Microsoft peddles laptops. Google touts services such as collaborative calendars and spreadsheet-making software. After building their businesses on products that students use, it’s not surprising that tech giants—from actual computer companies to other Silicon Valley darlings like Salesforce and Netflix—are wedging their way into education itself, especially as the US market for education technology is predicted to bloom to $21 billion by 2020. Most tech leaders are getting in by making learning apps, donating to policy campaigns, or partnering with individual schools.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has a slightly different, and much more audacious, idea.
Zuckerberg’s goal is for “a billion students” across the world to be able to learn on their own, via software that his company helps build, with teachers merely looking over their shoulders. As the New York Times (paywall) describes it it:
It’s a conception that upends a longstanding teaching dynamic. Now educators are no longer classroom leaders, but helpmates. In public remarks and Facebook posts, Mr. Zuckerberg has described how it works. Students cluster together, working at laptops. They use software to select their own assignments, working at their own pace. And, should they struggle at teaching themselves, teachers are on hand to guide them.
In 2015, Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, announced they will eventually give 99% of their Facebook shares to—among a few other causes—transforming education through technology. Their organization to accomplish that aim, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, said in March that it will offer a free online software for customizing classroom instruction by the end of the year. The tool “empowers teachers to customize instruction to meet their students’ individual needs and interests”—but its ultimate aim is to have teachers serve as mentors and evaluators, not instructors.
“It’s time for our generation-defining public works,” Zuckerberg said during his graduation speech at Harvard last month. “We can fix this. How about modernizing democracy so everyone can vote online, and personalizing education so everyone can learn?”
Of course, these plans are still more dreams than reality. What Zuckerberg hasn’t done so far is lay out his organization’s detailed path to those lofty goals.