Posted by michael_horn | Under Educational technology, Online learning, Schools, blended learning
Thursday May 16, 2013
Posted by michael_horn | Under Online learning, Schools
Thursday May 9, 2013
A few weeks back, I had the honor to emcee the closing awards dinner at the Education Innovation Summit in Scottsdale. The evening took a sour note though as the dinner keynote, which Andy Kessler delivered, stunned and offended the majority of the audience by essentially arguing that as digital learning rises, we won’t need teachers anymore.
The audience took to Twitter to voice vehement disagreement, and my co-emcee and I—we were just as surprised as everyone else—did our best to distance ourselves from the remarks and hit the reset button on the evening.
To be clear, inviting controversial and provocative comments with which one may disagree is entirely appropriate at an education conference. Open debate and free speech are important. In my opinion though, they belong in the context of the conference—in which people have the opportunity to debate them—not at a closing awards dinner meant to cap a once-again successful and high-spirited conference on innovation in education. For an education technology sector struggling to fight the erroneous claim by some that it’s “tech or teachers,” choosing Kessler to deliver the closing keynote at a feel-good awards dinner was tone deaf and felt like an endorsement of his message, not a speech meant to provoke debate and discussion.
What’s clear to many of us who work in the edtech field is that we need to replace the word “or” with the word “and.” As former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise often says, “Digital learning erases the line between high tech or high teach.”
With that all said, Kessler’s keynote got me thinking. He made some points with which the edtech sector—and the field of education more generally—should grapple and not simply sweep under the rug.
Kessler argued that whenever a truly transformational disruptive innovation has come along, it hasn’t just wiped out a whole set of businesses, it wipes out a whole sector of jobs. One example he gave was switchboard operators. When computerized dialing systems were introduced, they replaced the need for manual telephone switchboards and, consequently, the switchboard operators that ran them.
But what was unfortunate was the part of the story Kessler left out of his talk. Even as the shift to computerized dialing systems famously wiped out the jobs of switchboard operators, it created enormous job growth in new types of jobs that often involved more skill and paid better. There were of course the direct jobs—the people who built the switches and the switching systems and those who designed, integrated, and managed the software. But the new, better phone system also enabled new applications—ranging from simple touch-tone ordering systems to, ultimately, the Internet—which supported an entirely new set of commercial opportunities and jobs.
The omission is a big mistake because although the analogy is imperfect, there are parallels to education. As blended learning grows in K–12 education, it is not eliminating teachers, but eliminating certain traditional job functions of teachers. This change in the role of the teacher is, as others and I have noted, in part about allowing computers to do what computers do well to free up teachers to do what only humans can do.
Teachers—or whatever people in the future want to call mission-critical adults who guide and inspire students—will remain vital. But they will likely be doing different things. And we’re still learning about what those things will be.
It appears likely that there will be more room for teachers to focus on deeper learning by working with students on higher-order skills and the application of knowledge in rich projects. Teachers should spend less time handling mundane administrative tasks that suck up time and less time delivering one-size-fits-none lesson plans. Teachers will have far more time to work with students one-on-one and in small groups and target their interactions in more meaningful ways.
In many blended-learning schools today, the roles of teachers are also being unbundled. Some teachers serve as content experts and others as mentors and learning coaches. Some focus on tutoring, whereas others specialize in small-group projects or on making the learning relevant to the outside world. Still others act as case workers or counselors (but actually spend the majority of their day in the learning environment with students) to focus on the non-academic problems—like food, health, or emotional issues—that too often trip up students (and sadly receive short shrift in many schools today).
At Rocketship Education, the unbundling of a teacher’s job has helped pay teachers more. And at Summit Public Schools, they talk about teaching as a team sport. Gone are the days of isolating teachers; in are teachers working together with students in large learning environments that look nothing like classrooms.
The recent infographic, Blended Learning & The Teaching Profession, from Digital Learning Now!, nails the point when it says that “blended learning can create new career opportunities and improved conditions for teachers. As student roles evolve within a more personalized, tech-rich learning environment, teacher roles should evolve accordingly.” Most teachers in blended-learning settings say that there is no way they could go back to teaching in a traditional classroom.
So maybe Kessler isn’t completely wrong. Teaching, as we know it in today’s factory-model education system, may go away. What seems clear though is that we will need teachers, just in new roles. And to transition successfully to a student-centric system powered by digital learning, those teachers will need to be contributing in more meaningful and rewarding ways than ever before.
Posted by michael_horn | Under Education research, Educational technology, Higher Education, Neuroscience, Online learning, Schools
Thursday May 2, 2013
Nearly six years ago, I, along with Dr. Jason Hwang and my mentor Clayton Christensen, founded Innosight Institute, a non-profit, nonpartisan think tank dedicated to improving the world through disruptive innovation.
Today, I’m proud to announce that we are changing the name from Innosight Institute to the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation to signal a new era in our quest to identify innovative solutions to society’s most challenging problems. With this change, it also allows us to honor properly my mentor Clayton, the architect of the theories of disruptive innovation that remain at the heart of our work.
As he has done for so many, Clayton changed my view and understanding of the world while I was a student of his at the Harvard Business School. He then inspired me to join him in changing that world. We started together by writing a book with Curtis Johnson on public K–12 education—what became Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.
A year into the writing, Clayton pulled me aside and said: Michael I don’t want this to be just another book by an academic that looks nice, but collects dust on people’s shelves and doesn’t have impact. We need to start an organization to use the book to change the world.
And so, along with Jason, who was writing a book with Clayton about how to solve the problems that plague our nation’s health care system—what became The Innovator’s Prescription: A Disruptive Solution for Health Care—we co-founded Innosight Institute in May of 2007.
What began as an entrepreneurial adventure, has grown over the last six years into a resource for those who seek to transform the world: a source of theory to explain the road ahead and for a common language to frame the dialogue; a voice that informs policymakers and, quite frankly, one that has the privilege of researching and chronicling all the exciting innovations that the doers in the field are putting into action to create that change.
In education, the conversation over how to improve our schools has changed dramatically since we first published Disrupting Class. Transforming our schools to put each student at the center of her learning, so that each child can dare to dream and all students will realize their fullest human potential, is itself no longer a distant dream.
We have made big strides in shaping the conversation not only in K–12 education, but also in higher education. Our work helps explain the rise of such things as massive open online courses (MOOCs) and competency-based learning, as well as to frame their potential pathway for making higher education affordable and student-centric, but also to warn against possible pitfalls in the road ahead.
In health care, we have made strides in understanding how not just to allow people to afford health care, but how to make health care fundamentally affordable. We also have ventured into thinking about green energy and how to catalyze our economy to produce more jobs.
For me personally, it’s also been gratifying to build a talented team focused on solving society’s most pressing problems. Entrepreneurs often reflect on how the best part of their journey is the people with whom they work in service of a common mission. I couldn’t agree more. What started as three of us in a kitchen in Watertown, Mass., is now a burgeoning, dynamite team that makes our work a joy. Clayton has written that, “if you want to help other people, be a manager. If done well, management is among the most noble of professions.”
I can only hope the people with whom I work feel that I’ve been helpful to them. Regardless, I can’t help but think that by having the privilege to work with all of them, I have the best deal of all.
In celebrating our 5th Anniversary a few months ago, Clayton said, “From the beginning, the Institute has stayed true to its purpose.” The key to this, he remarked, was because solid theory has been at the center of our work—and using solid theory serves as “a beacon to which we can look for solutions and try to change the world in a positive way.”
As we march forward with our ambitious but clear mission—to shape and elevate the conversation surrounding society’s most pressing problems through rigorous research and public outreach to redefine the way policymakers, community leaders, and innovators address the problems of our day—those theories remain our beacon, and our new name pays homage to them and the man who brought them to light.
Posted by michael_horn | Under Charter Schools, Educational technology, Online learning, Schools, blended learning
Thursday Mar 28, 2013
It’s a busy week in education in the Bay Area in California. With the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting in San Francisco with thousands of education researchers, the NewSchools Venture Fund Summit in Burlingame with a who’s who of education leaders and entrepreneurs, the GreatSchools 2013 Summit in San Francisco, the National Education Writer’s Association’s 66th National Seminar in Palo Alto, ImagineK12’s Demo Day in Palo Alto, and more, educators, investors, policymakers, entrepreneurs, and researchers have plenty of opportunities to meet.
One of the more critical conversations occurred on Sunday to kick off the week. The topic, ironically enough though, was about a meeting that happens rarely in education.
Bror Saxberg, chief learning officer at Kaplan, organized a panel discussion at the AERA meeting about why learning scientists and educational entrepreneurs don’t connect that much. I, along with Dick Clark of USC, Kenneth Koedinger, co-director of the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center, Michael Moe of GSV Capital, Stacey Childress of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Nadya Dabby from the U.S. Department of Education, discussed not only how these conversations don’t happen, but the fundamental reasons why they don’t.
Saxberg and many others have noted that, all too often, products and services in the education market are not informed by what we know about learning. As a result, these new offerings tend to start at ground zero and do not take advantage of what’s become, over the past couple of decades in particular, a sizeable literature about how people learn and how to design optimal learning experiences.
Although learning scientists have far more to learn—and some of the biggest advances I believe will occur in the field instead of the lab given the rise of adaptive learning products—not having products informed by what’s known about learning as a starting point is often a big miss for students. Yet we see it all the time.
To take a notable example, people from the biggest of the massive open online course platforms, Coursera, often talk about how exciting it is that they can do A-B testing to learn what works. With the massive user base they have and the big data they are able to collect, there is indeed a huge potential for breakthroughs. What sort of A-B testing are they doing though? One professor, for example, tested whether showing his face during a lesson led to improved learning. What’s sad about that is that the research to answer these sorts of questions is already well established.
From a higher level, it often seems that the best business plans in education have the least interesting learning science behind them, and the worst business plans in education have the most interesting learning science behind them. On the panel, Koedinger, a co-founder of Carnegie Learning, confirmed the point when he talked about how once he and his team had brought their research-informed product to market, the majority of the market incentives encouraged them not to improve the product along its ability to help students learn.
This points to the first of the three ideas I offered in my opening remarks as to why educational entrepreneurs and learning scientists don’t talk all that much: In public education, the incentives don’t encourage educational entrepreneurs to seek out what’s known from learning science. The products that win in the marketplace aren’t necessarily those that are the best for learning, as the policies in public K-12 education in particular are focused heavily on input-based metrics that encourage compliance, but not student learning growth. As a result, seeking out what’s known about how students learn and improving products accordingly isn’t necessarily rewarded. To change this, we need to fix the demand-side problem. Moving from a policy environment that rewards inputs like seat time to one that values student outcomes in a competency-based learning environment is critical to create smarter demand.
Second, entrepreneurs sometimes suffer from the “We went to school, therefore we are experts” mentality—when in fact, what we think we know about how learning works from our experiences is often incorrect. Because entrepreneurs have this notion, they either think they can extrapolate to solve system-wide problems for which they don’t have a solid understanding of causality or they can utilize a lean startup approach and figure it out on the ground. There is a lot to be said for leveraging a lean startup—or discovery-driven—approach. But in a discovery-driven process, the goal is to identify assumptions, test them and gain knowledge as fast and cheaply as possible. Leveraging good research that has already created a knowledge base does just that. Ignoring it is a mistake.
Finally, researchers have a long way to go to help solve the problem. The catalog of sessions at AERA was the weight of a phonebook. Outside of asking Saxberg what sessions would be useful, I had no hope of navigating it. We need more education research about things that actually matter in the field and are relevant for teachers and students. We need more translation of good research into the popular domain to help people understand more widely what is the good research and what does it say. Today every company seems to have a research study that they bring to districts validating what they do. How to clarify what’s good? And we need faster research that takes advantage of the massive amounts of data we can generate about education through digital learning.
In the panel conversation, the lack of good networks, better use of the emerging edtech incubators, the structure of federal research funding, the lag-time between learning and tangible results, and other things surfaced as additional facets of the problem. In seeking to fix this, I’m curious though: what else have you observed as something that holds this back? Students await the answer.
Posted by michael_horn | Under Educational technology, Non-consumption, Online learning
Thursday Mar 21, 2013
As schools across the country adopt blended-learning models, a few clear trends are settling in, and, at the same time, some groups—like the Next Generation Learning Challenges—continue to help schools push the design envelope on what’s possible for students.
First, many schools are embarking upon a variety of design processes, RFPs from vendors and the like only to arrive at the same cluster of solutions centered around the basic models of blended learning we identified here. There is nothing wrong with that per se. Entering into a design process, for example, can help gain buy in from teachers and others in the community for adopting blended learning, which is still radically different from traditional schooling. Adopting what are becoming tried-and-true blended-learning models (yes, I know it still may be too soon to use that phrase for blended learning, but I just did it) to individualize learning for students and improve teachers’ lives is better than remaining stuck in a failed factory-based model of schooling, even if the model is not the most innovative thing ever that pushes the blended-learning field forward for students. Some standardization around a select few models—and a branding of those models—will likely be necessary ultimately to scale the practice nationwide.
The downside is that the process to arrive there can waste a lot of time and energy in reinventing the wheel, when, depending on the problem a school is trying to solve, the level of freedom it has to solve it, and the type of team it deploys to attack it, there is some predictability to the blended-learning model it is likely to adopt. Heather Staker and I are working on a white paper that will have more to say on this topic soon. But by way of an example, elementary schools are most likely to adopt Station-Rotation models or, in some cases, what some call the “Rocketship” model—which tends to be a Lab-Rotation model that emulates the basics of what Rocketship Education, a blended-learning network of charter schools, does today.
Depending on the model adopted or the framing of the problem, there is also some predictability to the groups schools might then work with to implement a solution—a further suggestion that schools ought to cut to the chase and foundations and others fostering the ecosystem should help them there. If a school plans to use a Station-Rotation model for math with one curriculum provider, for example, it will likely contract with one math vendor that provides supplemental math content—like Dreambox Learning or ST Math—or use a free solution like the Khan Academy. If it wants to work with multiple content providers on the other hand, there is a good bet it might work with a company like Education Elements, which is emerging as a leader in helping schools move to blended-learning models and offering a single sign-on software solution for schools so they can easily work with multiple content vendors. Although the company helps schools enter into a design process to rethink the use of time, teacher roles, and so forth, the basic model that most schools using Education Elements adopt tends to be pretty consistent.
At the same time, we are seeing the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), a non-profit partnership, continue to push people’s imagination of what blended-learning models might ultimately look like. I’ve written previously about its role in creating proof points capable of scaling for the field that help propel the education system more toward a fully competency-based, student-centric one, and now NGLC is at it again (full disclosure: I serve as a reviewer for their grants).
On the heels of its last effort to seed 20 new secondary school models, NGLC’s Wave IV $12 million grant program has two components to it. First, it will award 20 $450,000 grants (including matching funds) to districts, charter management organizations, or partnerships to launch new blended-learning breakthrough models, and 30 $100,000 grants to planners who are at an earlier stage in developing these kinds of models. The first grant cycle deadline is April 22, and the second is December 2. Applicants can apply on behalf of a brand-new school, a restart of a persistently failing one, or a complete redesign of an existing, higher-performing school.
There are important strands in this effort. First, despite what we’re starting to see in the field as some consistent models of blended learning that can bolster student learning, we’ve yet to see anyone create “the solution”—and we’re unlikely to ever see that I suspect. Although we have a few models that have been able to personalize learning and do a better job of instituting mastery-based learning for students, no one has figured out how to do it at scale per se yet, and there is still plenty of room for growth in student outcomes. Continued innovation in education will always be critical. A major problem today is how hard it is to innovate in education, so having groups continue to push the envelope is critical. It’s why the Silicon Schools Fund, where I’m a board member, is also playing an important role.
Second, NGLC isn’t just focused on creating great one-off proof points; it’s focused on creating next-gen schools that can scale. Too often success in education doesn’t scale. By focusing not just on the learning model at hand for students in these schools but also their business and scaling models, NGLC seeks to remedy that.
Ideally, in a few years time NGLC will have seeded a series of new schooling models that other schools themselves can adopt, in much the same way an increasing number of schools are now adopting models that have proven to be successful in the field. If that happens, scale may occur in ways we can’t predict—and may look more like an awakening to the power of putting students at the center of their learning.
Posted by michael_horn | Under Charter Schools, Educational technology, Online learning, Schools, blended learning
Wednesday Jan 30, 2013
Listening to Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, speak on stage to several hundred attendees at the 5th Anniversary Gala last week for Innosight Institute—the non-profit that I co-founded—I thought about how Clayton Christensen and I have speculated for some time that the long-term future of much of educational content will be in the business model of a facilitated network, a platform in which users essentially exchange modular pieces of educational content with each other.
As Khan explained how his team is setting up its network, it reminded me that those who are discounting the long-term value of entities such as the Khan Academy and Knewton, an adaptive learning platform, may be making a significant mistake, as both are positioning themselves to make a run at being the learning platform of the future.
A common rap heard about the Khan Academy is that it’s just a bunch of videos for homework help, nothing more. Even worse, people say, it perpetuates a failed lecture model of learning.
What these critics miss is the evolution of a disruptive innovation—and the steps that the Khan Academy is taking to improve what started as a “good enough” video solution for students who didn’t have access to a tutor.
With 6 million unique visitors a month, the Khan Academy has proved its utility. It’s now seeking to build the best system of micro-assessments anywhere that can be delivered on demand, such that it will be able to ascertain when a student has truly mastered a concept. With that in place, it will then leverage the big data that emerges from its large user base to create a platform that in real time will “learn” what type of educational experience works best for whom.
In the long run this means that Khan’s value won’t be in his videos per se, but in the data created from the system of assessments and learning map of concepts. As I’ve written, the Khan Academy has already invited teachers and MIT students, for example, to create their own videos on the platform, just as Christensen and I predicted a facilitated network would do. With a great data system and assessments in place along with a large user base, the platform will be able to start to do A-B testing between different videos to be able to personalize learning for each student.
The Khan Academy is also expanding beyond just hosting screen capture mini-lectures for students’ direct learning experiences. In its computer science programming modules that launched in August, the platform has moved more toward experimenting with helping students learn by doing. For a long time, Khan has talked about how the use of Khan Academy videos can allow teachers to move beyond lecture mode and the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy to help students engage in project-based learning and apply their learning. Now, as Khan has himself said and the move into computer science demonstrates, the Khan Academy is likely to be a place in the future that actively facilitates games, simulations, and project-based learning. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Khan Academy offering users authoring tools to build these types of experiences themselves at some point either.
Similarly, when Knewton announced in November that it was partnering with Houghton Miflin to deliver adaptive learning in math, science, and language arts to incarcerated students, a few people snickered to me and wondered why the company wasn’t going after something more ambitious in the heart of schooling.
Followers of disruption theory should have a different take. Knewton started with test prep, then moved into a partnership to deliver remedial education with Pearson for Arizona State University, and is now serving K-12 students who are in the juvenile justice system. Each case smartly targets either areas of nonconsumption, where for some students the alternative has been nothing at all, or the “low end,” where the existing system is not motivated to serve students. Both are prime areas for disruptive innovations to target to realize success.
It also allows Knewton to begin to power digital content by Pearson and Houghton Miflin that has access to millions of learners. From this, as with Khan Academy, it can begin to hone its adaptive algorithm and learn from the big data set about what works best and for whom. More publishers or online content providers may want to partner with the Knewton platform to make their content “smarter,” which should in turn increase Knewton’s utility and set off a virtuous cycle for the company. At some point then, Knewton itself could open its platform to allow any user to work with or create content for the platform, too, which could unleash a set of free tools powered by the adaptive algorithm—and voila, the robust facilitated network with modular content that we predicted would emerge in Disrupting Class and will make personalized learning for any student anywhere a reality.
Who of course knows exactly how this will play out, but I wouldn’t so easily dismiss the Khan Academy and Knewton as homework help or the small thing for incarcerated students, respectively. Better yet, keep one eye open while you sleep on the moves they make to improve education.
Posted by michael_horn | Under Education research, Educational technology, Online learning, Schools, blended learning
Thursday Jan 10, 2013
At the midway point of this year’s National School Choice Week—a celebration of effective educational options for all children—what strikes me is how much choice is on the move these days, but not just at the level of the school.
With the rapid growth in online and mobile learning, students everywhere at all levels are increasingly having educational choices—regardless of where they live and even regardless of the policies that regulate schools.
What’s so exciting about this movement beyond school choice is the customization that it allows students to have. Given that each student has different learning needs at different times and different passions and interests, there is likely no school, no matter how great, that can single-handedly cater to all of these needs just by using its own resources contained within the four walls of its classrooms.
But by leveraging online learning technologies and other such innovations, we can unbundle the different jobs that schools do for students to provide students with a myriad of high-quality choices to meet each child’s distinct needs. Rick Hess and Bruno Manno captured this important opportunity that the unbundling of schools could afford in their book Customized Schooling: Beyond Whole-School Reform. The potential for this unbundling has never been clearer than today.
With the rise of free Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) from the top universities in the world, we are seeing just how even if school leaders or policymakers are slow to grant students meaningful and affordable educational choices, students can avail themselves of a myriad of educational choices anyway. As social learning continues to gain traction, students can connect themselves to teachers, other students and a wide variety of experts in a wide variety of settings—from one-on-one sessions to rich communities regardless of where they live—to collaborate on a variety of educational projects.
With the choices available, students increasingly don’t need to make the tradeoff between attending a large school with lots of choices but perhaps lots of anonymity or a small school with limited choices but a deeply developed personal support structure. They can have the best of both worlds.
Of course, this isn’t to say that policy doesn’t matter at all, particularly at the state level where states can restrict many meaningful choices that would be helpful for a variety of learners, many of whom often are overlooked and poorly served by the traditional school system today as we wait for the disruption to touch the lives of all students. Today far too many states don’t offer students the full suite of educational choices that they could to ensure that all students have access to a high-quality education that meets their distinct needs.
States that have put in policies that allow for uncapped charter schools, which themselves are increasingly utilizing blended learning to reach all children, publicly available and uncapped full-time virtual schools, and other such options are ahead of the curve.
States like Louisiana and Utah are pushing this even further, as they have created course choice provisions that unleash a wave of opportunities for students at the level of individual courses—and pay providers in part based on student outcomes, thereby creating a marketplace centered around quality.
What’s exciting is that according to Whiteboard Advisors’ latest edition of Education Insider, 60 percent of Insiders think that states will put more, or much more, emphasis on digital learning in 2013. If that’s the case, then we’ll likely see many more states follow the bold lead of Louisiana and Utah.
Nearly all of us have had an experience where we were stuck in a class in which no matter how many times the teacher explained a concept, we just couldn’t grasp it. Our friends around us may have understood, but it just didn’t make sense to us. The class whisked along, we fell further behind, and the frustration mounted.
What if we had had the chance to take the class online, at our own pace, with concepts explained multiple ways until we grasped it? Those are the types of choices that all students should have available—and increasingly will.
Posted by michael_horn | Under Online learning, Schools
Thursday Dec 6, 2012
The potential of a competency-based (or mastery-based) education system powered by digital learning to customize for each individual student’s needs and bolster learning excites many. A question some ask though is: What about the unmotivated students? Won’t they be left behind?
Furthermore, in light of the recent publicity around the research on the importance of grit—defined as “sticking with things over the very long term until you master them”—to life success, some further suggest that although competency-based learning and blended learning are nice, unless we solve the problem of instilling grit or perseverance in all students, isn’t it true that those next-generation learning things won’t matter?
These questioners raise good questions. As we discussed in the Introduction to Disrupting Class, the fact that our education system does not intrinsically motivate a large percentage of students is a root cause of the country’s education struggles. Solving this is imperative to improving the nation’s schools.
The tenor of the questions, however, suggests that those asking them don’t understand the purpose and potential of competency-based and digital learning.
Competency-based, digital learning executed well is tailor made for the purpose of intrinsically motivating all students. This doesn’t mean that all digital learning does this well, but the best blended-learning schools today are great because they reach the students who appeared to be “unmotivated” in the old system. And if we hope to instill grit in every student, a requirement for doing it at scale is competency-based learning—in which students only progress once they have truly mastered a concept, not based on time—most likely powered by digital learning through which students come to take ownership over their learning.
A brief overview of a chapter from Disrupting Class offers some insight into motivation, which helps explain why this is (a version of the full chapter is downloadable here). With that understanding in place, we’ll turn to the question of instilling grit in students at scale.
Through the prism of the “Jobs to be Done” theory, which identifies what causes people to “hire” something through the use of their money or time in a given situation, we see that a core reason why so many students languish unmotivated in school is that education is not a “job” that students themselves are trying to do. Education is something they might choose to hire—as indicated by where they spend their time and attention—to do the job, but it is not the job.
Students broadly speaking appear to have two core jobs in their lives. First, they want to feel successful and make meaningful progress. Second, they want to have fun with their friends.
As a result, schools compete against many outside things that students can also hire to help them do those two things. Some of these include gang membership as something that students can hire to experience success and to have fun with friends; dropping out of school, buying a car, and cruising around town; joining athletic teams; and video games.
Too often schools fare poorly against these competitors as something that students can hire to be successful and have fun with friends. The primary mechanisms in most schools for doing these jobs are explicitly separated from education. Activities such as athletic teams and musical and dramatic arts performance groups, which are mechanisms for feeling successful and making progress, are “extracurricular” activities rather than “curricular” ones, which speaks volumes. The key events embedded within curricula that could help students feel successful—examinations—occur every few weeks. Students generally don’t receive feedback on how they did for another couple weeks while the teacher grades them. And when the grades are handed out, the privilege of feeling successful is reserved only for the best students. By design, the rest experience failure.
We often conclude that the top students succeed because they are motivated, and the rest languish in the middle or the bottom of the pack because they aren’t. The jobs-to-be-done perspective leads us to a different conclusion. All students are likely equally motivated to feel successful and make progress. For some, school is a viable candidate to hire for this job. This group likely includes those whose parents provide a clear link between academic achievement and career success, for example.
The students who do not hire school to feel successful are not unmotivated. They just don’t or can’t feel successful at school— often it makes them feel like failures. School does not motivate intrinsically. For these students, schools just can’t compete against other vehicles that they can hire for feeling success.
Even when children listlessly spend hours each day watching television, this is not evidence that those particular children don’t have the “feel successful” job to do. Rather, there likely isn’t anything in their lives—given their circumstances or context—that they can hire to do the job. School might cause them to feel like failures; athletic team membership might similarly cause them to feel like failures; and so on. The fact that there is no “market” in those particular homes for academic, athletic, or work activities whose “wages” include feelings of success and accomplishment does not mean that the job doesn’t exist in the lives of those children. Motivation operates through a different causal mechanism than most of us have assumed traditionally.
So how do we help students who aren’t buying what schools are selling?
Digital learning coupled with mastery-based learning is likely necessary to solve the problem at scale.
By the very nature of online learning software, achievement can be integrated seamlessly with the delivery of learning experiences in ways that help students feel successful while they learn, every day. Often this comes in the form of reviews or assessments that are built into the software, which require students to demonstrate mastery before they can move to the next body of material. Feedback can be delivered frequently and in bite-sized pieces, as necessary, to help each student feel successful.
Implementing digital learning within a competency-based learning system—where a student keeps working on a concept until she masters it—is key. There is a strong body of research summarized in Delivering on the Promise that supports these points. What it tells us is that feedback by itself is not useful—and in fact has a negative impact on student learning. Providing feedback to students, explaining why their answers were right or wrong, and then allowing students to continue to work on a problem until they have it right and master the concept produces statistically significant gains in student learning. Blended-learning models that create time for teachers to provide this type of meaningful and actionable feedback are vital.
There is also significant evidence that students’ learning is maximized when content is delivered “just above” their current capabilities—not too much of a stretch, and not too easy. Customization to the “just above” level—with the occasional stretch challenge to keep things interesting and help students feel a true sense of achievement and progress (rewarded with a healthy dose of dopamine upon solving the problem)—for each student is naturally achieved in a competency-based education system powered by digital learning. As digital learning improves and becomes more adaptive, this ability to assist each individual student in finding and working on the right learning experience for her will improve. By contrast, the current monolithic education system creates a system that contradicts both pieces of research for optimizing student achievement.
Furthermore, today’s monolithic, seat-time based system in which students progress from concept to concept based on time, not mastery, signals clearly to students that grit does not in fact matter. Today students make progress from concept to concept regardless of how much effort they expend and how well they do. When a unit is over, students take a test, move on, and receive feedback only weeks later. We send an unambiguous signal that it doesn’t matter if you stick with something because you’ll move on either way. This undermines the value of grit, de-motivates students—as many either become bored when they don’t have to work at concepts that come easily to them or fall further and further behind once they don’t understand a building-block concept and yet the class continues to progress and they develop major holes in their learning—and shreds student achievement.
A competency-based learning system on the other hand literally embeds grit—sticking with things until you master them—in its DNA. Thoughtfully executed, in which students from an early age tackle complex projects and problem solving over time, it creates a causal link between hard work and progress. Embedding these experiences in digital learning makes it far easier to scale the good experiences across a mastery-based system, which would build student motivation for and ownership over learning—all of which the research says bolsters learning.
And that’s an outcome that would nail everyone’s job to be done.
Posted by michael_horn | Under Educational technology, Online learning, Schools, blended learning
Thursday Nov 8, 2012
After spending last week in Washington, D.C., I was struck by how nervous folks in education circles are about whether states will stick with the Common Core state standards once the Common Core assessments arrive in the 2014-15 school year.
The behind-the-scenes buzz on Common Core touched on everything from how different the assessments really will be from what some states have today to whether Common Core will doom testing and the accountability movement more generally because of the length of the assessments to whether governors will stick with Common Core once the first year of assessment results come out and people see how students perform poorly on them.
I’m a proponent of states adopting Common Core state standards that are fewer, clearer, and higher in part because of the innovation their adoption could seed through the creation of a common market. Having common standards across the country could begin to reward content providers that target the long tail of learners because they would help to aggregate demand across the country, as opposed to what happens today where those providers that tailor their offerings to different and idiosyncratic state standards, for example, are rewarded.
What has struck me though is how after having agreed upon the standards, we seem to be going about the work of implementing the assessments for them backwards. I’m certainly no expert in this and this is genuinely complicated, but a story from Steve Spear’s research, as recounted in his book Chasing the Rabbit and which we wrote about in Disrupting Class, frames the point and my ultimate question.
While a doctoral student, Steve took temporary jobs working first on an assembly line at one of the Detroit Big Three plants and then at Toyota at the passenger-side front seat installation point.
In Detroit, the worker doing the training essentially told Steve, “The cars come down this line every 58 seconds, so that’s how long you have to install this seat. Now I’m going to show you how to do it. First, you do this. Then do that, then click this in here just like this, then tighten this, then do that,” and so on, until the seat was completely installed. “Do you get how to do it, Steve?”
Steve thought he could do each of those things in the allotted time. When the next car arrived, he picked up the seat and did each of the preparatory steps. But when he tried to install it in the car, it wouldn’t fit. For the entire 58 seconds he tried to complete the installation but couldn’t. His trainer stopped the assembly line to fix the problem. He again showed Steve how to do it. When the next car arrived, Steve tried again but didn’t get it right. In an entire hour, he installed only four seats correctly.
One reason why it historically was so important to test every product when it came off the end of a production line like the Detroit Big Three’s was that there were typically hundreds of steps involved in making a product, and the company could not be sure that each step had been done correctly. In business, we call that end-of-the-line activity “inspection.” In education, we call it “summative assessment.”
When Steve went to work at the same station in Toyota’s plant, he had a completely different experience. First, he went to a training station where he was told, “These are the seven steps required to install this seat successfully. You don’t have the privilege of learning step 2 until you’ve demonstrated mastery of step 1. If you master step 1 in a minute, you can begin learning step 2 a minute from now. If step 1 takes you an hour, then you can learn step 2 in an hour. And if it takes you a day, then you can learn step 2 tomorrow. It makes no sense for us to teach you subsequent steps if you can’t do the prior ones correctly.”
Testing and assessment were still vital, but they were an integral part of the process of instruction. As a result, when he took his spot on Toyota’s production line, Steve was able to do his part right the first time and every time. Toyota had built into its process a mechanism to verify immediately that each step had been done correctly so that no time or money would be wasted fixing a defective product. As a result, it did not have to test its products when they came to the end of the production process.
That’s quite a contrast between the two methods for training Steve Spear. At the Detroit Big Three plant, the time was fixed, but the result of training was variable and unpredictable. The “exam”— installing the seat—came at the end of Steve’s training.
At Toyota, the training time was variable. But assessment was interdependently woven into content delivery, and the result was fixed; every person who went through the training could predictably do what he had been taught to do.
The Detroit example represents how America’s factory-model public schools operate. They were in fact modeled upon factories built during the industrial revolution. The Toyota example illustrates more how a competency-based learning system would work. As I’ve written numerous times, this is how our education system should operate. Many psychometricians say that assessments can either drive instruction or be used for accountability but not both; the Toyota experience suggests otherwise if the assessments are implemented in a competency-based learning system in which time is variable and learning is fixed.
Consider now how we are implementing the Common Core assessments: summative assessments to measure what percentage of students failed. In essence, we are using them as an autopsy. This approach is, of course, an outgrowth of our factory-model system, which requires this sort of assessment; it is not an indictment against the assessment consortia per se. It is also arguably enshrined in federal law, as the Elementary Secondary Education Act requires that states implement yearly assessments, for example. But with the Detroit-Toyota story as background, let’s think about the three specific worries mentioned earlier: whether the new tests will be truly different; whether they will doom the accountability movement because of their length; and whether the states will stick with them after the first year of results. Would competency-based learning help to alleviate each of these concerns?
The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortia’s announcement that it is scaling back the performance items on its test adds fuel to the fire on the first concern, but at the same time David Coleman, a key thought leader behind the Common Core, and others on a panel at former Governor Jeb Bush’s National Summit on Education Reform went to great lengths to assure folks that the assessments truly would be different.
Of course, if there were instead systems of assessments in a competency-based learning system built for students to take an assessment on-demand when they were ready to demonstrate mastery on specific competencies, we would see a different picture develop with assessments that left no doubt that they were different. Perhaps there could be short assessments to verify basic objective mastery around a particular concept followed by rich capstone-like projects that could measure several competencies and be reviewed on an on-demand basis by an outside party, similar in some respects to how Western Governors University manages its assessments, for example (and yes, Western Governors’ assessments are designed by psychometricians).
The assessments could also presumably be more bite-sized and not interrupt learning in school for several days. As Education Week reported, “A key push in the latest redesign was to ensure that the test yields enough detailed information to enable reports on student performance in specific areas of math and English/language arts.” That’s in part because the assessments have to form an approximate measure of an entire year of curriculum. The summative test therefore has to be a certain length so that it can collect such statistically valid information. Smarter Balanced’s assessment, for example, will be roughly 6.5 to 8 hours long.
What’s most stunning about this test length is that this was a decrease in time from the length the test was supposed to be, according to this announcement. I don’t know if this tone-deaf length will doom the accountability movement more generally, as some worried in private in Washington, D.C., but I will also understand the complaints of parents if this goes forward.
As to the last question over whether governors will stick with Common Core after the first year of assessment results, we don’t really know. Many are speculating that on the heels of students’ and schools’ disastrous results on the assessments, states will simply “lower the cut scores” that determine proficiency, thereby masking the actual results and avoiding the political heat. That would hardly align to Common Core’s mantra of fewer, clearer, and higher, however. Others speculate that governors will just walk rather than deal with the continued expense and political headaches.
If we were instead using assessments in a competency-based learning system, however, then the equation would change. The learning objectives and assessments would be far more transparent to students and their parents, and they would understand why they had not passed a certain concept, as they could receive immediate feedback to inform what they would learn next—and understand the importance of true mastery. In many cases, students could move back down to an earlier concept from a previous “grade” that they might not have mastered if that made the most sense for them to move ahead ultimately and realize success, thereby avoiding the “Swiss Cheese” problem that is too prevalent in education today and that competency-based learning, such as that used in Toyota’s training, solves.
For those worried about accountability (and count me in that group), this would actually allow for a far more accountable and rigorous system, as we could have near real-time data about where each student was in her learning (and with much more visibility into where each student actually was because we would be testing students based on their actual level, not an assumed one based on their age) and see the progress and growth that a school was achieving with its population with a bottoms-up approach rather than today’s clunky top-down one.
We wouldn’t need to play all the games that we do today with summative assessments where we are constantly making difficult tradeoffs and relying on various statistical machinations to create valid and reliable instruments. Instead, the focus would be on true mastery, not “good enough” (to see why that’s a valid concern, check out Sal Khan’s chapter on testing in his book The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined).
To the credit of David Coleman and Dr. William Schmidt, a professor at Michigan State University and another of the key thought leaders behind the Common Core, at Bush’s summit they spoke about how Common Core could unleash competency-based learning. Indeed, Common Core and competency-based learning should be a natural fit, as the former creates learning maps for students to master that can shift the emphasis from time to mastery of deeper learning. Coleman and Schmidt also properly warned about the possibility that competency-based learning might mean students just zipping past concepts without truly mastering them (Tom Vander Ark has written about this concern more here).
At the same time, one of the things that has concerned me most about the Common Core is its language around age-based grades that imply the same factory model we’ve always had. At Bush’s summit, prior to someone asking about competency-based learning, Schmidt reinforced this worry when he in essence said that students should be working on the same things on the same day at the same age, and that it makes no sense for it to be otherwise because it’s not equitable.
I’m all for all students having an equal opportunity to be exposed to and master the same foundational concepts, as opposed to the way today’s system works (and by the way, the adoption of digital learning would go a long way in helping solve this), but at the same time, this mindset of age-based grades is dangerous and a terrible relic of today’s factory-model system that is anything but equitable. It helps keep a deeply flawed and inequitable system locked in place, which is why a couple hundred education leaders joined me in the summer of 2011 to encourage the development of a different view of assessments entirely (you can read the open letter here). What’s more, sticking to age-based grade bands could be Common Core’s undoing.
Common Core creates a huge opportunity for innovation and personalization and the implementation of a competency-based learning system. It’s an opportunity we shouldn’t waste. With the way things are moving now on the assessment front, however, there are real concerns that states will walk away from it en masse. Even if they don’t, there are real concerns that the assessments that will be put in place will stunt innovation and educational transformation, not encourage it. If we called a timeout though and shifted our mindset and our education system to a competency-based learning one—one in which new assessments could help drive the shift—might we see a different picture develop? Wouldn’t we worry less about states walking away from the Common Core in that picture?
Posted by michael_horn | Under Education research, Online learning, Schools, blended learning
Wednesday Oct 31, 2012
“The technology is five years behind where it needs to be.”
It was the complaint of yet another school trying to build a blended-learning model that utilizes multiple providers.
“The software content providers are proprietary. It’s impossible to get data out of them. And when we do, the data doesn’t connect easily to the standards and the data from other providers.”
So went the grumbling from another blended-learning school.
What strikes me as most noteworthy about these comments, however, is just how un-noteworthy this state of the industry is in any industry.
At the outset of any industry, the technology tends to be immature and not yet good enough for the majority of users. In order to maximize the performance of the products and services and have any hope of them getting adopted, organizations need to integrate vertically and create interdependent architectures that tightly weave different components together to optimize performance, in terms of functionality and reliability.
As Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor observe in The Innovator’s Solution, “by definition, these products are proprietary because each company will develop its own interdependent design to optimize performance in a different way.” The result of a proprietary, interdependent solution, however, is that customization is prohibitively expensive, because to customize, the company needs to re-architect the entire product.
But as an industry matures, the technology improves. It ceases to be “not good enough” for most users and begins to overshoot what most users need in terms of raw functionality and reliability.
As this happens, customers begin to prioritize new dimensions of performance. With functionality and reliability assured, they prize flexibility and customization, which proprietary products cannot supply.
The new solutions that arise to offer these customized solutions have a modular architecture—where different components fit and work together in well-understood and highly defined ways. Standards arise that specify the fit and function of all elements so completely that it doesn’t matter who makes the components or subsystems, as long as they meet the specifications. Modular architectures optimize flexibility, but because they require tight specification, it limits the freedom that engineers have to push the boundaries in terms of raw functionality.
These two states—interdependence versus modularity—exist on a continuum, but it seems to me that we may be at a crossroads right now in the blended-learning world between the two.
On the one hand, several blended-learning programs are continuing to use curriculum from one online provider, and although it doesn’t give them the customization they may prefer ideally, its simplicity and reliability are worth the tradeoff. Carpe Diem schools and the Flex Academies exemplify this–and neither seems to be complaining nearly as much about the technology.
On the other hand, increasing numbers of schools are adopting blended-learning models that have each student working with multiple software providers within one subject. But from their complaints, they appear to be pushing the industry toward modularity perhaps a bit before it is ready to shift and are therefore dealing with the corresponding headaches of a still immature technology.
At least one blended-learning school, Summit Public Schools, is partnering to build its own solution to the problem and use content from different sources to support the new competency-based learning model it is developing, which seems like a smart backward integration. Those demanding customized solutions seem to be running into headwinds. The fact that each of the schools has a unique model with different needs and requirements exacerbates the problem, as firm standards around which to coalesce just don’t exist yet.
Furthermore, some approaches to solving the problem seem unlikely to bear fruit. Standards are almost never negotiated among companies with proprietary architectures in an industry because the negotiations occur within a context where the representatives have the mindset of representing their proprietary architecture and trying not to get gored by the process. Much more likely it seems in the blended-learning world will be the emergence of a platform—like Khan Academy—on which lots of users write content that use the standards of the platform, as opposed to forcing a retro-fitting. The standards will emerge in de facto fashion, as schools vote with their feet—or clicks.
We’ll of course see how it ultimately plays out. For now though, the grumbling around the online-learning technology not being quite good enough is likely to be a refrain that we all ought to get used to hearing for at least a couple more years.
What’s digital learning got to do with physical activity?
Quite a lot I believe.
A couple weekends ago I had the privilege of presenting at TEDx Manhattan Beach where I heard another presenter, Dr. John Ratey, speak about the importance of physical exercise in increasing brain plasticity and boosting student learning. His book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, details the connection.
Although I normally write about digital learning’s potential to transform our education, as a Crossfit enthusiast myself, I believe in the importance of living a healthy life with physical exercise.
One of the biggest misconceptions about the rise of online learning is that a student’s schooling will be spent primarily in front of a computer, with a student clicking away relentlessly as though she were playing eight hours of video games a day.
This couldn’t be further from the truth, however, if the rise of online learning fulfills its potential and creates a truly student-centric education system—which should be the ultimate goal.
As I’ve traveled around the country observing blended-learning schools, the ones I’ve been most struck by are those that give individual students the proper flexibility so that they can have the right experience they need when they need it to boost their success—both in that moment and in life. In the future of education, digital learning should be the platform that facilitates each student having a customized learning experience for her distinct learning needs—whether that experience is online or offline.
Carpe Diem Collegiate Middle and High School, one of my favorite blended-learning models, has no physical education class. Instead the school has what might be described as a fitness center with an on-site trainer who works with each student not on random mandatory athletic units but instead on a tailored program for how to live a healthy life. When students are growing antsy at their desks and need to get some physical exercise to let off some steam and reboot for more learning, they have the autonomy to go to the gym and work out.
The Silicon Valley Flex Academy, which has several elements of what I think the future of schooling will look like, is located across the parking lot from a Crossfit gym. The school has contemplated a formal partnership with the Crossfit affiliate to offer the students a Crossfit for Kids program, which, in my opinion, would be far superior to the gym classes offered at most schools.
My biggest personal surprise in online learning came several years ago when I learned that one of the more popular classes that the Florida Virtual School offers is online physical education. I struggled to imagine what this might mean, but what I ultimately learned is that the class involves a teacher working with each individual student on her daily fitness routine (from running to lifting to playing team sports) to realize her fitness goals and live a healthy life. Recalling my own experience in middle school PE, I could see the immediate benefits of having this sort of an experience instead of an awkward communal one that teaches a student virtually nothing about living a healthy life—and may even discourage that by creating negative associations with physical exercise.
It’s not just physical exercise that should see a healthier balance with the rise of digital learning, but lots of activities. Many schools are increasingly using blended learning to free teachers up to spend more time working with students in project-based learning. I’ve been struck by how much students collaborate with each other naturally—often peer tutoring each other—in the blended-learning schools I’ve visited. Whereas “socialization” often appears to me to be a negative thing in many schools, in blended-learning schools the social interactions appear to me to be far healthier and around helping each student improve. I don’t have hard data on this, but it’s my observation that this is one of the exciting—and often unintended—effects of using a blended-learning model.
To this end, when many people think about full-time virtual schools, one of their biggest fears is about students in their younger years. They ask how could students possibly have a fully online experience when they are so young. What are the downsides of spending so much time in front of a computer? The answer is that in the programs of which I’m aware, most of the learning for students in the younger years is actually offline—with books and manipulatives. The online learning mostly serves as the platform that helps the student’s family communicate with the student’s teacher and individualizes the learning, in addition to providing some exercises and games to build some basic skills.
In an age where the arts, athletics, and other so-called extracurricular activities are increasingly on the chopping block in public schools, digital learning ought to change the equation. Various blended-learning models, for example, should create more flexibility and free up more funds so that schools can offer an array of experiences, including physical exercise.
According to Ratey’s research, that’s something we can’t afford to lose if we’re serious about boosting student achievement. Student-centric digital learning provides a means to make sure that it doesn’t fall by the wayside.