BUENOS AIRES — Do children need to be schooled to assure a functioning society? Does it make sense today to separate school from education? What about in the near future?

"De-schooling" was first proposed in 1971, by Ivan Illich. The educator anticipated online social networking and the markets (collaborative consumer applications), and imagined a world without schools, which he saw as being a tool of capitalist oppression. If one could leave children somewhere else where they would be cared for, watched and educated, would it be the end of schools?

The questions transcend the wishes of those stating them. Will we keep sending our children to school forever? The question is irrelevant, some might observe, when already many children either don't attend school, leave early, or are expelled. Certainly, but it's also a fact that over the past century, traditional schooling has expanded, even in the poorest countries.

The novelty is that disruptive forms of knowledge transfer are having some disconcerting effects. Schools are no longer the only place where people acquire legitimate knowledge: networking sites, computer screens and Artificial Intelligence are penetrating our lives, allowing us to imagine a future of de-schooling. This may happen at least with some of the formative phases of traditional education systems, regardless of what we may wish to believe.

If one could leave children somewhere else where they would be cared for, watched and educated, would it be the end of schools?

The eminent science fiction novelist Isaac Asimov imagined all this in 1988. If, he contended, every person had a device connected to a network we would all learn from a vast, virtual library and there would be no need for schools. Three decades later, most of us now have such a device.

But so far the transfer of education to non-curricular methods faces one limit: childcare. The problem arises whenever classes are suspended. Periods of recess from school usually prompt temporary solutions: Non-school venues are organized to keep watch over and educate children, like holiday camps, though more often and more precariously, children are left to the care of a grown-up — a grandmother, neighbor or friend — and in those cases, studies show, this classic example of unpaid work is most often carried out by a woman.

In non-developed regions (where most people in the world live) and contrary to the promises that came with the march of modernity, new hiring formulae and paid work are increasing working hours for employees. It is a trend that will confirm schools as the place "to drop the children off," with the help of more laws to extend school hours based on the assumption that more school time is never a bad thing.

It seems that presently, schools are the only option providing daytime care and supervision of children and teenagers. As long as child labor is illegal and minors are considered non-autonomous, dependent subjects unable to fully govern themselves, school will be the only means of providing both mass-scale education and protection of these age groups.

Yet there are many learning proposals for children that would certainly be less costly and more efficient. There is New Zealand's COOL project, to assure generalized, publicly financed and obligatory access to primary and secondary education online. In Brazil there are proposals to have secondary schoolchildren spend 30% of their time online at home, and use interactive learning programs run by international firms. This is already underway in many developed countries.

Would schools simply become impoverished premises designed to keep control of certain social sectors?

In the Pansophia Project, we study these possible scenarios. While new technologies are welcome, the decline of the school should not end its attendant, pansophic ideal: that all human knowledge is for everyone. On the other hand, the loss of teaching independence in developing countries seems a very high price to pay for a cheaper system. We also owe ourselves a debate on who owns the information such websites gather. Let there be an impartial analysis about users (pupils) ceding to firms the property rights of data they have generated.

In spite of the qualms, how much longer — assuming the issue of caring for children for a certain number of hours were resolved — before states transfer part of the mandatory education to a cheaper, more efficient system? Could (or should) we prevent such a vast change affecting all of us who have lived in the era of institutional schooling? Would schools simply become impoverished premises designed to keep control of certain social sectors?

There are many pending questions, but we believe knowledge belongs to all human beings. Universal education is not negotiable.

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