December 8th, 2011

The “Dirty Work of Education”

No question, one of the most talked about, Tweeted about, blogged and written about ideas in the past year has been the “flipped classroom,” the idea that we can use technology to deliver the “lecture” as the homework and then use class time, ideally, to bring the concepts to life in meaningful, real world ways. And it’s been interesting to watch the “debate” around the merits. 2011 ed tech media darling Sal Khan and his Khan Academy supporters would tell you it’s a transformative, new way of thinking about the classroom fueled by technology. Detractors argue it’s old wine in new bottles, that a lecture is a lecture regardless of form, and that at best the opportunity is to help kids who need remediation or extra help.

While I’m still leaning to the latter (I’ve encouraged my own kids to use Khan as a way of answering questions about the concepts they’re covering in the classroom), my visit last week with the folks at Knewton has me wondering if “flipping” is going to be around very long at all regardless the positives or negatives. And even more, I’m wondering if Knewton’s vision of its role in education is in some ways as brilliant as it is inevitable given the direction things have turned.

In case you’re not up to speed on what Knewton is doing, here’s the brief from their website:

Knewton’s award-winning Adaptive Learning Platform™ uses proprietary algorithms to deliver a personalized learning path for each student, each day. Knewton’s technology identifies each student’s strengths, weaknesses and unique learning style. Taking into account both personal proficiencies and course requirements, the platform continuously tailors learning materials to each student’s exact needs, delivering the most relevant content in the most efficient and effective form.

But here’s some of what I found out during my visit. First, the data crunching that their platform does is mind-boggling. Without getting too far into the minutia, it’s not just identifying strengths and weaknesses. Basically, after a fairly short period of time working with Knewton, the platform can begin to identify, for example, what time of day is “best” for a student to be studying science as well as a myriad of other tendencies that then allows the platform to select the most effective stacks of content in its database based on what has been most successful for students with a similar profile. In the next year as the network of Knewton users grows, it will then be able to connect individual students to other users who share those profiles, allowing them to ask questions, work problems and help each other learn in real time. In other words, it’s able to “socially personalize” (my words) the content learning interaction solely using the technology. And more.

The bottom line? Knewton wants to do “the dirty work of education,” the content part that we’re so hepped up about testing. CEO Jose Ferreira feels that by putting individual students into Knewton’s data-driven, highly personalized and adaptable learning environment, they will more effectively learn the concept mastery necessary to then do great things in the classroom with teachers who spend far less time on skills and far more time on the practical application of the skills in real life. To put it another way, Jose says “we want to fix the factory side of education and do it better and let teachers do the important stuff that technology can’t.” When I asked him about other entrepreneurs who seemed much more focused on just having students do better on the test, he said “the practical application is the sea change; that’s the part that’s going to benefit kids.”

Let’s be really clear. This is not Khan Academy, which at the end of the day is a one-size-fits-all lecture with a little curricular personalization built in. This is one on one (student to machine) that creates a different path to understanding based on the individual needs and dispositions of the student. Your path to learning algebra in Knewton will be decidedly different from mine, but at the end of the day, in theory, we’ll both have mastered the concepts.

Let’s also be clear that this is still in the early stages of development, and Knewton hasn’t made any inroads into the K-12 space…yet. No question, its recent $33 million investment from Pearson is going to steer it down that path soon enough. Currently, Knewton’s being used at a number of universities, primarily for remediation. For instance, at Arizona State University, 30% of incoming freshmen need remediation in math. (Says a lot about the current standardized testing regime, doesn’t it? Every one of those kids had to pass the math section in their states I’m sure.) So rather than spend teacher and class time getting those students up to speed, ASU uses Knewton to do the bulk of that work. But it’s not hard to see the path to Knewton-esque platforms becoming the primary methods of concept instruction (and, inevitably, more.)

Which, as I’ve been droning on about here and elsewhere for most of this highly disruptive year in learning, compels us to begin figuring out both the challenges and the opportunities of what is quickly becoming a viable “new story” for education whether we like it or agree with it or see it as good for our kids or not. I’d love to get rid of the factory side of education, not just do it better, but that’s a far off reality given the current climate. So what are the questions we need to be asking at this moment?

Here are some of the random bullet points that have been hanging around in my brain of late:

  • For some kids, especially those in classrooms with 50 other students who have little chance at having any real differentiated, personalized instruction, these technologies will be a boon. In schools where the emphasis is on the factory, however wrong we may feel that may be, being able to do the factory better will be a good thing for the students ensconced there.
  • But having said that, if we continue to value the factory and the assessments that test for that factory learning at the expense of real world problem solving and effective writing and speaking skills and adaptability and all of those important learning dispositions that we want kids to have, schools in their current iteration are toast. We’ll simply be Knewton factories, irony intended. (Interestingly, Jose has a bit of a different view on the whole testing debate, saying that he feels raising test scores is important if only to reduce the focus on the test. “Once we get everyone passing the test better, the pressure will come off.” Not sure I agree, but I hadn’t heard that line of thinking before.) 
  • While it’s great in concept that teachers will be “freed up” to do the really important learning with students who have concept mastery, I wonder what percentage of teachers will be able to take advantage of that opportunity in meaningful ways. Let’s be honest, by and large, we’re still preparing new teachers to be curriculum delivery specialists, not participants in and facilitators of deep student inquiry in the classroom.
  • And to what extent (and when) will technology make inroads into the practical application piece of it as well? Digital gaming environments are already becoming more socially constructivist and focusing on problem solving, and they will continue to evolve to present content and skills and application. What, with all of that, is the role of the face to face teacher and physical space classroom? (I think there is still an extremely important role for both, btw, but it’s one we’re not articulating very clearly yet.)
  • And finally, who gets Knewton and who doesn’t? While I think it’s admirable that the company wants to use 20% of its profits to provide free access to students in schools or developing countries that can’t afford it, I don’t think we’ll escape a developing divide in this type of “learning” either.

Look, at the end of this day, at least, I’m feeling conflicted about much of this. I worry that we’re heading down a path that will turn schools into private, for-profit spaces that will put our kids’ best interests behind bottom lines, and that rather than starting a decidedly new conversation around learning, we’re just going to keep reaching for the low-hanging fruit of knowing, the stuff that’s easy to assess, the efficiencies that businesses love. That Nation article from a few weeks ago paints that picture all too compellingly, and as one of my network friends said in an e-mail after reading it, “last one out, turn the lights off.” It could be that bad.

But I can’t help holding out hope that at some point, the idiocy of the current regime will fall out of favor. I think a growing number of parents (like me) who have pretty much had it with the current emphasis will find themselves wondering what relevance much of our kids’ education has in their ability to live and flourish in a growingly complex world, and they’ll start really screaming “Stop!” (Hey, a guy can dream.) 

I’m sure for some, that test score will always be a powerful way of defining “educated” for their kids, and if technology can raise that score, they’ll buy in. But we educators who see learning as more than a score have to advocate even more loudly for for a different definition. While there may be a certain appeal in the world Knewton proposes, I worry it will be too easy to lose the best of what that world offers simply because the good stuff that teachers do that technology can’t isn’t easy. It’s messy, complex, resistant to standardization which despite being better for kids, is harder to define and deliver. In the near term, that “defining and delivering” part may be our greatest challenge of all.

  1. willrichardson posted this
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