Sunday, February 17, 2013

Is this the most exciting time in education history?

"It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine."


The potential for innovation and new solutions to deliver education has never been so high.  Traditional learning models, like those many of us grew up with, are being transformed.  It seems every few months a new idea for learning is being introduced.  In just the last few years, we’ve seen examples such as, distance learning, blended learning, personalized learning, and flipped classroom models take off.  Many in the education world believe we’re just getting warmed up!  I am optimistic because the capabilities technology and the web deliver are creating powerful tools that will continue to advance and become more readily available to everyone. 

During this time of transformational innovation, it is critical we keep our focus on learning and not on technology.  We have to make sure we aren’t just automating education, and/or making it more efficient.  Turning a textbook into a etextbook or moving from delivering a lecture in a class to delivering a lecture on video are examples of what I mean. 

I am passionate about education because I know first hand that education can be the silver bullet for millions of children and their families living in poverty.  Education has the potential to break the cycle of poverty in just one generation.  I believe this because like countless others I’ve met throughout my journey, I am living proof.  

The worry I have is that the education I received isn’t suitable for the world we live in today and not nearly suitable for the world we are constructing.  It’s an absolute certainty that students are going to need more advanced skills.  For example, we often talk about collaboration and global competency skills.  Today, we can work with anyone, anywhere in the world but our schools are still treating students as individuals who must work alone.  What would you do if you were a teacher and two students walked up to the front of your class, handed you a test, and said, “We did this together!”  Why is collaboration cheating? 

We need to make sure their learning experiences provide them the relevance and engagement they need as they build the skills for the future. It’s more than just building digital citizenship skills; they need to become digital leaders. 

In order to make this a reality, we need to focus on three key areas.   

First, we need to make sure schools have adequate broadband access.  We would never run a school without lights or heat.  For many schools, Internet access is considered a “nice to have” commodity, not a necessity.  Yet our education system is preparing students for a world where the Internet is ingrained into higher education, business practices, and our daily lives in general, a world where many of the latest teaching tools run on the web.  

Second, we need to leverage the power and prevalence of the web as we create new learning models.  Most students nowadays are growing up with the understanding that the web is where they go to get the knowledge and resources they are looking for.  By recognizing that how we learned is different than the way our children learn, school leaders can take advantage of the habits this tech-literate generation have developed.  This became painfully clear to me when my daughter and I were buying her a ukulele when we visited Hawaii a couple of years ago.  As we were leaving the store, I noticed instruction books and DVDs on how to play the ukulele.  I asked my daughter if she wanted to pick some up so she can learn how to play (after all, that was how I learned).  She looked at me like there was something wrong with me.  Of course, she doesn’t need an instruction book or DVD.  She is going to learn by watching YouTube videos.  As educators, we are starting to understand the impact the web can have.  Videos, web applications, interactive content, and collective pools of knowledge make the world’s information accessible from multiple devices 24 hours a day seven days a week.  

Third, we have to put tools in the hands of teachers and students so that they can access the rich content of an ever-expanding web.  School administrators need to choose devices that not only give students and faculty access to that content, but that are also pain-free and easy to use.  The devices have to be near invisible so that the focus remains on the teaching and learning, not the technology.  What school leaders need is to think about is what happens when you go from having 30 computers in a classroom, to 30,000 in a school district.  How you scale and how you manage the technology is a critical part of planning how to integrate it into the curriculum.  Just as important, we have to let teachers develop the knowledge, skills, and abilities to take advantage of these tools.  Today’s teachers are the ones who are going to create the new learning models we will use for generations to come!  Great professional development has never been so important.

This is an exhilarating time in education.  I know if we continue to be innovative and open to new ideas, education can be the silver bullet it was for me.  I am looking forward to watching the traditional model expand into engaging and relevant methods that will prepare our students to live in what is becoming the most stimulating and exhilarating time in history!


  1. I agree with your statements, and I believe we are already moving into the educational world you envision In our school district (Clarkstown Central School District in Rockland County, NY), we remain focused on effective student collaborations and minimizing the “work alone” model of learning. However, there is room for individual assessments, as these provide data to teachers on each child’s strengths, areas of needed improvement, and growth. As our professional development opportunities expand, more and more of our teachers are engaged in current learning theories and expect their students to collaborate beyond the classroom. The “test”--preferably called our assessment of student learning-- is often collaborative; generally a Google Presentation, video, or website they use as the final format to share with others the information they have mastered and/or created! To get to that final product, they've collaborated using Google Apps and other web tools to gather information, to question what they've read, and to collectively master the content.

    Of course, none of this happens without a robust infrastructure and strong leadership. To ensure the tools are available, we've encourage students to bring their own devices to school and use in class. Though not a perfect model, we have math and science classes that require such tools as part of the daily learning experience (devices are provided for those who do not have them). We switched Internet providers, increased our Internet bandwidth to 300mb/s, and are nearly finished with our upgrades to 802.11n wireless. At times this has meant sacrifices in other budget areas such as supplies (i.e. access points rather than print cartridges), but our focus is where it belongs; student learning.

    For an increasing number of our teachers, these expectations for student learning have become a central part of their practice. I’m sure some of our teachers can share strong examples of such learning.

    Despite this explosion of collaborative learning opportunities, the promise of anytime/anywhere learning needs to include online tools that allow a student to review math or science concepts at his/her own pace. There is room for online tools that allow a student to review a lecture, a context to which many are accustomed, to take advantage of structured virtual labs and to measure their knowledge against an assessment that is closely aligned to their learning goals. By discovering what they have not mastered, they can go back and explore further rather than simply move on because time and a jammed curriculum demand it for other students. This is vital to our students, as to do otherwise is to suggest that in real life we get only one chance to master content rather than an opportunity to go back and learn more.

    Teachers need these resources to share with students, including the ability to turn on/off content and provide a focus on specific areas. This does not rob the student of the opportunity to learn (i.e. use other web tools) but it does provide a focus that aligns to an established curriculum. This benefit students and teachers, as it is a model to which they are accustomed, and can provide a scaffold into the wealth of other learning and collaborative opportunities. In my role, I continue to review available tools that have thoroughly developed content, aligned to the Common Core State Standards, easy customization for teachers, and rich and editable text, video, assessment, and virtual labs.
    By blending collaboration, self-directed learning, quality resources, and the necessary tools/infrastructure, we can provide students those opportunities that were not previously available and which make learning so much more that teacher led instruction. Or, to use your words, "engaging and relevant methods that will prepare our students to live in what is becoming the most stimulating and exhilarating time in history!"

  2. Thanks for the post! I love meeting others who are as thrilled as I am about living during this time which offers such innovation in education. To add to this, I think society is coming to a "tipping point" where the general public will be in favor of a new design for education.

    Education is meant to gear students to achieve the extraordinary - supplying them with the skills to survive and prosper. The Industrial Age is over and fewer factory workers are needed. The economy now relies on global citizenship and conceptual thinking.

    Imagine a world where students graduate high school already having worked with a team of classmates from around the world. It's a beautiful thing.

    Thanks again for such inspirational writing.