Low Cost, Scalable, Distributed & Above All: Personalized
I spend a lot of time thinking about the future, trying to figure out where the next big wave of change is going to hit. I lived through my first in the 80s, with the personal computing revolution. That gave way to others in the 90s & oughts: webs 1 and 2.0. Here in the tweens we have a new wave sweeping the globe: the smartphone and tablet computing revolution. So, what’s next?
What wave of change will this infrastructure of high-bandwidth, computationally powerful handheld devices drive? My money is on an entirely new kind of educational system. One that is low cost, scalable, distributed and, above all, 100% personalized.
‘Well-Rounded’ is a Myth
It’s no secret that our current school system—created in the industrial era out of industrial thinking—is failing us. The question is ‘why?’ Yes it’s expensive and yes it’s fraught with inefficiencies and bureaucracy and yes it believes pizza is a vegetable. But its failures boil down to something more fundamental: the system assumes each student is more or less the same ball of unshaped clay and that—to be successful—we must all become ‘well-rounded’ individuals. These are terribly false assumptions.
A typical American education requires students to soak up information equally across four subjects: math, science, social studies and language arts, with some visual art or music thrown in as budgets will allow because ‘let’s not kid ourselves, there’s no money in art or music.’ Cue patronizing laughter.§ § I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Fine Art and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Interaction Design. Before that I spent five years touring with my band. I’ve done alright for myself because I devoted my life to art and music. We handle edge-cases such as special education and gifted education by siphoning students off into classrooms that move at a different pace. The model and the material don’t change, just the speed. That’s as versatile as our current system gets.
The result? Students are apathetic. They’re bored. ‘School sux.’ And it does. It sux hardcore. Being treated like a cog in a world that’s rebuilding itself around personalization and instant, contextual access to information and experiences makes our school system more irrelevant by the month.
An educational psychology professor, Donald O. Clifton, had a hypothesis: If I’m naturally poor at math, no matter how hard I work I’ll only ever be average. If, instead, I spend the same amount of time and effort developing my strengths, the benefits will be exponentially greater. After years of interviews and testing, Clifton discovered that his hypothesis was not only true, but that as an added bonus, subjects who build on their strengths instead of shoring up their weaknesses ended up happier, with a higher sense of self-worth and a deeper engagement with their work. Building on interests and natural strengths kills apathy and increases performance. Learning becomes useful, exciting.
To identify and build on a child’s strengths, education will need to become deeply personalized. I can’t imagine any conscientious educator that would argue against more personal attention for students. It’s something we can all get behind. Yet, we haven’t been able to figure out how to make personalization scale. That’s about to change.
The current generation of low-cost, connected devices, along with a few key platforms, will finally create the ecosystem in which a low-cost, personalized and scalable education can arise.
Public Vs. Private Is Irrelevant
Whether you support public education or a sweeping privatization of education, the ideal is clear: a great educational system is one that is high quality, low cost and available to everyone. Supporters of privatization argue that competition for student dollars will lead to innovations in organizational efficiency and educational quality. I agree with that. Competition does deliver efficiency, but it also delivers stratification.
A privatized system in which higher quality resources sit behind increasingly expensive paywalls and performance walls will always benefits the monied. Always. If we truly believe in creating a country where individuals can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, then we believe in equal education for all, regardless of age, wage, race, sex, or background. You can’t have one without the other.
The real problem is this: A private education will never cost $0.00, but $0.00 is exactly the price point much of citizenry needs it to cost. It’s exactly the price point it should cost.‡ ‡ I’m a firm believer that a high quality education for everyone is the only way to continue our position as a world leader. Privatized education can’t deliver a great education to everyone. As far as the efficiencies and reach required it’s as much of a dead end as our public system has proven to be. But the ideal still remains: provide personalized educational content and coursework to anyone who wants it for as little money as possible.
Starting Somewhere: The Knowledge Commons
In order to begin solving for this new kind of education we first need a system that can amass, maintain, and deliver an incredible amount of knowledge content, while being freely accessible. There’s a model that exists for such a system: Wikipedia.§ § I should cite the web in general here, but Wikipedia is much better for this discussion because it has a much higher signal to noise ratio than the rest of the web. I truly believe the web at large is and will be the true knowledge commons which we draw upon to educate our population.
While it has been derided in the past for playing host to a number of content controversies, on the whole this knowledge commons has proved to be an incredibly useful and accurate resource for sharing and spreading information. You can find everything from an in-depth history of the Battle of Bunker Hill to a list of corporations currently in support of SOPA.
Wikipedia generates content with greater speed, higher accuracy, and lower cost than any publisher in history.‡ ‡ It’s a guess, but a confident one. It is a central vessel through which collective knowledge is curated and disseminated. It’s organized and throughly linked, creating a frictionless flow between content and content sources. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone to Wikipedia to get a quick answer and found myself falling deeper and deeper down a rabbit hole of links to other interesting articles. It is a system optimized for following what interests you.
But something is missing: a higher level context. How might a student string the best content from the web and Wikipedia together to gain a real education in algebra, World War II, french literature, or programming computer vision algorithms? How do we turn the knowledge commons into coursework?
A Coursework of the Commons
To provide context, we need a platform that allows anyone to collect and categorize content. Plenty of web collection platforms already exist: Delicious, Pinterest, Gimme Bar, Svpply and Evernote are just a few examples off the top of my head. However, this platform would encourage collections that educate and inspire rather than entertain or impress.
To make an attempt at educating, it would need some distinct features. The sequencing of the content within each collection would be vital. With which piece of content should I start? With which should I end? Which content pieces are crucial and which are added insight? Assessment and achievement frameworks would be needed with each collection. Members should be able to construct and curate supersets around major subjects like biology by bringing together collections on topics like cell-division and scientific naming schemes. For a student, working through a superset might equate to finishing a year of school in the subject.
Khan Academy, Sophia Pathways, and Knewton are all attacking the curriculum problem in one form or another, but most are generating both the content and the content connections internally. It’s a good place to start as the value of online learning platforms is still being proven, but they’re resigning themselves to outmoded teaching and publishing models. They’re missing the real opportunity.
The most efficient way to source and maintain a coursework is by following Wikipedia’s model. Provide the right incentives and compulsion loops to drive creation as well as checks and balances to maintain quality content and you accomplish the end result at a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the time. Just as Wikipedia has amassed and maintained knowledge of the commons, so too can this platform amass and maintain a coursework of the commons.
The Personal Lens
“The rise of online learning carries with it an unprecedented opportunity to transform the schooling system into a student-centric one that can affordably customize for different student needs by allowing all students to learn at their appropriate pace and path, thereby allowing each student to realize his or her fullest potential…” 1
We’re getting smarter about data; both how we collect it and how it influences our experiences. The only way for a personalized system to scale is through intelligent use of data. It starts with a student profile that assesses what kind of learner I am. This profile would gauge what my strengths, interests and challenges are.
Once that’s established in an uniform way, my experience can be connected to the experiences of others like me, all around the world. Content can be recommended to me based on the success of others who share my profile. In turn, the content and connections I find success in can be recommended to others with similar profiles or interests. The success of one can lead to the success of many.
By building the platform around the student you can recommend learning pathways instead of dictating curriculum. It amounts to a zero-friction mechanism for students to study what they find valuable and build on their inherent strengths. It also enables some incredible new possibilities. An impoverished student, for zero cost, could follow the education of a wealthy student blessed with the world’s best tutors. An avid science student could follow in the educational footsteps of his favorite astronaut or nobel laureate.
Tying personal goals together with successful pathways to achieving those goals creates an ecosystem where students feel like they’re working toward something, not just taking exams in a scholastic vacuum. Learning becomes applicable. Visualizing the educational process provides additional motivation. By depicting the milestones passed and milestones ahead, you give students a sense of building accomplishments every step of the way. Such a system begins to tie into the powerful game mechanics that have made games like World of Warcraft so engrossing.‡ ‡ Though earning ‘experience points’ alone doesn’t amount to a full game mechanic, it is one essential piece of the compulsion-loop puzzle.
Visualizing the totality of a student’s education gives them, their parents, their future employer and their nation a truer portrait of their skills. It shows their passions, their strengths and their weaknesses. Having such a wealth of data to visualize would help us move away from using diplomas as a stand-in for an education toward visualizing the shape and character of the education itself.
The Distributed Classroom
But weren’t we talking about the proliferation of inexpensive, connected, handheld devices? Yes, we were. Let’s get back to that.
With a personalized coursework of the commons available any time and any place, directed content and assessment can be provided outside the classroom setting. Students will be able to learn from anywhere: from the home, a public library, a place of business or from a public or private educational institution. Anywhere a sufficient wireless signal can be found, a personalized and contextual learning experience can be delivered. Awesome.
We’re nearly there, but as Devin Coldewey pointed out in his recent Techcrunch article: “Students must learn, true, but they must also be taught.”4 So what effect will all this have on the role of the teacher? One of the bigger challenges facing our educational system is a lack of human resources. There just aren’t enough great teachers to go around. There are a few brilliant individuals who manage to put up with the less than stellar paycheck and working conditions. But even when they do our current system tragically limits their reach: thirty students per period, six to eight periods a day. That’s two hundred and forty students a year if they’re running themselves ragged. Finding a way to scale the reach of our teachers is a daunting hurdle.
It is exactly the proliferation of inexpensive, powerful, connected devices that will finally change that. These devices will enable teachers to hold court in thousands of locations around the world, simultaneously. Apple’s iTunes U, a source of free, pre-recorded college lectures from some of the most esteemed universities in the world, has had incredible success on mobile devices:
“It seems that mobile devices have had a huge part to play in the surge in popularity of iTunes U, doubling its number of downloads in the past year… recent figures show that almost a fifth of the Open University’s iTunes U visits arrive via an iPad.” 2
In the hands of students, these portable, robust devices will allow teachers to live-stream their lectures anywhere in the world while receiving real-time questions and feedback from students listening in. Does that seem overwhelming? Well, imagine the time a teacher would save if he/she didn’t have to deliver the same lecture to six to eight classes a day. If the lecture were only delivered once, the teacher could instead focus on fielding student questions and providing one-on-one attention where needed. “When a teacher doesn’t have to be consumed with delivering content they can become a coach and a tutor to the students and help them on an individual basis.” 1
Courtney Cadwell, a teacher in the Los Altos School District uses a “blended” teaching approach, combining Khan Academy’s brilliantly composed online lectures with various in-person instruction and tutoring:
“When the Khan Academy aligns well with our 7th grade pre-algebra curriculum, I find myself using the Flex Model by allowing Sal Khan to deliver the direct instruction via his online videos as I provide support by way of one-on-one tutoring and flexible grouping based on student needs.” 3
Such a system relieves the redundancies necessary in a closed classroom model without making teachers redundant. Talent can finally begin to scale. In such an environment, the role of the teacher will shift from recitation to inspiration. As Dr. Christensen puts it: “…Rather than everybody having to put up with crummy teachers, everyone can learn from the best.” 1
A system like this benefits our best teachers because it’s a system that desires content shapers and connectors, not just content delivery drones. In such a system, tenure isn’t a privilege bestowed through bureaucracy, it is a long-lasting relevancy earned through incredible dedication to shaping and delivering knowledge.
At Long Last: A Conclusion
With primary education incubators like Imagine K12 and the overwhelming number of web-based education startups that have sprung up in the past couple of years, I have no doubt that the next wave in education is close. However, to truly reinvent the educational system these startups will have to confront inefficiencies across the entire bureaucracy. Industrialism in education has proved to be a corporatizing force, requiring us all to fit a particular mold. I believe technology is inherently an individualizing force, driving personalization and the empowerment of both individual students and teachers.
It’s tough to paint a detailed portrait of such a vast system in a blog post (even a long one) but I truly believe that our next educational system will be composed of the three core platforms discussed above: a content commons, a coursework commons, and a social profile serving to personalize the experience every step of the way.
Nothing is ever free and the system envisioned above is no different. There will remain facilities costs, teaching professionals to pay and IT infrastructure costs. Still, such a system would enable dramatic operational and bureaucratic efficiencies while providing clear, data-driven means for compensating teaching professionals and content creators commensurate with the value they generate. It is a system that empowers everyone to share what they know and for teachers to spend more time directly connecting with students.
Regardless of whether a single prediction I made above comes true, it’s clear that we will continue to bring more and more technology into the classroom and more and more of our classroom activities onto the web. The question isn’t really whether or not it will change the face of education. The question is, how quickly will we allow these changes to take place?
- Courtney Boyd Myers. Clayton Christensen: Why online education is ready for disruption, now. The Next Web. November 13, 2011.
- Paul Sawers. The Open University is number one on iTunes U, surpasses 40m downloads. The Next Web. October 3, 2011.
- Courtney Cadwell. Ideas for a Fresh Start. Los Altos School District Blog. August 19, 2011.
- Devin Coldewey. ‘If I Were A Poor Black Kid’ Inadvertently Touches On Sad Education And Tech Truths.. Techcrunch. December 14, 2011.
- Chikodi Chima. Education is the next startup Gold Rush, Silicon Valley will be at its heart. The Next Web. July 27, 2011.
- Hermione Way. Could Udemy give a Stanford level of education to anyone with a laptop and wifi connection? The Next Web. February 11, 2011.
- Matthew Panzarino. An educator’s thoughts on using iOS 5 features in an iPad classroom. The Next Web. June 21, 2011.
- Drew Olanoff. The future of education lies in technology. The Next Web. October 21, 2011.
- Courtney Boyd Myers. How the Internet is Revolutionizing Education. The Next Web. May 14, 2011.
- Alex Wilhelm. How Technology Has Changed Education. The Next Web. January 5, 2011.
- Patrick Gibbons. Technology Cannot Disrupt Education From The Top Down. Techcrunch. December 18, 2011.
- Academic Earth: http://academicearth.org/
- Blueteach: http://www.blueteach.com/
- Codecademy: http://www.codecademy.com/
- Educreations: http://www.educreations.com/
- Edufire: http://edufire.com
- Eduvant: http://eduvant.com/
- Goalbook: https://goalbookapp.com/
- Grockit: https://grockit.com
- Imagine K12: http://www.imaginek12.com/
- Khan Academy: http://www.khanacademy.org/
- Knewton: http://www.knewton.com/
- Open Culture: http://www.openculture.com/
- Open Study: http://openstudy.com/
- P2PU: http://p2pu.org/
- Skillshare: http://www.skillshare.com/
- Sophia Pathways: http://www.guaranteach.com/
- Students of Fortune: http://studentoffortune.com/
- Udemy: http://www.udemy.com/
- WizIQ: http://www.wiziq.com/