Ann Marie Sastry: Global education race – US must do this or lose edge

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It takes a serious situation to bring real change. Right now, the situation is that we are facing a monumental shift in the way people learn.

I should know. As a professor, I ran a global online, on-ground engineering program, using digital tools that can only be described as utilitarian. A decade later, these tools have not changed much.

As an entrepreneur, I built and trained software and hardware teams globally, using expensive, in-person meetings and commercial, enterprise engagement tools.


My professional experiences straddle the academy and the private sector – and my career has traversed the digital transformation of work – giving me my perspective.

This pandemic exposed not just what we can’t do, but what we can do – remotely. It’s provided side-by-side comparisons of how we consume entertainment, carry out business – and learn (or don’t) – remotely.

After this global experiment in remote living, learning will never again be confined to “education,” delivered in exclusive, expensive on-ground settings. America must ask itself: will our online learning measure up globally, and keep us competitive?

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China is not wasting this opportunity. According to Oliver Wyman, the market for China’s online after-school tutoring was $2.8 billion in 2019. However, the market is expected to maintain a compound annual growth rate of 30 to 40 percent over the next five years.

For America to succeed and prosper in the global economy, we must take a hard look at how we educate and upskill our workforce.

The first nation to deliver outstanding and accessible online experiences in learning will be years ahead of the global community in talent and innovation. The pandemic pressure-tested online products literally everywhere – and found gaps.

The trade-offs between the suite of services offered by a residential university and a potentially lower-cost, more accessible online version have never been more apparent. Educational institutions and businesses have shifted to online training out of necessity. And the power, convenience and economics of online learning have come into greater focus.

Degree programs have been associated with long training times, and primarily delivered on-ground, with content that is often dated. Increasing lecture sizes reduced peer interaction, and in spite of trends like flipped classrooms and smaller group work, engagement compares poorly to online engagement in practically every other major sector of society. In fact, the online engagement so prevalent in commercial sectors became a missed opportunity for academia.

There will be no packed lecture halls this fall in America, with hundreds of students focused on a lone figure at a lectern. That time has passed, probably permanently. As well it should.

Globalization has created a new workforce able to learn remotely and upskill continuously. Shorter bursts of high-quality and relevant learning can equip people with the knowledge, skills and core, transferable competencies they need to succeed.

America risks failing to attract talented people, and we risk not being able to help our own citizens in their quest to be viable, and competitive, in their own nation. With restrictions on travel worldwide, other nations will invest in higher quality remote learning. We ignore this at our peril.

The quality of higher education is universally understood to be essential for economic development and competitiveness. We are already losing ground to China, our closest competitor, on both delivery of education and willingness to implement new systems.

We must take advantage of technology, create efficiencies and expand learning through curricula that are constantly updated – and lead the world. We must create engagement among instructors and learners that go beyond observation of read-out-loud lectures. AI platforms enable real interaction and customization, transforming the experience for faculty and learners alike.


Until we have a coronavirus vaccine, much learning is going to be remote. We should start saying this out loud. There will be no packed lecture halls this fall in America, with hundreds of students focused on a lone figure at a lectern. That time has passed, probably permanently. As well it should.

American education has an opportunity to adapt. Education is a powerful force in assuring economic mobility and national competitiveness. We can bring it within economic reach – and assure that with engaging, continuous learning, that everyone has a chance to be viable in the knowledge economy.