young population that is straining education resources. It seems to me that one way to get more "bang for the buck" from teacher and professor time is to supplement them with great online education materials, especially multimedia. The Rice Connexions project is a good early example of this. If compelling online multimedia experiences (think Flash) can help students better learn concepts, that has to help us get more value out of limited and relatively expensive teacher time.

A collaborative effort at the state level among the Texas Education Agency, school districts, and public and private universities could generate this content into a comprehensive online library. In some cases, textbooks written by Texas faculty could be converted to online content. In other cases, students could help generate the modules (it has actually been shown that the most effective technique to learn material is to have to teach it).

The next step is where this really gets interesting: offer this content for free to countries around the world, especially developing ones (maybe with a focus on Latin America?). There would only be one requirement: since we're serving up this content from a central data center of web servers, we would be allowed to build a proprietary and confidential database of worldwide students who use the material (including online testing). We would mine that database to try and bring top-talent undergraduate and graduate students from around the world to study at Texas universities (although probably at full cost, unsubsidized by Texas taxpayers).

When they graduate, they may stay and directly benefit the Texas economy. But even if they go back to their home country, they will use their relationships in Texas, including their alumni networks, to build deeper economic and academic ties between their home countries and Texas. These global connections will be of immense competitive value to Texas in the 21st century.

In summary, everybody wins:
  • More Texas students get better educations with enhanced online multimedia content
  • Texas gets a better return on its education spending by increasing teacher and professor productivity
  • Developing countries get access to top-notch online educational materials they could not afford to develop themselves
  • Both Texas and those countries get better developed talent and deeper economic and academic ties
  • Texas builds a global brand name in education
  • Texas attracts the smartest student talent from around the world
  • Top-talent students help Texas attract and retain top-notch research faculty and enhance the value of Texas-granted degrees
  • Top research faculty generate technologies likely to be commercialized in Texas
There is definitely a first-mover advantage to this opportunity. Once countries establish these types of relationships, they don't have a lot of motivation to look at other partnerships, which could leave Texas out in the cold if California or the Ivy League or Japan or Britain or anybody else gets there first...

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