January 21st, 2014

Announcing: Educating Modern Learners

Today, I’m happy to announce that my friend and colleague Bruce Dixon and I are starting a new membership website, Educating Modern Learners (EML). It’s a site and an accompanying newsletter that’s aimed specifically at helping school leaders and policy makers from around the globe be better informed about the huge technological changes that are impacting education, and to help them make better, more pertinent decisions for the students they serve. And I’m equally excited to announce that we’ve hired one of the best education bloggers / thinkers we know, Audrey Watters, to be the editorial director / lead writer for the site. Our official launch is scheduled for mid-February.

Our hope is that EML will offer a reader-supported, independent voice to help articulate what is as yet a struggling but growing new narrative in the school reform discussion, one that provokes serious conversation at the leadership level around a more learner-centered, inquiry-based, technology and access-rich school experience that more powerfully and relevantly serves children in this fast-changing modern world. We’ll be commissioning some of the best writers and thought-leaders in the world to produce analysis and commentary on all aspects of modern learning, from local, state and ministry level policy issues, new literacies and pedagogies for 21st Century learners, effective change-centered leadership, new technologies, and best school practices, among others. Also in the mix are regular whitepapers, live events, podcasts, and more. More details to come.

Here’s some of where we’re starting from in our thinking about this:

  • We believe that we live and learn at a moment of rapid and radical change across institutions and cultures, and that technologies are in large part driving those changes.
  • We believe that today’s students will be immersed in creative and connected technologies throughout their adult learning lives, and that they require new skills, literacies, and dispositions to succeed in the modern world.
  • We believe that the web and other technologies can be a powerful source for good in the world.
  • We believe that schools must move away from “delivering” an education to, instead, empowering students to organize their own education.
  • We believe technology implemented with vision can be a powerful part of effective teaching and learning in schools.
  • We believe that relevant reforms are occurring too slowly because not enough of our efforts are aimed at those who make decisions regarding technology’s role in learning in schools.
  • We believe that top level decision makers often act without a relevant, global, modern lens for how technologies can best serve progressive teaching and learning. This is through no fault of their own as much as it is the consequence of leading at a moment of rapid and radical change.
  • We believe there is a real need for a diverse set of expert voices to use a global lens to intelligently curate and contextualize the changes, new technologies, future trends, best practices and more on a regular basis.
  • We believe this is a time of unprecedented opportunity. A time for boldness, and a time for well-informed leadership to shape new thinking around what schools could and should be; about where, when, and how learning takes place.  A time for us to truly rethink the possibilities that technology offers education, and a time for creative and courageous leadership to show the way.

EML is hopefully just the first step in what we hope will be a collection of resources and events that will help expand the contexts for learning and leading in the education leadership space. If you’d like to be notified when we officially launch, just sign up on our "Coming Soon!" page

December 12th, 2012

Rethink Learning Top to Bottom

Cathy Davidson

But there is also an investment opportunity for any educator (with or without degree) to rethink learning top to bottom, inside out. We have a potential for a learning mash-up of the loftiest, most creative, learner-centered kind. Whether we are talking about Khan’s millions of learners who have a handful of teachers or Ito’s billions of teachers learning from one another, the idea that we educators don’t have to force education, that people like to learn if there is something worth learning, is the gold mine for the digital age…

What would we do without “forced education” I wonder…

October 20th, 2012

The “Khanification” of Education

Yesterday I Tweeted out a link to a video titled “Meet the YouTube Next EDU Gurus,” a video that I found disconcerting on a number of levels, (not the least of which the music.) I know that in one way, the subjects of the video exemplify the participation, transparency, and, at times, creativity that I actually hope my kids aspire to. But what bothered me is that we seem to have reached a “Khanification” of education moment where anyone with a passion can make a video and be given “teacher” status. A moment captured by this Michael Schnieder Tweet back to me:

Which begs the questions, a) what should an education degree or a teaching certificate  require when increasingly anyone with a connection can be a teacher of content, and, b) more importantly, what changes when the world begins to accept a definition of “teacher” as someone who knows “how to make and post a video”? (Read the comments below the vid.)

In many ways, I’ve been pushed by Sal Khan’s lack of teaching experience more than by his videos. But now this growing acceptance of non-teachers as teachers of content and skills  (and, in some cases, better teachers of content and skills) poses an ever greater challenge for us to redefine the profession. And it circles back around to that question that I pose in the book: what is our value as classroom teachers in a world suddenly filled with teachers?

Here’s a hint: our value lies in that which cannot be Khanified. We better figure out ways pretty quickly to articulate that value in spades to parents, boards, corporations, etc. 

UPDATE: Related

July 28th, 2012

The Five Percenters

Andrew Hacker of Queens College, writing in today’s New York Times, ends a must read essay titled “Is Algebra Necessary?" with this:

Yes, young people should learn to read and write and do long division, whether they want to or not. But there is no reason to force them to grasp vectorial angles and discontinuous functions. Think of math as a huge boulder we make everyone pull, without assessing what all this pain achieves. So why require it, without alternatives or exceptions? Thus far I haven’t found a compelling answer.

Either have I. And it’s not just that I have an English teacher brain. It’s because, as Hacker notes:

…a definitive analysis by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce forecasts that in the decade ahead a mere 5 percent of entry-level workers will need to be proficient in algebra or above.

Five percent! I know…we don’t know in high school which five percent of our kids will actually need to be proficient in algebra. So we make 100% of our kids try to master it just in case. That’s just silly. 

I agree with Hacker; every child needs basic math skills. And I think every child, especially today, needs a good dose of statistics in order to understand the tidal wave of data we’re subjected to on a daily basis. But I look at my own kids and wonder about all they ways they could be going deep into the things they love, becoming better, more effective learners in the process, rather than struggling through four years of stuff of which they will ever use only a small portion.

And, to be honest, this is not just about math. This is about unlearning and relearning a system that built a curriculum based on the idea that if kids didn’t get this concept or that in school, they may not get it anywhere else. The world has changed. Curriculum is everywhere. Learning math can happen at any time and almost anywhere.

Hacker asks:

Why do we subject American students to this ordeal?

I wonder too.

July 28th, 2012

Our New Value Proposition

George Seimens writes about higher ed here, but I wonder to what extent this is relevant for K-12 as well:

What is valuable, however, is that which can’t be duplicated without additional input costs: personal feedback and assessment, contextualized and personalized navigation through complex topics, encouragement, questioning by a faculty member to promote deeper thinking, and a context and infrastructure of learning. Basically: human input costs make education valuable. We can’t duplicate personal interaction without spending more money. We can scale content, but we can’t scale encouragement. We can improve lecturing through peer teaching, but we can’t scale the timely interventions and nudges by faculty that influence deeper learning. [Emphasis mine.]

As schooling becomes more “personalized” through technology (and it will), our articulated value will have to change away from content delivery and more to a focus on the learning process. Still up for debate for me is to what extent to which that human input is done face to face or virtually. (See the Granny Cloud, for instance.)

May 7th, 2012

The traditional degree, with its four-year time commitment and steep price tag, made sense when the university centrally aggregated top academic minds with residency-based students. Education required extensive logistics, demanding deep commitment from students worthy of being rewarded with the all-or-nothing degree.

But education isn’t all-or-nothing. College and its primary credential, the degree, needn’t be either. The benefit of modern, online education is that the burden of logistics and infrastructure are greatly reduced, allowing for the potential of a fluid, lifelong education model. The problem, to date, is that formal, online education is still being packaged in all-or-nothing degree programs, falsely constraining education innovation. The New Republic writes, “Online for-profit colleges haven’t disrupted the industry because while their business methods are different, their product—traditional credentials in the form of a degree—is not.”

Technology creates efficiencies by decreasing unit size while increasing utility. To falsely constrain anything to historically larger canons is to render technology impotent to do what it does best.


This echoes the lack of disruption that tech has brought to the K-12 world as well.

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.

November 22nd, 2011

Privacy in a Networked World

danah boyd articulates the move from private to public in online spaces about as well as anyone, I think:

Social media has prompted a radical shift. We’ve moved from a world that is “private-by-default, public-through-effort” to one that is “public-by-default, private-with-effort.” Most of our conversations in a face-to-face setting are too mundane for anyone to bother recording and publicizing. They stay relatively private simply because there’s no need or desire to make them public. Online, social technologies encourage broad sharing and thus, participating on sites like Facebook or Twitter means sharing to large audiences. When people interact casually online, they share the mundane. They aren’t publicizing; they’re socializing. While socializing, people have no interest in going through the efforts required by digital technologies to make their pithy conversations more private. When things truly matter, they leverage complex social and technical strategies to maintain privacy. [Emphasis mine.]

And this is more than just knowing how to “leverage complex social and technical strategies to maintain privacy,” something that in and of itself should be a required literacy for anyone using social media. (Are we teaching this?) It’s also about how we consume and share what others make public

We had this discussion during a Leading Edge session yesterday, and I was struck by how little I had really thought about that piece of it. That it’s not just about making good decisions when we publish, but it’s also about making good decisions when we consume what others publish as well. Not so much in terms of what’s good content and what’s not so good content. But in terms of what responsibility each one of us has as gatekeeper for the other. 

Are we teaching that, too?

All of which leads me back to why, I think, we have to help move educators into these public spaces online. There are levels of complexity here that can only be understood by participating, and while I realize there are risks, we have to find ways to mitigate them for the sake of teaching our kids those network literacies that will allow them to flourish. 

November 21st, 2011

Fundamentally New Types of Value

I’m convinced this our new work when it comes to schools as well:

There isn’t one solution. Each retailer will need to find its own unique formula. But I can say with confidence that the retailers that win the future are the ones that start from scratch and figure out how to create fundamentally new types of value for customers.

(Source: blogs.hbr.org)

October 12th, 2011

A pretty sobering and realistic look at the struggles that public schools are facing across the country. Tons of questions raised, the biggest of which to me at least is what does a fiscally leaner education look like in the end? What will the economic stresses force schools to evolve into? Some of those answers are obvious. Others…notsomuch.

(via In Mifflin County, PA, budget cuts are severely hurting education | Learning Matters: Reporting you trust on education stories that matter)

October 12th, 2011

The Global Culture of the Internet

Interesting study out of the UK that looks at the global effects of the Internet. 

Findings from this study show that a global Internet culture has emerged as users across countries often share similar viewpoints and habits related to these vital matters pertaining to the Internet. Users worldwide generally support and desire the core Internet values, without signaling a willingness for tradeoffs among these potentially conflicting values and priorities. However, users in nations that are more recently embracing the Internet, who are becoming the dominant online population, express even greater support for the most basic value underpinning the Internet – freedom of expression. In addition, these users also outpace users in older-adopting nations in their innovative uses of the Internet. We conclude that a new Internet world is emerging which may lead to many shifts in the Internet’s global centre of gravity – shifts that will have major implications for the future of the Internet. 

Key Findings: (1.) There is a global culture developing around the Internet, in which users worldwide share similar values and attitudes related to online freedom of expression, privacy, trust, and security. (2.) The newly emerging nations online, primarily in the developing regions of Asia and Latin and South America, are becoming the dominant nations online, having the greatest number of users, despite lower levels of adoption. (3.) Users want it all: they desire freedom of expression, privacy, trust, and security without viewing these as mutually exclusive. (4.) Newly adopting countries are more liberal in attitudes, such as support for freedom of expression, and behaviours, such as use of social networking platforms, while older-adopting countries are more conservative, tied to more traditional Internet applications and content. These findings point to the beginning of a new Internet world in which the developing nations move into a leading role in shaping the use and governance of this global network of networks.

That last line is especially interesting to me in the sense, once again, of whether or not we are fully appreciating the redefinition of the US role in the world and making sure our kids undersand the potentil ramifications of that in their lives as well. 

(Source: insead.edu)

June 25th, 2011

"I Didn’t Know We Could"

Scott McLeod is by no means the first to ask this question, nor will he be the last, I’m sure. 

In an era in which the possibilities for ongoing professional learning are numerous and significant, I wonder how long will it take us for us to start expecting educators to use these social media tools. It’s been 30 years since the advent of the personal computer and we’re still struggling to get teachers and administrators to integrate digital technologies into their daily work in ways that are substantive and meaningful. Meanwhile, we now have a bevy of powerful learning tools available to us that can advance our own professional learning (and, of course, make our technology integration and implementation efforts more efficient and effective).

I am still constantly amazed at the number of educators who I speak to at conferences and pd days that have not made technology a part of their learning culture. Last week, in a room of 100 people, 3 brought laptops. When I asked how many owned laptops but didn’t bring them, almost every hand went up. When I asked them why they didn’t bring them, the quick response was “I didn’t know we could.” Didn’t know we could? Really? 

Here is the deal…technology is no longer a choice. Some of us may not feel comfortable with it; time to get over it. Tens of thousands of educators are already in the water, and the temperature is fine. Stop waiting for permission and jump in.

And just for the record, my patience tank is running on empty. 

June 24th, 2011

The Culture of Booking

This Kevin Kelly post is worth the read in its entirety, but I especially like this shift in thinking. It parallels the way we have to start thinking about learning, as a continuous process, not just an event. Hope to write more about that in a bit. 

The primary shift is one of thinking of the book as a process rather than artifact. We are moving from the culture of the book to the culture of booking. Our focus is no longer on the book, the noun, but on booking, the verb — on that continuous process of thinking, writing, editing, writing, sharing, editing, screening, writing, screening, sharing, thinking, writing — and so on that incidentally throws off books. Books, even ebooks, are by-products of the booking process.

(Source: kk.org)

June 22nd, 2011

Censorship in Public Spaces

This echoes one of my concerns in moving over to Tumblr, but it also suggests a huge new complexity when it comes to how we can maintain control over our ideas and online spaces. Thinking a lot about that.

As the British blogger notes in his post on the incident, Facebook is “increasingly the space within which people receive their information, including civic information.” We are living more and more of our public lives and getting more of our information through networks such as Facebook, and while that can be a very powerful thing — as we’ve seen with events such as the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt — it also means that more of our information is being filtered by a corporate entity, with its own desires and rules, not all of which are obvious. The implications of that are profound.

(Source: gigaom.com)

June 19th, 2011

In Praise of Not Knowing

This quote really resonates. There is value in not knowing.

I hope kids are still finding some way, despite Google and Wikipedia, of not knowing things. Learning how to transform mere ignorance into mystery, simple not knowing into wonder, is a useful skill. Because it turns out that the most important things in this life — why the universe is here instead of not, what happens to us when we die, how the people we love really feel about us — are things we’re never going to know.

(Source: The New York Times)

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