Peter Cochrane's Blog: Net education

Advanced learning is not the sole preserve of the wealthy nations...

Written at London Heathrow and dispatched from a free wi-fi service at London's Liverpool Street Station

It seems ironic that our time of greatest technological advancement and wealth generation should coincide with falling education standards.

Across the western world, literacy, mathematical and scientific understanding grow weaker each year. In complete contrast, the developing nations recognise the importance of these key subjects and continue to grow in strength as they strive to improve their economies.

Whatever the mechanisms and causes for this decline in key abilities, a consequence is the increasing need for the developed nations to recruit ever more educated people from abroad to staff essential industries and services.

Government programmes and investments have so far failed to halt the decline and the falling numbers of good teachers today means there will be even fewer in years to come. For the students it gets worse even faster. If they show any interest or natural skill in a topic, there is unlikely to be anyone in their family or circle of friends who can help.

To be blunt, we often see the gifted held back by the majority. And very often those graded as gifted today, would most likely have been pretty average 50 years ago.

The continual erosion of standards and exam grades by government intervention has played a large part in the process. And especially when artificial quotas and dubious targets have been imposed. Because institutions are rewarded financially according to how many students graduate, this has become their ultimate target.

Is there a solution to this decline - beyond importing more overseas talent, that is? I think so. And it comes from an unexpected direction.

The net community and social networking are probably bigger than any of us can guess. They also offer new and very different business opportunities. So we now have the well-educated in the second world offering their tutoring skills online to students in the West.

Many of us already have to outsource car washing, gardening, cleaning and decorating to allow us to focus on our day jobs. The gearing up of individuals, groups and the formation of education companies in the second world, to address the problems of the first, looks like the first real example of offshoring from the home. It may even be the best example so far of the long tail economy.

To date, the investment in these companies has been modest but the offerings are interesting. The charges are less than 50 per cent of those in the West, and there are even flat-fee and all-you-can-eat-a-month deals that give unlimited access, cable TV-style.

Of course, older people and the education establishment tend to be very sceptical but the need is being driven by the young - and they are writing the rules as they go.

It will be interesting to see how the sector develops over the next decade. And it would be nice to think that the visible trend of ageing academics and professionals in the West might just be reversed by a significant percentage of recruits from the indigenous population.