Reimagining Education

Dream Big

Everyone should have an audacious goal. MIT is known for empowering its students to innovate solutions to "one billion people problems."  My audacious goal: transform education by overhauling the approach we take to learning, fundamentally. This shift will affect the breadth of education and leave us with myriad questions, like:
- When and where will learning happen?
- What will curricula look like? Will it be standardized?
- Will it be trustworthy? How will we know it is working?
- What role will technology play?
- Who will be create learning materials and review work?
These questions show how deep an issue this is, and it just scratches the surface. Regardless of reaching a billion people, this is a fundamental question of our time: How can we ensure that all learners, regardless of ability, location, age, etc., will have access to the highest quality education possible?  I want to solve that problem. The following are some initial thoughts about the role of EdTech after being in Silicon Valley for short time.

End-to-End Education Solutions (or TL;DR)

The ultimate conclusion will be this: the student, the teacher, and the administrative entity need technology solutions that work together.  These technologies need to better enable real-world learning experiences, streamline time-consuming processes, and optimize for the outcomes we want at all levels (e.g. students creating more solutions, teachers accelerating student ability to effectively apply structures and approaches, and districts saving money while expediting processes and support for students and teachers).  There exist some technologies right now that, if together in the same room, could start to develop an end-to-end strategy for education of the future.  Strategies will need to be tailored based on essential variables, but the fundamentals of the tech used will mostly stay the same. Let us work to make this happen.

Reimagine, Not Repurpose

For a long time, education has faced a big problem with scaling meaningful practices to reach all leaders.  Even in a single classroom a lesson or activity can completely miss the mark, leaving many student un(der)supported. As a classroom will have typically a 1:24+ teacher/student ratio (and 1,000s of learners in a single MOOC), it is not surprising learners miss out on key concepts.  While the factory model of education (copy and memorize processes, regardless of why) is still prevalent, we know inherently it is not serving the needs of learners and the 21st century effectively. So, when we need to innovate and scale we turn to technology. However, it can seem like many current tech-based solutions do not support the ecology of education effectively or are just not working, regardless of responsibility. Even personalized learning has its dark sides.

EdSurge reported nearly $18B in mergers and acquisition activity for education companies in 2015.  That's an astonishing amount, though less than what a city the size of Philadelphia requires to operate at a minimal level for a single year. But, is it worth it? More pointedly, are education and edtech companies truly reimagining the future of education or are they repurposing the old in new technology's clothes? Will online textbooks and gradebooks, will pre-recorded lectures, will message boards or messenger apps really create the systems needed to create 21st century leaders?  My current outreach has found some bright spots, but it has also found that need to better imagine the future, too. 

Bright Spots

The education and edtech conversation has never been as rich and thoughtful as it is today.  There are more schools and learning systems that are trying new approaches to learning design. There are more supportive and assistive technologies. There are new onramps, safety nets, and opportunities for learning from grades pre-k through our golden-years. There are more entrepreneurs and innovators studying education's challenges and creating their interpretation of a solution.  Some of these businesses are ready to make monumental impact, if they haven't already (Geoffrey Canada, Sebastian Thrun, Sal Khan-- I'm looking at you).  Still, the deep-seated solutions to these challenges are pervasive and not one-size-fits all.  What's more, we have found with companies like Uber and AirBnB, ideas that seem silly (on-demand limos or airbed rentals) can be the tremors that indicate a seismic shift in the making.  

If asked, "What role, then, does edtech have to play in this shift?" the answer would unfold like this.  First, approach education with a perspective similar to Urie Bronfenbrenner's social ecological model-- layers of influences affect a learner's ability in some capacity. Placing learners in the middle of their own ecosystem is a critical insight for future education. We can better ask about what they need, and how can we work within their ecosystems to deliver that.

There is also consideration for the teachers and facilitators of the future-- what and who is helping them do their jobs better?  Last, we must recognize the multitudes of administrative entities in the education world, from school districts to managers of  learning management system.  How can we ensure that these structures are able to support a 21st century education?  In my mind, those are the three essential components for educational transformation. [*Note: yes, there are more, like politics, but they can only enable what organizations have already created-- politics rarely creates new things, it just (dis)approves them.]

Under the assumption that these are the three core components where innovation in education needs to happen, we can start to identify who is making significant advances in education. (And, who isn't.)

Great Innovations

Let us begin with the teachers, as so much depends upon them. (You could call them learn designers, instructors, facilitators, etc., but we're going with teacher for simplicity's sake.)  Has anyone sat down and tracked how many hours a teacher has to work to effectively reach and help each student in an education program? We hear and see the scary-stories-in-jest on Facebook and LinkedIn.  Scene: hardly through a teaching cycle, the teacher is already at wits end, underslept, overworked, and on the verge of giving up. Why should that be the case at all for any teacher? (Believe me, I know first hand this is true for some.)

In my ideal future, technology maximizes teacher ability to focus on facilitation and student support, and it minimizes teacher time spent on paperwork and reinventing wheels. Innovative companies, like Hapara and Versal, are creating software that will empower teachers and help them spend less time on detail-intensive tasks (like sifting through and spiraling standards together or creating interactive digital content). My hypothesis is that technologies need to help teachers streamline non-essential functions so they can get to the real work of education: helping students build knowledge in contexts that mean something to them.  In any classroom, so much focus is on data collection, lesson plan writing, additional paperwork, and gathering resources. This saps the time and mental energy it takes to imagine and engage in rich projects with deep learning. Moreover, the traditional model of education puts to bear so much weight on the teacher as knowledge giver; however, the goal should focus on supporting learners to become knowledge creators. And, that's what 21st century learners need the most.

The Return of Constructivism - Students Building Knowledge 

Students are often compared to empty vessels that need to be filled with knowledge by a teacher.  This metaphor has mistakenly guided learning design for too long. When first confronted with "constructivism," I have found people tend to imagine it as learning a trade or craft-- that learners "construct" an object to understand the concept.  While not 100% inaccurate, it is definitely not confined to woodshops and factories.  Constructivism is about learning in context through critical thinking and problem solving.  You can construct a marketing campaign, an outreach program, a speech, and multitudes more. The end goal is that you engineer solutions to problems that are designed for the communities they serve. [*Note, this is going to look different for much younger children, but first and second graders can really surprise.]  When it comes to technology, we need to ask, what is it that students need so they can become this kind of learner?

The real question for me is, "how can we help learners apply design thinking and engineering solutions to relevant problems?" To accomplish this there will be a need for highly secured 1) digital structures to help organize practices and information (for both students and teachers), 2) digital portfolios to capture and share learning, 3) access to materials for prototyping, 4) highly responsive and collaborative communication tools, and 5) the physical technology to make it possible (computers, 3-D printers, design tools, materials tools) and more (assistive devices!).  I have seen already some great offerings from companies like Khan AcademySeesaw and Edmodo for digital solutions. Even Atlassian (Confluence, Hipchat) and Asana can play roles in this area.  Lest we forget Google for Education

The more complexity and software we add to this picture the more that hinges on the teacher-- learning new technologies and best practices for application, training to assess student work and progress, planning for project implementation, and so on. It's just adds to the challenge, but administrative entities will need to rise to the challenge.

Keeping the Momentum High

Reimagining Learning Design will have different needs, and it will vary depending on geography, educational philosophy, desired outcomes, and beyond. It will require tremendous project management and tools to keep administration focused on teacher support and minimizing costs. 

Before any technology reaches a school or classroom, administrative entities need to develop first excellent teacher preparation and training program. The way that government entities need to empower schools and school districts, so should administrators empower their teachers.  All schools need clear, effective programs to support teacher learning and school/classroom technology adoption and implementation.  With a well-educated faculty, a school can better advocate for the right tech that will facilitate learner-focused project-based and experiential learning.  This will take some of the burden off the administration which will allow them to dig into their own digital soultions.

Businesses like SchoolMint and Clever are working to support administrations in streamlining processes and paperwork so they can get to the business of talent acquisition, teacher support, and educational development.  With more time, administrative entities need to focus on how they can better define education of the future, how to plan it and assess it, and how to translate the work teachers and learners do into a measurable shape.  They will need to battle questions like, "How are we enabling classrooms to solve real-world problems?" and "Are we enabling deep, personalized experiences or are we setting up learners to take tests and teachers to silo content?"  I theorize that if you build the right kind of school, you will attract the right kind of talent to lead education to the future it needs and deserves.  

End-to-End Solutions

The goal of education is to develop learners into producers of great things and into real-world problem solvers.  We need to ask ourselves as educators and education advocates, do our actions support that?  To ensure our actions align with the end goal, we must better understand what we need to do, and we also need to understand how technology can enable what is needed.  The education system of students, teachers, and administrations need to focus on the core of this work, and technology needs to be a means to this end, not the end in itself.

Education systems need EdTech that allows students to work collaboratively, create digital and physical products, and support or extend learning. For teachers, technology needs to enable the project-based learning implementation, visualize learner abilities, and reduce mental burdens that distract from supporting learners and providing meaningful assessment of abilities. Last, administrations need tools that streamline processes and give them more time to craft high quality teacher education and talent acquisition processes (not to mention the mental space to advocate for a true 21st century education).  This is possible, and many effective EdTech products are surfacing.  We must work together to get the right tools in the right places for effective end-to-end solutions. We all want the highest quality education for our learners. Let's make that happen in our lifetime.