Computerized Education: Déjà Vu?

Image from Parts of a cell, Khan Academy lesson

A recent Wired article on Khan Academy gave me a distinct sense of déjà vu.  A pre-programmed set of lessons that are written once, and then can be used by kids anywhere in the country?  They allow students to proceed at their own pace, simulating the advantages of one-on-one tutorial instruction?  They ensure that a student have mastered a given concept before allowing him or her to move on to more advanced material?  Data on student performance is automatically collected for analysis by educators?  A claim that all of this is totally new and is going to revolutionize the staid old American education system?  Where have I heard this all before... oh, that's right, just about every single project to computerize American education since the 1960s.  (Not to mention non-electronic programmed instruction which dates even farther back.)

It's not surprising that this idea keeps arising over and over, or that it's promoters appear blissfully ignorant of its lack of novelty, so I won't even bother to dwell on that.  Nor do I want to get into the debate on the pedagogical merits of Khan's approach to teaching.  What I'm curious about is whether this decades-old strategy for educational reform really stands a better chance of being successful this time around.  Not whether it will be successful at educating kids, but whether it will be politically successful, and actually cause a major overhaul in the educational system in the U.S. 

There are good reasons to be skeptical; many fads for technological teaching have come and gone with little impact, as Larry Cuban showed twenty-five years ago.  Yet perhaps things will be different this time.  The technology is much cheaper and more accessible than ever before.  Public school systems in the U.S. are at their politically weakest point in many years, given the general weakening of unions, the rise of charter schools and other privatization movements, the tight budgets of state governments, federal interventions like No Child Left Behind, etc.

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