While industries from manufacturing to health care have adopted technology to improve their results, the education field remains heavily reliant on "chalk and talk" instruction conducted in traditional settings.
However, that's starting to change as schools and colleges adopt virtual classrooms, data analysis, online games, highly customized coursework, and other cutting-edge tools to help students learn.
What lies ahead as the education world embraces new strategies to boost achievement took the spotlight as more than 500 teachers, investment professionals, college executives, government leaders, foundation representatives, labor union members, and officials from nonprofit and for-profit education organizations gathered at the Goldman Sachs/Stanford University Global Education Conference at Stanford GSB.
"It was terrific to have thought leaders from a number of fields converge at Stanford to share their insights about global education and to discuss possibilities for the future," Dean Garth Saloner of Stanford GSB reflected after a two-day event June 22-23.
Cory Booker, the Stanford, Yale, and Oxford-educated mayor of Newark, N.J., who is an outspoken advocate of education reform, delivered an impassioned description of the importance of education. "If you don't have a high school education in America, you are chained to limited options," he said.
"I know for a fact that you cannot have a leading economy and have a lagging educational system," Booker told the group. "You cannot lead as a country when your education system is failing."
Increasing the number of people with college degrees is imperative and may involve changing historically rigid practices, said Greg Cappelli, who is director of Apollo Group, the parent company of online higher education giant University of Phoenix, and co-chief executive officer and chairman of Apollo Global.
"The statistics speak for themselves; we've got a labor force of 132 million people in this country and two-thirds of them don't have a bachelor's degree," he said. "At the heart of that question is the debate about how will we compete globally - for human capital, for talent, for our position in the world - if that trend continues," Cappelli said.
One example of some of the changes underway came during an American Idol-style showcase where conference attendees met several entrepreneurs who are striving to overhaul education with technology's help.
By analyzing how youngsters solve math problems online, Washington-based DreamBox Learning customizes the way information is presented to pupils, an approach company CEO and President Jessie Woolley-Wilson says helps students understand multiplication, division, and other concepts more quickly. Ireland-based electronic-learning company RISE operates a network of education centers across China that teach English to Chinese children using an American curriculum designed specifically for Asian students who ultimately want to attend college in the United States.
And an online program developed by internet-based Knewton teaches math tailored to each student's abilities. The service can "predict in advance if you're going to fail at a concept before you ever see it." If so, it deploys a more appropriate learning strategy, said Jose Ferreira, the New York-based company's founder and chief executive officer.
Services such as these are emerging in part because the education sector is getting increased attention from investors. During the past 5 years, 181 education-focused U.S. companies have received venture capital funding, said Carlos Watson, co-head of Global Education Investment Banking at Goldman Sachs and a 1995 Stanford Law School graduate.
Companies are taking their technology global, particularly tapping into the generous spending on education by Asian families. While a typical American household spends about 2% of its discretionary income on education services, the average Asian family spends about 7 times that amount, according to research cited by the Milken Institute Review.
In fact, a Chinese family may have six adults - two parents and two sets of grandparents - all pitching in to support one child's education, said Jin Huang, the founder, president, and chief executive of Ambow Education Group, a leading e-education firm that operates throughout China.
Huang, a former Silicon Valley computer science expert and software engineer, said her 11-year-old company is China's first e-learning platform.
Ron Packard, founder and chief executive of K12 Inc., which provides proprietary curriculum and online education programs to students in grades kindergarten through 12, is also very bullish on the Asian consumer. "It's amazing to me how much the family in Korea or China or Japan will spend," he said. "Sometimes it's more than they spend on housing."
Other companies are concentrating on Brazil, another nation with fast-growing education needs. Just 11 million of the country's 80-million-member labor force have college degrees, and private firms are stepping in to pick up the slack, said Eduardo Alcalay, chief executive officer of Brazil-based education firm Estácio.
With the government lacking the financial and managerial means to invest in higher education, Alcalay said three-fourths of the six million enrollments in Brazil's higher education programs are provided by private firms such as Estácio. The resulting free-market competition fuels quality and innovation, he believes. "The companies have to make the students happy," Alcalay said. "If I don't provide a good service, my student goes out to my competitor."
In the United States, changing educational needs have also created major opportunities for community colleges - two-year institutions that admit all comers and charge affordable tuitions, said Bernadine Fong, senior managing partner of community college programs for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. About 45% of all undergraduate students in the United States are enrolled in community colleges, which, on average, charge about $2,600 in annual tuition, she said.
Community colleges assist everyone from high school dropouts in need of extra academic preparation before entering a four-year college to professionals wanting to polish job skills or retrain for a new career, said Fong, who is also a past trustee of Stanford University and holds a Stanford BA, MA, and PhD.
"The fact that almost all constituents to the field of education were represented among speakers and took part in this conference would not have been possible even a couple years back," observed Ulrich Kratz, co-head of Global Education Investment Banking at Goldman Sachs. "The situation feels mature enough that everyone is willing to enter a dialogue and work together on solutions. The people here are energized and committed to their important work."