It’s 2013. Ebooks have been around since 1971. Yet tens of millions of students in kindergarten through college are still hauling around piles of heavy, quickly outdated paper textbooks that cost anywhere from $30-$200 per subject, per student.
Open educational resources provide a free digital alternative to traditional books. Boundless, a startup that’s two and a half years old, offers students an easier way to find and access these materials. Boundless has organized free digital resources aligned to popular textbooks in 21 common subjects. Students just have to look up the ISBN of their assigned book, and instead of paying $100-$200 they pay $19.99 to access equivalent material plus interactive study aids like flashcards and quizzes from their tablet, smartphone and laptop. Two million students use the platform each month, at the high school and college level.
Today, Boundless is launching a set of tools to speed adoption by educators. The Boundless Teaching Platform is free for teachers. They can customize content by chapter or section, assembling virtual “packets” for their students, and access a set of features such as assigning readings or quizzes and monitoring students’ progress, or creating presentations with shareable content.
There are a lot of new and old companies offering new takes on textbooks, from digital versions to renting used books, but Ariel Diaz, founder and CEO of Boundless, says that most of his competitors are still pegged to the old business model, preventing real change for students.
“The structure of the market doesn’t allow for much innovation. It’s a traditional oligopoly–the top five publishers have 80% of the market and control the distribution.”
Most of the new startups, like Kno, Inkling, Chegg, or Benchprep, are licensing content from the big publishers, so price points remain high–$80-$100 for an ebook, say. Flatworld Knowledge, a startup that initially offered free books under open license, abandoned the openness in favor of traditional copyright and a $19.99 price point. Boundless’s relationship to the market incumbents is clear: The startup is currently fighting a lawsuit alleging “copyright violation, unfair competition and false advertising,” by three of the big five textbook publishers.
On the other hand, in the “open” category alongside Boundless, Lumen Learning offers consulting services to districts to help them adopt open materials, and the Saylor Foundation and CK-12 offer free and open educational resources for K-12 teachers to adopt.
“We haven’t seen a lot of product innovation in the textbook world,” Diaz says. “But I do believe we’re on the cusp of it.”
In order for free and open digital textbooks to really penetrate the K-12 market, some serious public policy change is needed. The public school textbook and materials market was estimated at $5.5 billion in 2010, the second-largest category in publishing after general trade books. But 90% of the books are bought using taxpayer money through the lengthy and bureaucratic procurement process, as opposed to higher ed where textbook adoption is up to the professor. Some innovative K-12 teachers may already have the wherewithal to do an end run around the traditional textbook, and startups like Boundless will make this easier. But the long term solution will require public initiatives like those in Utah, California, Florida and elsewhere to promote, and perhaps even require the use of open textbooks.
A recent paper published in Developmental Science reinforced how tactile experience is important to learning in the developing brain. The experiment looked at how toddlers in a high chair learned the names of novel (edible) substances. Those who were allowed to get their hands dirty, quite literally, exploring the texture of the different samples, picked up the names more quickly and remembered them longer.
How could this apply to the world of video games? Games are drawing wide interest as a tool for both learning and assessment, as I’ve written about here and here. But while they engage the senses of vision, hearing, and hand-eye coordination, they usually have left out the sense of touch. Until now.
CogCubed is a video game startup that uses Sifteo Cubes, an interactive game system developed at MIT that consists of a set of small cubes that look like tiny TV sets, each with a screen. When you move, stack or tap the cubes they communicate wirelessly and the image on the screen changes in response. This system is known as a “tangible user interface,” a takeoff of “graphical user interface,” which is the term for the icon and window image navigation we are all familiar with from most computer operating systems.
The thought is that interacting with the cubes in three dimensions will be more engaging for both children and adults than using a keyboard, mouse, or other controller. According to CogCubed founder Kurt Roots, TUIs have been shown to be easier to learn than traditional GUIS, and they also tend to increase problem solving behaviors and improve spatial cognition.
CogCubed has created a game called Groundskeeper that looks a little bit like the old arcade game Whack-a-Mole. The company holds several patents relating to the capture and analysis of behavioral information while players are interacting with the game system.In a pilot study at the University of Minnesota, the game demonstrated surprising power to diagnose ADHD as people play. It could accurately detect the condition 75% to 78% of the time, an improvement over other existing methods. The success is not surprising given the level of detail: the system takes note of what the player is doing every one-tenth of a second for 30 minutes, for 30 different variables.
Clinical trials are continuing; CogCubed is pursuing FDA approval as a medical device to diagnose, and eventually treat, not only attention disorders, but other conditions affecting what is called “executive functioning” in the brain: anxiety, depression, autism spectrum disorders, traumatic brain injuries and Alzheimer’s. Clearly this is a growing area of research; how long do you think it will take before these devices and games are part of mainstream classroom practice?
In America, 6.4 million children have been given diagnoses of attention disorders. That’s 11 percent of the school-age population. Annual production of Ritalin-like drugs has quadrupled since the 1960s, and millions of children are taking these powerful stimulants every day.
Some argue that this “epidemic” is in fact an artifact of a test-driven, high-stakes, high-pressure school culture. Parents are eager to diagnose kids to get them extra resources, extra time to take tests, or simply an educational edge, and schools can exempt themselves from test targets if they have more kids classified as “disabled.” A.D.H.D. diagnoses spiked 22 percent in the first four years after No Child Left Behind.
Regardless of the broader context, kids and families are clearly suffering. Sandra lives in Newton, Massachusetts and is the mother of a 9 year old boy who’s had trouble in school, both with behavior and grades, since kindergarten.
“It’s painful when your kid comes home and says, I feel like the dumbest kid in the class because all the other kids know the answers,” she says. “He tells me, Mom, when I’m in school I have a really hard time paying attention. I go into the clouds and I miss what the teacher said and I have to ask my friends to tell me what just happened.” Despite these problems, Sandra has been reluctant to medicate her son. She was happy to have the opportunity to enroll him in a clinical trial of a new technological solution, Atentiv.
Atentiv is, essentially, a video game with a brain-computer interface component. To play the game, children strap a headband around the forehead that uses an EEG to measure the brain’s pattern of electrical signals and transmits them wirelessly to the computer via Bluetooth. First, the player goes through a calibration process that measures the unique “signature” of the individual’s brainwaves in concentrating and distracted conditions while completing the Stroop Task, a common test of concentration.(Previous studies support the presence of unique EEG patterns for children diagnosed with ADD).
Once the system is calibrated the user plays a game that involves a character running through a landscape to complete tasks. When the player is distracted, the character slows down; the more she concentrates the faster the character moves. The result is something like a form of biofeedback–young children get an object demonstration of “growth mindset.” They grow in awareness of what distraction and concentration feels like, and they also grow in their sense of being able to control their mental state for better performance.
For Hayden, Sandra’s son, who took part in the clinical trial three times a week for 8 weeks, the results were dramatic. “I really saw a tremendous difference both at home and at school. I was thrilled.” Hayden’s handwriting got neater. His sleeping habits improved. His homework got better. His teacher was no longer calling with discipline problems. He got along better with his sister and with friends. He was easier to get out of the house in the morning.
Hayden is not alone. Trials of the Atentiv System have shown sustained improvements in 75-85% of children, as rated by parents, standardized tests, and direct measures of the brain waves. In this study, parents noticed significant improvement in inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive symptoms six months after the treatment began.
It’s hard to say how much of this is due to the futuristic wonders of neurofeedback technology, and how much of it is a placebo effect. The researchers in this independent study noted that the study did not have a control group that, say, played a regular video game, and the parents all knew that their kids were in the treatment condition, which may have caused them to exaggerate the positive effects.
Atentiv’s founders are not initially seeking FDA approval for their technology, so they can’t make outright claims about ADHD. Instead they are launching early next year with a consumer product aimed at parents who want a solution for their kids without drugs. CEO Eric Gordon is confident that the technology will eventually lead to clinical products for treating not just ADHD but memory and abstract reasoning, in children, adults and the elderly.
Sandra’s explanation for her son’s improvement is not about the technology itself, but about the broader message of the game.
“It’s all about self-esteem,” she says. “For Hayden, it helped him realize he was capable. And also, just the way the game and training materials talked to him about it: saying there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re not dumb. Look, your brain is like a Ferrari and we’re going to teach you to look at the green and red light.”
Brendan Campbell teaches at Southeastern High School in Detroit, which is under the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan, a statewide recovery district for schools consistently in the bottom five percent according to test scores. In other words, it’s a failing school in a violent, poor, bankrupt city. But this fall, Campbell and his collaborators have used meager resources to construct a new approach to truly student-centered learning that is drawing interest and acclaim from educators and reformers all over the country: The Preparatory Academy at Southeastern, or PASE.
PASE students spend five hours of their school day in a big open space that’s been designed to feel like a college library, with quiet spaces for individual work, and places to meet with teachers or in groups. This time is theirs to prioritize and allocate over their core courses and up to two electives. The curriculum, based on the Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards and Michigan state standards, has been broken into manageable chunks–a set of learning targets in each subject, written in student-friendly “I Can” statements. Students move at their own pace towards mastery of each target through a sequence of ”learn, practice, apply, assess.”
On a given day, students could choose to attend a “scheduled learning opportunity,” such as a lecture or a science demonstration; watch a video of a previously recorded lecture by their teacher or a curated resource from elsewhere on the web; work on a group research project; or review peers’ work with reference to a rubric. At the “assess” stage of each target, they take a 3 to 10 question formative assessment. They must score at least 75% to get their “exit ticket” and move on to the next target; otherwise, they’ll conference with a teacher on what went wrong, and go back to pursue mastery. Over the course of each unit, the students also work in groups to complete interdisciplinary performance assessments. In this first semester, students researched the science, ecological, health, and community benefits of planting a garden on campus and presented the case to the administration.
The planning process for teachers within PASE is novel. “When I used to make lesson plans it was focused on: I have 50 minutes to fill, if an activity takes 40 minutes, what happens for the last 10? That can mean a lot of busywork or wasted time,” says Campbell. “Now we’re only concerned about what is necessary in order to truly learn and master the content. Really, that’s a more productive use of student and teacher time.” Each student will be getting a different combination of direct instruction, reading, video, and more, so all the resources, and assessments, must be carefully curated to ensure that each student has access to what they need.
Each student has a laptop, and the program uses an online learning management system to help everyone keep track of students’ progress, but online is not the main focus. ”We wanted it to be truly blended so there would be online and in-person components,” says Brendan Campbell. “Students always have a choice.” Students have the choice of up to two online electives during their PASE time, and have chosen from dozens from Psychology to Art History.
PASE isn’t designed for the strongest students in the school. Many must use their elective time to retake failed classes online–the average incoming reading level at the school is 4th or 5th grade. Students were asked to apply, and teachers were also asked to help identify those who they thought could benefit from the flexibility of the program and the chance to take ownership over their learning.
“One thing we’re struggling with is, do we hold all students to the same pace even thought they’re at different ability levels?” says Campbell. “Right now we’re at uniform pacing, and we want to create individual pacing for each student.”
I think what intrigues me most about this model is the sense of autonomy, respect and trust. Urban public schools like this one, majority minority and poor, have been criticized for forming a “school-to-prison pipeline.” When someone’s experience of an institution is primarily about being forced to sit in a certain seat, to quietly listen to authorities speaking, to move from place to place at the sound of a bell, to be labeled as a discipline case if you don’t do it, and you’re never asked what you’re interested in or what you want to do, it’s hard not to see how that could interfere with motivation and learning at one’s best.
“We’re trying to build students’ understanding of how they learn, and what they need in order to be effective learners,” says Campbell. “We talk to them all the time about, ‘in college there’s not going to be a teacher telling you to be quiet.’ I’ve been blown away with how students have reacted to the level of trust and respect. They give it back to you almost all the time.” He says that students wear their PASE lanyards with pride, and are particularly proud of the many national and state visitors that the brand-new program has hosted.
On the other hand, it must be recognized that the PASE model is taking place within a grim economic and political context. They started this September with 70 students in grades 10 through 12, and ten weeks into the semester, because of staff cuts, they had to nearly double the size to 115 students. That’s with just four teachers presiding. If this model succeeds, it is possible that it might be used as an blueprint to lower student-teacher ratios in the name of hyper-efficient blended learning, which would certainly be an unintended consequence. In either case, the nation has a lot to learn from PASE’s first year.
I listened to a presentation today by the, well, brilliant Annie Murphy Paul on her new book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter. While you can read more on her blog, a big theme of the book is the idea that cognitive performance is situational. Everything from our physical environment, to how much sleep we got the night before, how distracted we are, how we feel about the person we’re talking to, and the presence or absence of electronic devices can all have huge impacts on our “intelligence,” in the context of a given task, and the variations between people from day to day can be far larger than the differences from person to person.
Of course these are ideas that most classroom teachers understand from their experience, but we don’t put these insights into practice when we are designing environments that are meant to be dedicated to learning. A big study came out recently about the drawbacks of open-plan offices, the cubicle farms that most of us are familiar with. A survey of over 42,000 workers indicated that people with individual offices were more satisfied in every possible way, from cleanliness to the visual surroundings, than those working without walls. The lack of sound privacy, or the fear of being overheard bothers 60% of open-plan office denizens, while 30% complain about the noise. Previous research shows that the sound issue hurts concentration and productivity (classroom teachers know this issue well!) Even collaboration isn’t any easier in a bullpen-style office. That’s probably because most workers resort to earphones to get anything done, and they have nowhere to hold a private conversation if they do want to talk to each other.
Of course, open-plan classrooms are the norm for kindergarten through 12th grade. A new study (sponsored by an office-furniture company, Steelcase, so take it with a grain of salt) compared students in classrooms designed for “active learning,” including dynamic grouping of seats in small and large groups, multisensory engagement at different stations around the room, as well as the use of screens and other technology, to the more traditional “rows of seats” classrooms that are all but disappearing now. “90.32% of students perceived an increase in their engagement in the class with layouts designed for active learning, 80.65% said the new layout increased their ability to achieve a higher grade, and 70.04% their motivation to attend class.”
But even with these trendier layouts, the open-plan office research indicates that something may be missing: the opportunity for students to be alone with a teacher or with their thoughts. In many schools, one-on-one tutoring has to happen in a hallway or another “accidental” space. So much classroom management effort is really spent on managing the noise-pollution issue, while sound privacy matters when a teacher needs to give a student critical feedback or just time to reflect on a question.
Where do digital devices fit into this picture? We could see students using tablets or laptops the way adults do, as a way to create zones of sound privacy via earbuds while doing solo work. But we also have to be wary that they are simply exchanging one source of distraction for another.
My fifth-grade classroom had a loft bed in the back that was a coveted spot for quiet reading and reflection time, and we would work hard to earn the chance to climb up there for a well-deserved break.What would it look like if more classrooms–or schools–built in these semi-private spaces?
IPTEdTec is a free service operated by Rick West, an assistant professor in the Instructional Psychology & Technology Department at Brigham Young University. It offers educators everywhere the materials and rubrics to certify their basic understanding of key educational technology applications, like Google Sites, iMovie, and Blogger, and concepts, like internet safety and open content licensing.
West says he started the resource to build on what he didn’t always have time to cover in the classroom. “For our pre-service secondary education majors, we only have one credit on using technology in their teaching,” he said. “We knew at one credit, we couldn’t teach them everything they needed to know.” His resource is using the Open Badges Platform created by Mozilla as a digital representation of specific knowledge that can be displayed and taken from place to place. Mozilla badges come with links to information about who is issuing the badge, and sometimes links to evidence of the accomplishments that the badge is advertising.
Badges are drawing a lot of interest in the open education world. You may be familiar with the concept from the Scouts. Unlike degrees or courses, digital badges are smaller, tied to a very specific rubric, set of skills or accomplishments. They are meant to be updated, portable and displayable, for example on someone’s LinkedIn profile. Badges are a way of recognizing lifelong learning in a world that increasingly demands it.
“The dumb thing about classes is, say someone gets a B+. What does that mean?” asks West. “Does that mean they learned a little of all the technologies, or were good at one and bombed at the rest? And which one was it? Because we change the class and update it every year. So the thing we loved about the badges is, it gets down to the nitty gritty: here’s what I can do.”
West is using the badges platform as a way to “flip” his classroom. Students can choose to complete the rubrics for the badges independently, or come to one of the class’s six weekly sections to get extra help and troubleshoot. They can use the badges to personalize their learning, choosing exactly which technologies they want to cover. And badges also seem to provide a little extra incentive to students to do a good job–what some people call “gamification.” “What we’re seeing anecdotally as teachers are better projects,” says West. ”And we have people say, Oh, I want to get the badge! We want to do some research on the motivational aspects.”
West’s plan is to add a second and third “level” to the badges. Beyond just demonstrating basic knowledge of the workings of a technology, teachers will have to create strategies for strongly integrating a technology such as iMovie into lesson plans, and finally, show evidence of actual use in the classroom.
What technologies do you find to be essential to use in the classroom? Do badges strike you as a good way to keep educators building their knowledge of new technologies?
A MakerBot is a tabletop-sized device that takes digital designs and builds them in the real world, layer by thin layer, out of a plastic-like roll of filament derived from corn. You can create or customize any design you can think of– a working prosthetic hand, or a scale model of the Eiffel Tower, or a set of chess pieces–or download someone else’s design from the Thingiverse, MakerBot’s free online library. Comparatively low-cost and easy to use, MakerBots are the popular edge of what technology observers and futurists–even President Obama–call a “new industrial revolution” of mass customization, where design is democratized and manufacturing is one day as decentralized as knowledge production has become. Plus, they’re just wondrously cool.
MakerBot CEO Bre Prettis used to teach public school in Seattle. “It’s always been a dream of mine to get this into more classrooms,” he says. This week he announced the MakerBot Academy to do just that.
Teachers who want a MakerBot for their classroom are asked to register at the educational donation site DonorsChoose. There, their project can be funded through tax-deductible donations by individual donors. The architectural software company Autodesk has also agreed to sponsor a number of MakerBots, as has the director of MakerBot’s parent company, and Prettis personally is committed to funding them for high schools in his current home neighborhood of Brooklyn. For any teacher, MakerBot is making available a package of the printer itself, three rolls of filament, and a service and support plan at $2000, a $700 savings over the retail cost.
“A MakerBot is a manufacturing education in a box; it unlocks creativity and gets kids thinking about how things work,” Prettis says. He sees the machines functioning in classrooms in a range of ways.
On a practical level, MakerBots could be a relatively affordable way to furnish a steady stream of new materials and supplies for classrooms that might not otherwise be able to afford them, from a detailed model of a human heart to simple machines for use in physics. To start out, DonorsChoose told MakerBot that one of the most commonly requested items are “math manipulatives,” the blocks, wedges, counters and other toys that help kids learn geometry, arithmetic and more. MakerBot put out a design challenge to its Thingiverse community to submit ideas for new and creative manipulatives that can be downloaded, printed and used in classrooms. It’s exciting to think about students and teachers in different communities creating and sharing their own designs for classroom purposes.
MakerBot is going to be sharing curricula created by teachers and companies like Autodesk to help teachers work the 3-D printers into lesson planning from kindergarten through high schools. Within the world of K-12 innovation, we’re oftentimes focused on the use of handheld devices with screens, but learning can be an intensely tactile process, and the MakerBot taps into that. “A MakerBot is actually a great bridge between the virtual and physical world,” Prettis says.
The Innovation Zone or iZone is a dedicated “office of innovation” within the New York City Department of Education. Since 2010 it has worked to provide professional development to teachers in blended learning and support innovative school models. Perhaps the most intriguing side of their activities is Innovate NYC Schools, which enlists New York City’s active tech community in contributing their expertise to specific school system challenges. Previous attempts along these lines include the Gap App Challenge, which solicited companies to build apps for middle school math, and a music education hackathon held in partnership with music subscription service Spotify.
For the School Choice Design Charette, which takes place tonight in Manhattan, Innovate NYC Schools decided to take a different approach. Every year, 75,000 eighth graders apply for 700 New York City high schools. The process, which involves a printed guide the size of a phone book, fairs and outreach programs, and hour upon hour of research and applications by guidance counselors, students and parents, already works pretty well; 75% of students get one of their top three choices. But Steven Hodas, Executive Director of Innovate NYC Schools, and his team wanted to see what an online resource could do to make this nervewracking process a little easier on students and families. Rather than hold an open design competition, they solicited a small group of organizations to intensively define the problem over the past few months by talking to 8th and 9th graders, their parents, and guidance counselors. The startups held user feedback sessions and panels with experts to further improve their products.
Each group will present their own online solution to the school choice challenge in tonight’s charette, a word borrowed from the world of architecture that has come to mean any intensive design process on a deadline. Students from Black Girls Code and other organizations will vote for their favorite app. The ideas of enlisting private-sector expertise and listening to what the public needs are emerging ones in urban innovation. “This was the confluence of a bunch of important things going on in NYC in general,” says Hodas, “like user centered design and crowdsourcing as a way to solve municipal problems.” The organizations competing to design the school choice app have access to the Department of Education’s first-ever open data API, a technical method of making departmental data about school location, population, graduation rates and the like freely available to an application over the web. This API can link to other open public data sets like those around transportation, safety, and health, to further complete the picture of what students can expect from Bronx Science or LaGuardia Arts. Hodas stresses that this data release has nothing to do with individuals or privacy concerns; it’s all institution-level, and already published, albeit in less usable form. “It enables future things we don’t have to sponsor: data visualization, policy analysis, and ideas we haven’t even come up with yet.”
#OpenEd2013 is the tenth annual installment of the premiere conference of the open education community, taking place right now in Utah. Open education is currently contested territory, with divisions highlighted yesterday by a flatfooted keynote from Andrew Ng, cofounder of Coursera, that played out to a baffled chorus of mockery on Twitter. Amid the jibes, there’s a serious issue at stake: will the future of education be dominated by a few closed platforms, and limited approaches to teaching, learning and knowledge, or will truly open innovation prevail?
Open education was first most closely identified with OER–digital educational resources such as MIT’s Open Courseware that carried an open license, such as the Creative Commons license, allowing them to be freely shared, reused and remixed. For self-identified open and connected educators, though, mostly from the higher ed world, openness wasn’t just a technical designation. They were concerned with democratizing education, making it accessible to all, peer-driven rather than hierarchical, emphasizing the fluid process of learning rather than the rigid gateways of accreditation–“an exploratory, community-created knowledge building process,” in the words of Athabasca University professor George Siemens. In this spirit, Siemens and Stephen Downes ran the first Massively Open Online Course, or MOOC, in 2008, with about 25 University of Manitoba students joined by 2500 students online. The topic–a bit meta– was “Connectivism and Connected Knowledge. ”
Today, of course, the term MOOC means something very, very different. From experiments pursued by a small group of learning and teaching enthusiasts, a handful of platforms — edX, Udacity, and Coursera– have emerged with tens of millions of dollars in backing from venture funders and foundations, hundreds of university partners, and millions of users. There is a dominant format for the MOOCs published by these platforms: they run from six to 14 weeks long, and consist of short video lecture “chunks” presented often by well-known professors, interspersed with multiple-choice comprehension questions, combined with readings, often homework assignments or an exam, and forums for discussion.
Most of the MOOCs, while free to access currently, are not open-licensed–they are the intellectual property of the companies and institutions and thus can’t be downloaded, reused, or remixed freely.
Ng is the quieter of Coursera’s two cofounders. He’s also director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, which means he has a deep intellectual interest in the growing field of “educational data mining,” learning research, training computers to grade essays and tracking student engagement. Coursera, like other large MOOC platforms, offers the opportunity to learn a great deal about the learning process, at least as it plays out online.
His keynote, however, failed to address these research questions, and instead delivered a standard pitch about Coursera to people who are already quite aware of what it is. Also, unfortunately for a presentation on hybrid learning, there were technical problems.
The irony is worth underlining: the OpenEd community, whose major criticism of MOOCs is that they enshrine the one-way, rigid lecture format, was asked not to respond via the open web while Ng was lecturing to them over a video link.
Within the open education world, as summarized by George Siemens’ keynote right after Ng’s, there are a range of feelings about MOOCs–both angst and hope. This is not just a group of hipsters who are upset that their favorite band suddenly got really popular, or merely professors angry that someone is turning their life’s work into a business.
These are engaged, excited, experimental educators and learners, with values that they fear are getting lost as MOOCs get even more massive. They want their due as partners in the creation of a diverse and vital future of education.
–@GardnerCampbell Ng’s talk had no sense of or much regard for its audience. Conversation would be great, but there’s a sense + #opened13 in which xMOOCers refuse to meaningfully engage thoughtful critiques that was symbolized by what went down #opened13 — Luke Waltzer (@lwaltzer) November 6, 2013
As the K-12 “connected educator” movement grows, this debate will be increasingly relevant across all levels of education. Do we want a future where mass market MOOCs and similar digital resources are primarily prepackaged and delivered to students via a vendor-like, consumption-based model? One that enshrines the several-week course and the talking-head lecturer as the central model of education? Or will more messy, diverse, participatory models of open education have the opportunity to spread and take root? Can the two approaches interact and maybe even reinforce each other?
This was clearly a missed opportunity to raise these questions and more.
New US Department of Education numbers, reported this week, show that there’s been a 72 percent increase in the number of homeless students, pre-K through high school, in just three years, between the 2008 recession and the 2011 school year.
That means well over one million homeless children are enrolled in school in the most prosperous country in the world. This population doubtless overlaps with the country’s 400,000 foster children, and is a subset of the 31 million schoolchildren whose family incomes are low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, because their families earn below 185 percent of the poverty level ($43,567 for a family of four).
Of 56 million students total, then, in both public and private schools, it’s a safe bet–and a national shame– that a majority of them sometimes worry about getting enough to eat or having a safe place to sleep.
Why do these well-known facts bear repeating? This is a blog about education reform and educational innovation. And there’s a not-so-secret fault line in the ed-reform and innovation community. It’s not between Apple and Google, but between those who believe that education, on its own, constitutes an anti-poverty strategy, and people who believe that poverty and inequality is the bigger problem and education only part of the solution.
The higher-ed division of the argument goes like this: Some say we have a “skills gap,” that America’s future economic competitiveness and prosperity can be remedied by more relevant, employer-friendly and entrepreneurial education that allows people to make their own opportunities. Others argue that it would be more reasonable to speak of a “jobs gap”–that it doesn’t matter if you study STEM or get a JD or learn to crush code, corporations are taking a larger and larger share of profits, leaving ordinary people to scramble for poverty-wage service jobs or “gigwalking.”
In K-12, the divide is starker. “Zip code is not destiny,” says the “no excuses” movement. The rest side with legendary reformer John Holt: “Poverty is not a reading problem, and better reading won’t solve it, and it’s a cruel lie to pretend that it could or will.”
Poverty is not a technological problem either. Education is important for equality of opportunity, but it can’t stand alone. Zip codes may not be destiny, but they’re pretty damn important, and we don’t make their effects smaller by wishing them away.
Sometimes I worry that as a progressive-leaning person focused on education reform I’ve backed myself onto a ledge. If you concern yourself with transforming education, day in, day out, you’re conducting your work entirely on the territory of those for whom education is the only politically and socially palatable antipoverty policy. If you try to widen the lens, like Diane Ravitch does in her newest book, you end up talking about a vast set of ideas that have nothing to do with education as currently construed: prenatal care for poor women, mental health services, and the like.
But maybe that’s not so important. Maybe the point is just to draw a line in the sand and say: poverty is the problem. Education is just one piece of the answer. Perhaps the most important purpose of education is to equip all young citizens to challenge the order that permits an army of them to sleep in the streets.
Do you agree?