Sal Khan, Daphne Koller, Anant Agarwal, and the Schools of Tomorrow

The New York Times Schools For Tomorrow Conference

Sal Khan at The New York Times Schools for Tomorrow Conference, September 17, 2013.

As usual, the annual New York Times Schools for Tomorrow conference boasted a strong lineup of businesspeople, policymakers and academics on the pulse of educational innovation, performing for an audience of prematurely jaded journalists, ostentatiously Luddite faculty members, and businesspeople who thought their own companies should have been lauded from the stage.

MOOCs for the 90 Percent

Daphne Koller of Coursera, Sal Khan of Khan Academy, and Anant Agarwal of edX talked about the potential of their free course platforms, not as one-way broadcasters of video, but as analytics environments that collect vast amounts of data on the learning process and feed it back to curriculum developers for analysis. On the other hand, Dean Florez, of the 20 Million Minds foundation, was unsparing in pointing out that MOOCs as they exist today are not optimized to help the students he called “the 90 percent”–the nontraditional, working-two-jobs, first-in-their-families-to-go-to-college–the ones who truly need the convenience and affordability of online ed. Referencing the San Jose-Udacity pilot in which MOOCs offered to high school students in collaboration with San Jose State posted dismal pass rates, Florez said, “We need to dig in and work with the real students.”

The CEO Checkup

Alec Ross, formerly Hillary Clinton’s technology guru at the State Department who focuses on digital divide issues, made a point I hadn’t heard before in quite this way. He brought up the analogy of the “CEO Checkup,” a superpremium health care visit for an executive whose health is deemed to be of strategic interest to a company’s future, which costs tens of thousands of dollars and results in an overload of data. The fear is that wealthy parents will over-utilize the new computerized learning opportunities and diagnostics, resulting in highly individualized education programs and an even bigger edge for their kids, while poor kids struggle in schools that barely have Internet access.

The Power of Open–And Research

I was personally thrilled to see David Wiley, the pioneer of open educational content, now helping school districts and community colleges adopt free digital textbooks with Lumen Learning, and Candace Thille, who has taken her groundbreaking Open Learning Initiative from Carnegie Mellon to Stanford, on a panel about how the move to digital can, if done right, increase equity and access.

Thille in particular sounded a note that should resonate throughout the world of ed-tech. “Twenty hours in the lab can save you one hour in the library,” she quipped, pointing out that too many of the startups we see today are rushing forward with various models of instruction–game based, adaptive, what-have-you–without being grounded in an existing literature of decades of learning science. “That’s what I’ve spent the last 10 years of my life doing,” she said. “One thing we found is that learning is really complex…Once a colleague asked me, ‘why do you study learning? We all teach, it’s not rocket science.’ Well, actually it’s more complex than rocket science. Really understanding human learning at that episodic moment where you have change in thought is a complex process.”

I was bemused to hear the reaction of her fellow panelist, Karen Cator, lately of the Obama Administration, Apple, and now Digital Promise. Although she heads up a well-funded nonprofit dedicated to spreading best practices on technology and education, she seemed to dismiss out of hand the notion that published academic research could find its way into the hands of edupreneurs or decisionmakers. Karen, if you find Thille’s paper
Proofs””, too hard going, I give a quick overview in pp.120-123 of DIY U.

POSTED BY Anya Kamenetz ON September 19, 2013

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Will Richardson

I would love it if more of these folks would articulate what their definitions of learning are. We’ve simplified it to the point where any of the complexity that Thille suggests is a bug, not a feature; it’s too hard to assess and quantify so we don’t really want to spend the time to understand it. That’s not only disappointing in a professional sense; it’s really troubling when considering the way it limits our focus and energies in the classroom.

Kate Culp

Thanks for the run-down, Anya. Thille’s comment is wise – a lot of opportunity for really innovative and thoughtful experimentation is getting pushed aside these days in favor of rushing to market. Would be nice to see that change as underwhelming results emerge.

Anya Kamenetz

Will, I feel like at a higher level there’s an assumption of broad agreement about what we’d like schools to do, which may not be true.

Education in Dhaka

Its was really great. Thanks for your answer Anya.

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