“If you can create an environment where kids use technology to help each other, you can lower the labor costs and help kids better understand other things.”

Of all the areas of the economy that technology can shake, education seems the most ready because many students aren’t getting the attention they deserve. 

At a panel at Fortune Brainstorm Tech last week, there were a lot of different opinions on what’s wrong with education and what should be done.

“The need for education has never been greater,” said Tony Miller, deputy secretary and COO of the US Department of Education, opening a panel on education innovation. The unemployment rate is at 13 percent for high school dropouts and 8.5 percent for high school graduates, but only at four percent for college graduates. Wages have been directly correlated with education. Two-thirds of all new jobs will require advanced degrees, Miller said. He admitted, though, that the situation is more challenging now, when only 55 percent of the people who attend college graduate in six years or fewer and only 25 percent of community college students graduate.

Stanford professor Daphne Koller, founder of startup Coursera, argued that most of the higher education world does not use technology effectively. With Coursera, anyone can take courses from top universities because they are offered for free online. They include such things as homework assignments, feedback, peer-to-peer teaching, and grading, and the universities often offer a certificate of completion, rather than just a degree.

Koller mentioned that students can answer other students’ questions using social networks and this can lead to people forming study groups online.

A number of other entrepreneurs also discussed their ideas. Ntiedo Etuk, founder and CEO of DimensionU, talked about his company’s system for getting kids to play math games. Every educational system has been set up as “push,” he said, but instead, kids should be demanding the kind of education they want. “Imagine Halo without the violence,” he said.

He described “sage on the stage” as the old model. Rather, if you can create an environment where kids can help each other, you can lower the labor costs and help kids better understand other things.

Matt MacInnis, founder and CEO of Inkling, had a different approach, saying you “can’t game the human brain.” We should trust the intellect of individuals but coax them toward a direction, he added. Using data, we can personalize curricula. “Put the right content under the nose of the individual at the right time, and they’ll get engaged,” he said.

Still, Charles Best, founder and CEO of DonorsChoose.org, thinks peer teaching and technology are good, but stresses the importance of teachers. “The single most important input in whether a kid will learn is that kid’s teacher,” he said, and that has often been overlooked in the discussion of technology. Best cited a Gates Foundation study that saw more variability in teacher quality within a school than among schools.  

Etuk cited a study that said 61 percent of students are bored in school and only a small percentage of teachers can actually inspire kids who are bored. So, trying to improve teachers “can’t scale,” he said, and thus he pushes technology as a way to solve the problem.

“We have a 50 state education system, not a national system,” Miller said. There are 15,000 separate school districts, most of which are funded on the state and local levels. Best said the problem with selling to all those school distributions has made many entrepreneurs wary of the education model.

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