The Educational World Is Flat

The Educational World Is Flat

Education January 13, 2012 / By Dr. Jonathan Wai
The Educational World Is Flat

A conversation with Tom Vander Ark, former Executive Director of Education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, on his vision for our educational future.

Tom Vander Ark is an educational innovator who thinks like an engineer. He is currently the CEO of Open Educational Solutions, a partner in Learn Capital, and director of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning. Previously he served as President of the X PRIZE Foundation and was the Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He is a prolific writer and speaker, and in 2006 Newsweek readers voted Tom the most influential baby boomer in education.

Anyone familiar with his work will know that he is not shy in making predictions about our educational future. His vision is clearly portrayed in Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing The World, where he persuasively argues that the rise of educational technology already has and will continue to transform the way that each of us learn.

I think Getting Smart is like The World is Flat for education.

But I also think it’s much more than that. It’s an important synthesis of an enormous amount of writing and thinking that Tom has now put together in one place. Yet despite my belief that digital learning will change our future, I must admit that I still love holding in my hands a non-virtual book. And at least for me, the mark of a good book is how many notes and scribbles I make on the pages. My copy of Getting Smart is covered with ink.

After taking a tour of our educational future with Tom as my guide, I had the pleasure of chatting with him on the phone. I had many questions, and he shared his thoughts on the importance of recognizing individual differences, the role of video games in motivating students, cultural literacy, his idea of educational playlists like those on our iPods, how we miss spatially talented students, the role of culture in education, and whether he thinks technology will help us find the next Einstein.

WAI: A theme that I feel appears throughout Getting Smart is the importance of recognizing individual differences in multiple dimensions. How do you feel we can use technology and perhaps video games to tailor educational environments to students? And how do you think this will impact learning?

VANDER ARK: When you visit U.S. secondary schools, the overwhelming affect is boredom. We need to do a better job of engaging students and compelling media, social learning, and game-based experiences can all help.

Calibration is an important lesson from casual gaming—targeting the degree of challenge precisely in a band between boredom and frustration. In addition to engaging content, the ability to constantly vary the level of challenge appears to be important to persistence.

For 15 years, learning technologies have given students some level of control over level, rate, time, and location. With more variety and more sophisticated content, students are increasingly able to customize their learning pathway—they will increasingly be able to mix experiences in their most productive modality, themed to their interests, accessed at any time of day, often in collaboration with other students in remote locations.

Customizing learning experiences should increase learning productivity—students will learn more per hour. More broadly, giving students the opportunity to exercise some level of choice over rate, time, location, and path will boost engagement and achievement.

2. Why do you think motivation is the holy grail of education? And how important a role do you think technology (such as video games) will play in motivating students?

As your research indicates, talent matters. However, effort is the single biggest determinant of college and career readiness. With sufficient effort, the vast majority of young people can be adequately prepared for college and idea economy careers.

Effort is driven by a complex mixture of motivations—different for each student and dynamic over time—driven by parents and extended community academic press, teacher expectations, future orientation and goals, peer pressure, engagement and interests. American culture is diverse and the degree of academic pressure and support varies widely. Technology won’t do much to fix that, but it can lift the floor and spread opportunity.

The shift to predominantly digital learning experiences will result in a flood of keystroke data that will power comprehensive learner profiles that will move beyond opinion surveys to data driven profiles that can recommend modalities likely to produce persistence and performance.

3. You were trained in the areas of engineering and finance. You note in Getting Smart that a lot of people who you think are making a difference in education are individuals who were not traditionally trained as educators. In what ways do you think that coming from a different area (such as engineering that focuses on systems and problem solving) might allow important insights into the problems of our educational system and how to solve them?

As Jane Jacobs noted in Systems of Survival, public delivery systems develop a ‘Guardian’ mentality that values protection, obedience, discipline, tradition, and hierarchy. Reformers and outsiders bring a ‘Commerce Syndrome’ with a competition mindset, open to inventiveness and novelty, they invest for productivity, and value initiative and enterprise.

New eyes with no loyalties other than to kids and community gives an observer a chance to ask tough questions about the strange collection of historical practices that make up the typical school day. While not valued in education, a breadth of leadership experiences and exposure to solution sets from other sectors is helpful.

However, reformers and philanthropists must remember that education incumbents share a psychology that is different than the private sector and that stimulus response may be different than expected.

From a research perspective, we continue to force Ph.D. candidates into obscure corners. I’d like to see teams of multidisciplinary doctoral students working as a team to attack the complicated sociological, pedagogical, financial, and organizational challenges of urban education. They could author a team report as well as an individual dissertation—it would provide tremendous exposure to systemic thinking.

4. I think that technology is a great equalizer of opportunity, but may in fact be an amplifier of achievement. What are your thoughts on the role of technology in learning not only for all students, but also the “smart fraction” [for interested readers, see my article on this here] or the most talented students?

Digital learning is extending access to the best content, courses, and teachers. School models that incorporate online learning can afford to extend the day and the year. Better diagnostics are identifying specific needs that can be treated effectively with new tools. Khan Academy gives every parent access to a great math teacher. Edmodo gives every teacher free access to content and tools.

Digital learning will help prepare a larger percentage of students for college and careers but it may not narrow the achievement gap. Learning technology will probably amplify differences in parenting with well-supported students spending more time in productive learning activities and unsupported students wasting time online.

When students have access to more and better resources and can move at their own pace, a larger percentage of students will graduate early with college credit.

5. We select students for college based on tests like the Scholastic Assessment (SAT) and the American College Test (ACT) which have math and verbal sections but do not have a spatial section. So we essentially miss identifying a lot of spatially talented students (who are good at working with their hands and rotating figures in three dimensions) who are not as math and verbal oriented. In some of my research, my colleagues and I have demonstrated the importance of spatial ability for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) areas such as engineering [for interested readers, see my article on this here]. What are your thoughts on how video games that are spatial in nature might have an influence on students who have a spatial bent?

American schools sort for compliant auditory learners. At least two-thirds of our young people don’t get what they need and deserve from our schools in part because of a narrow pedagogical approach.

I hate the fact that we’ve turned science into a quiz bowl. I’d like to see a month each year when students get an opportunity to go deep in an area of science and experience expertise in public presentations of learning.

I love visiting SMU and seeing first semester students crawling around on the floor building robots. I love the FIRST Robotics national championships—30,000 geeks cheering for their robots.

I’m an enthusiastic supporter of visual math products like ST Math from MIND Research Institute and game-based math from Mangahigh.

I’m a fan of networks like Big Picture and Cristo Rey that get kids into work-based learning experiences.

6. You discuss E. D. Hirsch and cultural literacy in your book. What are your thoughts on the importance of cultural literacy [for interested readers, see my article on this here]? And how do think technology could be used to improve cultural literacy among students?

The knowledge vs. skills debate is a bit shallow. There is certainly truth to Hirsch’s argument that you need a high degree of cultural literacy to think critically. However, this fundamental construct of liberal education was taken to a bizarre extreme in the standards movement. Current state standards stress content knowledge as measured by multiple choice tests rather than the ability to think, write, create, and produce.

America is caught in an old psychometric trap where comparability is defined as the same multiple choice test given on the same day under the same circumstances. The key to deeper learning is better assessment systems. Digital learning enables more authentic assessment as well as assessment embedded in learning experiences. But it will require us to invent new standards for comparability—systems that compare thousands of data points rather than 100 end of year questions.

In addition to getting assessment right, we can make the Humanities more engaging. StudySync is an example of modeling rich academic discourse. McGraw-Hill’s Networks wraps social learning and digital tools around traditional texts. Pearson’s myWorld makes geography come alive. Esther Wojcicki’s approach to journalism at Palo Alto High is a great example of cultural literacy in action—see her students’ publications including The Paly Voice as evidence.

Specific to civic literacy, I’m encouraged by game-based approaches like Florida Virtual’s Conspiracy Code, Sandra Day O’Connor’s iCivics, Muzzy Lane, and media-rich approaches like Big History and The Idea of America.

7. In America we appear to have a strong emphasis on being well rounded. Einstein was someone who focused on subjects that he was interested in and tended to ignore subjects that he didn’t care much about. You mention in your book that in the future we will have a customized learning playlist much like the playlist of songs on our iPods. Do you think it would be okay if someone like Einstein loaded their playlist with pretty much one or two subjects and ignored other stuff? How do you think that would influence their achievement?

States set high school graduation requirements to promote a basic level of breadth and to give all students a shot at college and I support that commitment. I would, however, like to see secondary students have more opportunities to dive into areas of interest. Customized playlists that build knowledge and skill should allow more time for project-based learning shaped by interests.

College allows more degrees of freedom in course selection. However, I think the return on investment from college is declining as costs continue to escalate at obscene rates. As Anya Kamenetz points out in DIY U, the quality and variety of informal learning opportunities is exploding. In some job categories, certification and badge systems are becoming as valuable as degrees.

Just-in-time management and tech training of the sort you can receive at General Assembly will increasingly replace traditional just-in-case business degrees. Why get an MBA when you can start a company and get just-in-time support? Why take a crummy programming course from your local community college when you can get one free from Stanford or MIT?

In short, the explosion of informal learning opportunities is making it far easier for young Einstein’s to explore and exploit areas of passion and I think that’s great.

8. I understand that you’ve spent some time in China and India. What are your thoughts on the role of culture in valuing education in those countries compared to the United States? Do you think this has any connection to the results between the countries in international comparisons on math, science, and reading tests such as the Program For International Student Assessment (PISA)?

The most notable difference between the U.S. and high performing counties—and the one we don’t talk much about—is the nearly universal academic press. Even in developing countries, there appears to be a more uniform expectation and family support system than there is in the U.S. Sure we have Tiger Moms, but we have a big percentage of students growing up in dysfunction and poverty. And the middle of the American bell curve are families that just want their kids to be happy and underestimate the demands of the idea economy. Culture matters and, for the most part, Americans don’t value high levels of academic achievement.

Top performing countries hire teachers from the top of college cohorts. They offer competitive wages and collaborative working conditions. We typically don’t. However, new technology-rich school models will change that by creating team-based employment with differentiated levels and data-driven collaboration. Technology will help leverage great teacher talent and will offset some of our lackadaisical academic attitude.

9. At age 26, you mentioned you started your own consulting company that eventually failed but that you learned much from that experience. Could you tell me more about your thoughts on how failure plays a role in later successes? What about the role of failure in personally valuing those successes?

Our consulting company worked with a wide range of startups. We wrote them all a ‘hockey stick’ business plans but nothing ever worked out exactly as planned—for us or for our clients. My partner died of a heart attack and left a personal mess—so, pick your partners well and have a Plan B.

Venture capital values the lessons from failure. It values tempered judgment. A couple of startups will teach you to be a better systems thinker because you’ll experience things that you didn’t expect.

Most schools don’t really encourage kids to stretch or risk. The college entrance racket gives kids the impression they need to get an A in every class, so many don’t stretch and take the most challenging courses. School teaches kids to follow the rules and regurgitate knowledge, not to try things and build things.

10. You’ve been blogging daily now for quite some time and you discuss in Getting Smart how it has had an important impact on your writing and thinking. Could you expand on this?

For about 30 years I kept a journal. It was a good habit of personal reflection particularly while serving as a public school superintendent. Blogging offers the same reflective opportunity but with the added dimension of public feedback. The commitment to write every day makes me more metacognitive about sector trends and my own learning.

For these reasons, I think students should blog every day about their learning—I’d like to see all high school students write at least 400 words every day with formal feedback at least weekly. One of my favorite schools required students to write their advisor a reflection every week. The advisors wrote every student back. The four-year correspondence file provided a rich chronicle of a learning journey.

11. What do you think the role of technology will be in finding the next Einstein?

The shift to personal digital learning is the shift to Big Data. With 10,000 keystroke days, we’ll know far more about every student. It will certainly make it easier to spot specific needs and real genius.

With a 24/7 connection, every student will have far better access to learning with no limits. We’re already seeing middle school students cruise into calculus with Khan Academy. I’m excited to see what young people can do without the limits of the traditional system. When competency-based environments are widely adopted it won’t be unusual for 15-year-olds to be doing what we currently consider college-level work.

In addition to being better equipped to find the next Einstein, learning technology will boost IQ levels worldwide. I suspect EdTech will at least double the historical growth rate of about three IQ points per decade.

© 2011 by Jonathan Wai

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