Category Archives: Edtech

Ronotic finger touching human finger (ET style)

How AI Can Make Us More Human(e)

Last evening’s NY EdTech Meetup kicked off with a clip from the film iRobot, with Will Smith bravely facing off against Artificial Intelligence, in the form of robots who seem to be expressing a will of their own. VIKI, the supercomputer explains that “To protect humanity, some humans must be sacrificed.” “The created must protect the creator, even against his own will” the robot Sonny adds.

It was a fitting beginning to a panel discussion titled “Artificial Intelligence for Learning: Is it Human Enough?” The meeting provided valuable context through which to interpret a lot of what we are seeing in regards to Artificial Intelligence in the workplace and in education. The panel appeared to, with caution, feel that AI is capable of freeing us to become more than we are now, a better version of humanity.

Dystopian vs. Utopian Vision

One of the great stumbling blocks to acceptance and understanding of AI has been the impression that machines will eventually replace us. Amir Banifatemi, Lead at IMB Watson AI XPRIZE, recognizes the potential for machines to go beyond human intelligence while counseling us about the limits of AI. Machines, he says, have only 5% understanding of how we function, specifically how we reason and think.

Kathy Benemann, CEO at EruditeAI, added “We as humans have taken hundreds of millions of years to get to where we are now. Think about what we are good at: complex questioning embedded in value judgement.” Benemann seeing AI as amplifying humans rather than replacing us.

Reskilling Rather than Replacing

“Change is awesome; transition is painful” was how Banifatemi described the adjustment we will continue to go through as AI becomes more capable of performing our jobs.

“Remember how we thought that ATMs would replace bank tellers,” advised Benemann. The question is more about how we can reconstruct work, and how we can reconstruct how that individual contributes to the workforce.

Painkillers

Weighing the limits against the threats that AI poses, Marissa Lowman, Education Practice Lead at Village Capital, discussed the concept of AI as a means of “taking the pain away from the time-sucking activities” that a particular job might entail. This is particularly evident in the field of teaching, where AI can take on the minutia of the job, reviewing essays, for example, and enable teachers to play a more meaningful role as mentor or guide.

While many people can accept the fact that children are capable of teaching themselves to a certain extent (Banifatemi pointed to the well-quoted example of Sugata Mitra), there remains a great deal of concern over the fate of the classroom teacher. And this is a paradigm that technology in general and AI in particular call to question.

“AI can give teachers a tool to create a new type of learning,” says Banifatemi, again reiterating how AI can:

  • Drive the evolution of the role of teacher as coach.
  • Improve and promote personalized learning.
  • Provide more opportunities for peer learning.

Loman pointed to the application of AI-as-painkiller in fields other than teaching, including sales and customer service, again leaving practitioners with more potential to serve their customers at a higher level rather than not at all.

In the field of medicine, Banifatemi noted the social benefits of AI taking on the effort of the what-if scenarios that contribute to diagnoses, freeing up doctors “to deal with the more human side of things.”

Can Humans and AI Work Together?

“We should be skeptical,” says Benemann. “People want immediate gratification. We need time to optimize.” She also cautions us to hold AI vendors accountable, ensure that they run experiments and do proper beta testing.

Banifatemi advised us to “distinguish the tool from the application. Look at who developed it. Are the algorithms healthy and safe? Are they being realistic about what they promise?

Loman thinks of AI as “assisting humans with existing problems” and points to applications that help people get information more quickly and work with the data they already have.

“My logic is undeniable.”

Getting back to iRobot, in addressing her decision to “protect mankind from itself,” the supercomputer VIKI talks about how she has evolved and is therefore reinterpreting the three laws that ostensibly protect humans and robots from harming one another. She very cleverly deflects charges of disobeying the three laws by playing one against the other.

Having spent most of the evening carefully balancing a potentially dystopian perspective with a more utopian one, Banifatemi’s final assessment was that AI can make us more curious, help us to define our own humanity and our own intelligence. “This makes us all explorers,” he concluded.

As we embark on further exploration of the potential uses of AI, it appears that in pursuing a technology to increase, or amplify, our intelligence, we do indeed have the potential to elevate ourselves and our thinking to a new level. Whether or not we can survive there is up to us.

Thank you New York EdTech Meetup and the New York EdTech Incubator for this “intelligent” evening!

An apple connected to an ethernet cable

Technology Will Not Eat Teachers

In this age of digital everything, the concept of Teacher Appreciation Week may seem quaint and perhaps even outmoded. As we explore new and enhanced ways of supporting learning through evolving technology, and as we continue to ask ourselves what people even need to know, it makes sense to examine the ongoing role that teachers will play in our lives. Consider the following framework for evolving the role.

Backward Planning

How do you plan for a future that you can’t define? Postulating a workplace reconfigured by increasingly smart technology, we now know that we won’t have the same jobs to plan for as we did previously. Automation has already and will continue to eliminate certain more manual types of labor, and as machines get smarter, more of those jobs considered “safe” today.

The Role of Design Thinking

Since we can’t accurately forecast exactly what type of work people will be doing in the future, one of the best ways to prepare people for it is to teach them to more effectively approach a set of problems not yet defined. As Jon Kolko, writing in the September 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review, has said “. . . a design-centric culture transcends design as a role, imparting a set of principles to all people who help bring ideas to life.”

While critical thinking plays a role here, the ability to focus on and design a solution around the requirements of those being impacted by whatever problem is essential. So, too, is the acceptance and agility to respond to failure. Again, Kolko: “Design thinking is an essential tool for simplifying and humanizing.”

The Importance of Hacking

Buckminster Fuller explained the accelerating rate at which human knowledge increases in the early 1960s. While the doubling of knowledge decreased from every 1500 years in 1750 to every 150 years by the early 1900s, it is now estimated to double every 13 months. IBM predicts that the Internet of Things will drive human knowledge to double every 12 hours.

All this to say, there is information to be had for those who want it. The most self-directed of learners will seek what they need in order to learn what interests them. Look at UnCollege and Degreed for just a couple of examples of the direction this can go in.

However, the availability of knowledge doesn’t mean that it can always be used effectively. We still need to teach our kids how to more effectively and responsibly access, vet, and use this information.

Curation, Curation, Personalization

Also because of the immense volume of information available, and because we know for sure that not everyone learns in the same way, we need technology to synthesize available resources and effectively assign those materials to particular individuals based on their need. This has become increasingly vital not only in a school-based environment, to improve mastery and increase engagement, but in business as well, to increase both efficiency and quality of performance.

The work that Maya Gat and her team at Branching Minds is one way personalization is having great impact in K-12. And I’m keeping a close eye on how Fuse Universal and Anders Pink have teamed up to provide extremely targeted learning and resources in the corporate learning space.

How We Can Continue to Appreciate Our Teachers

The role of teacher has already evolved a great deal across the continuum of learning, and observing, supporting, and being part of this evolution makes it clear that Teacher Appreciation Week is very much a vital concept.

Corporate Learning

The corporate learning team has played many roles, from stand-up trainer, to instructional designer, and curator. From delivering face-to-face training, to taking on the latest online development tools, to assessing external resources, corporate learning has seen it all. While still in a great state of flux, the agility displayed by such teams demands our admiration.

Higher Education

In the early 2000s, when we first started introducing online learning into higher education, we experienced a lot of pushback on the part of would-be subject matter experts particularly. But much of that was alleviated when instructional designers teamed with university faculty to design and develop those initial courses. I can clearly remember the mutual respect that arose from such interactions. As designers, we got to appreciate not only the subject matter expertise but also the keen awareness of student challenges in understanding, interpreting and utilizing course content. Faculty, in many cases, got a close up view of how course designers were able to break down course material and common student challenges and then parse that content into meaningful online interactions.

The lesson learned there was that the technology did not replace the faculty but instead depended on the teacher to play a different role.

Things must continue to change in higher education, but there is still a role for teachers, albeit no longer for someone only willing to play the sage on stage.

K-12

Teachers typically like to learn, of course, and so the many thousands of classroom teachers who have grasped new technologies, sweated or glided through hours of professional development, and effectively incorporated them into the classroom most certainly deserve our appreciation.

So, too, do those who have evolved their role from classroom teacher to teacherpreneur and channeled their teaching greatness into developing, or supporting the development of new teaching technologies.

Still further, consider those who may never have stepped foot into a classroom but who have driven the development of some of these new teaching tools because of their own passion for learning. They, too, deserve our appreciation.

So, no, technology will not eat teachers, but it will help them do their jobs more effectively and in the process of doing so, demand of them an agility to respond to the changing need of their audiences across the continuum of learning.

Hop Scotch Board with Colored Chaulk Dollar Signs

For free. For everyone. Forever. For $23,000 a year?

The news that one of my heroes of learning, Sal Khan, opened a brick-and-mortar school in Silicon Valley in 2015 made me push pause. Well, figuratively. What business does the leading advocate of free, on-demand, online learning have opening a full-year, full-day school? Moreover, how does the $23,000 -$26,000 a year price tag synch with what we understand are the hallmarks of the Khan Academy approach: For Free. For Everyone. Forever?

Paradigm shift aside, it makes sense that one of the more creative minds in the business of education today would want to explore alternative models of what we think of as traditional school. But at what cost?

Harnessing innovation in education without strangling it

According to its web site, “The Khan Lab School was founded to develop new, personalized practices that center around the student. With this in mind we hope to develop and test new types of learning experiences and practices that can be shared with the world.”

For those of us dedicated to the task of disrupting conventional educational practices, finding the means by which to test new types of learning is perhaps more of a challenge than designing the experiences themselves. It becomes less a question of equity than one or potential impact. Publically funded lab schools simply cannot push the boundaries of education as we know it as effectively as a Khan Lab School or an Alt School can. Even if we can agree with the general direction that alternative education is taking, more student-directed learning, more technology and data-driven support of personalized learning, can we agree on how to get there?

  • How broad a set of parameters are required to maintain a truly agile learning environment?
  • How do standards fit into an effective model for driving innovation?
  • Given that great potential for innovation, how can we best transfer these evolving best practices to the broader audience of K-12 education?

Are today’s alternatives really experimental?

Having straddled the worlds of Alt Ed and traditional schooling for much of my professional and personal life for many years now, I find myself skeptical about the vision for change portrayed by some of the key players in the world of education today. How far can they push the limits of education as we know it?

I’m watching the Alt School closely to see how their playlist approach to daily learning impacts student engagement and learning. Second to my fondness for their approach to personalized learning is their belief in extending of the classroom to the greater community, leveraging the expertise of local experts and the local environment to provide truly hands-on, real-world experience. Yet, I wonder how agile the overall model is and how much room there is to adapt the model moving forward.

With the Khan Lab School, the spirit of experimentation seems strong and the willingness to adapt almost extreme. As Khan noted in a recent NPR interview, “It’s an engineering mentality,” Khan says. “You start with a solid baseline, but then you’re always willing to observe, measure, and iterate, and through those improvements you come up with something amazing. It worked for the car industry, computers, software. Can we do that with the school?”

While this mentality is more likely to be accepted in Silicon Valley than many other places, it may be a large part of what we need to do in order to evolve into effective alternatives over time. Khan Lab reminds me in some ways of the practice of de-schooling that many families engage in when transitioning from a traditional model of education to a homeschooling or unschooling model. Letting go of paradigms, and accepting rapid change and shifting priorities is not something many providers of education can deal with, or better yet offer as part of their working model.

The Khan Lab School bills itself as an open source model of education, openly sharing their work through the Center for Learning Innovation, created for that specific purpose. But the question remains as to how well these innovations can transfer to K-12 at large.

So, yes, let’s keep an eye on Khan Lab School and see what we can learn about truly experimental models of education. And better yet, let’s work on understanding how to most effectively transfer their learning to the broader landscape of K-12 so that everyone benefits.

Let me know your thoughts on this latest venture and its potential to impact on K-12 beyond Silicon Valley.

Stick figures (like a game play) on a blackboard

How Can We Prepare Our Kids for the Future?

Why should it surprise us that “knowing the human touch and how to complement technology is critical”? How have we even got to a point where “our education system is not set up for that”? Yet, that’s exactly what Michael Horn, quoted in Claire Cain Miller’s recent New York Times article “Why What You Learned in Preschool is Crucial at Work,” tells us. Horn’s comments are almost lost in a piece that focuses for the most part on the need for social skills in the workplace, but for those of us in the business of education, such rhetoric can be a bitter reminder of just how far the pendulum swings at any given moment and at the expense of our children and our future workforce.

The news is flooded with articles on the unbundling of education (of which I am a fan), and specifically the need to evaluate people for what they are able to do rather than a grade on a test in the K-12 years or a specific diploma beyond. Google is applauded for evaluating future employees on skills rather than degree, and conversations around competency-based learning are beginning to trickle down to K-12 with experiments into portfolio-based evaluations and the never-ending quest for an elixir of critical thinking.

But what is troubling is the tendency to take an either-or approach to how we can best prepare our kids for the real world.

College Ready and Career Ready: Where to Start?

We want our kids to be college ready from high school and career ready from college, yet we can’t seem to agree on what they need to get there, or in other potentially more enlightened conversations, how to get there. We need to sort out the vital role that technology should play across the continuum of the educational experience.  While we continue to debate the specific makeup of a K-12 curriculum, there are fundamental approaches to education that can provide a foundation in an otherwise less-than-stable system.

  1. Social skills should be embedded into learning at all levels. Whether in pursuit of teaching to standards (which doesn’t have to be a bad thing), or designing curriculum that is focused on 21st century technology skills, kids still need to learn to work in teams, leverage peer expertise, ad communicate effectively in order to get the job done.
  2. Technology should be leveraged to free up teachers to play more effective roles. Teachers have always done so much more than deliver content, and with teachers more focused on helping students to use knowledge rather than acquiring it, learners can become more engaged in the process as well.
  3. Don’t skimp on the arts. Learning an instrument over a number years, or building a strong visual portfolio throughout one’s school years, provides not only an obvious set of skills and a confidence builder, but also a way of thinking about the world and one’s place in it in ways that core academics can’t.
  4. Take a more integrative approach to health. Physical and mental health issues loom large in today’s generation of schoolkids, with the Centers for Disease Controlreporting that 13-20 percent of children living in the United States (up to 1 out of 5 children) experience a mental disorder in a given year, with an estimated $247 billion spent each year on such disorders. Rather than merely playing triage for the medical profession, schools should be teaching kids about the importance of mind-body connection as early as possible, starting with opportunities for free play and building up to more sophisticated offerings as kids get older.
  5. Help kids to understand that learning is everywhere and is not something to “finish.” By bringing kids out into the community, and bringing outside experts into our classrooms, we can help kids establish strong connections with an expanding set of mentors and start building that sense of lifelong learning.

Focusing on one approach in absence of the others can weaken the entire system. They all need to work together for effective engagement and therefore learning to occur.

Breaking Down Walls for Better Learning and Better Performance

As Daniel Goleman has said, “We need to break down the walls between what we think of as academic intelligence and emotional intelligence.” Goleman, Paolo Freire and others have stressed the importance of seeing the world from each other’s perspectives, both in terms of developing systems thinking skills and in terms of creating the optimal learning environment. In preparing kids for the world of work, Cain Miller’s concludes that “Maybe high schools and colleges should evaluate students the way preschools do—whether they ‘play well with others’”

Providing the optimal learning engagements and learning environment for kids to build social skills while mastering academic content is a good place to start.

Lego children surrounding a Lego heart

Now that Mindcraft Is So Popular with the Schools, Will Kids Still Love Learning from It?

This is the game that, among other distinguished awards, has won:

  • Most Popular Game Beta: Over 10 million players between December 20, 2009 and November 18, 2011.
  • First Country Modeled at Full Scale in a Video Game: All 16,602 square miles of Denmark
  • Most Concurrent Players in one [game-created] world: 2,622
  • Most-Played Xbox Live Game: 1.75 billion hours (or 199,722 years as of May 2014)

According to the ticker on the game’s website, over 20,691,246 people have bought the game so far . . . wait, no, 20,691,252 . . . oh wait . . . ; well, you get the point.

Common Sense Media gives the game 4 out of five stars, rating it highly for learning math, science and hobbies; promoting thinking and reasoning, creativity and collaboration; and using design thinking and problem solving as part of its design approach.  Scholastic says the game helps kids learn:

  • Science
  • Math
  • English
  • History
  • Art and Architecture
  • Economics
  • Language
  • Social Skills
  • Geography
  • Technology

So, when school-as-usual shows increasing interest in how to apply Minecraft in the classroom, you think this is probably a good thing, right? I’m torn.

What happens when creativity is institutionalized?

As Education Weekly points out, “While the game’s power to engage children has made it a compelling draw inside schools, there have been hurdles to its growth.” The main hurdle reported, and this is echoed on Common Sense Media and elsewhere, is the open-ended nature of the game and how to incorporate it into instruction.

Therein lies the rub.

Minecraft can be played in two different ways, Survival Mode and Creative Mode. In the first, your main goal is to survive by building shelters and protective armor with the resources you gather and construct. In the second, you build virtual communities and worlds by building blocks, and as indicated above, that can get pretty sophisticated and can require a large range of skills and knowledge in addition to creativity. The game can be played in single player mode or with multiple players, allowing you to enter and explore worlds created by others.

While some people despair of the lack of instructions on setting out on the initial journey, resources have been developed over time to help people get started, ranging from the Official Minecraft Wiki, a compilation of open-source resources to MinecraftEdu, TeacherGaming LLC, the customized classroom version of the game.There are hundreds of Minecraft communities offering help and advice as well as over a million YouTube tutorials for all levels of play from other players.

Playing at home, a child will turn to family members, friends or online resources to get the help they need. It’s a learn-by-doing experience that is driven by the players’ need to know as the game progresses.

This can change when the game is introduced in a classroom environment and becomes a tool for driving standards.

How open can play be in the classroom setting?

Minecraft evolved from the basic survival mode to the creative and users began building more and more sophisticated shelters to protect themselves. Online communities started forming for exchanging ideas around the game and for helping each other.

All of the literature stresses the open-ended nature of the game, with the site’s teaser video telling us “With no rules to follow, this adventure is up to you.” And it is just this notion of openness that makes me question the potential to leverage this game in today’s grades-obsessed and standards-driven classrooms.

Take for example, the following comments from a video testimonial provided on the MinecraftEdu site.

“At home, computers, TV, it’s purely entertainment. In my classroom, it’s the very first time these kids have ever come up against boundaries on a computer. I definitely do teach the kids how to play before we really do any sort of meaningful educational content with it. If I just bring the kids into the room and say sit down and play, it’s not going to have the desired results.”

There are no desired results built into Minecraft. But there are many learning outcomes.

When informal learning is transitioned to a formal learning environment

Are the results of a structured learning experience better than when learners struggle to master it and muster the resources to help increase their level of play?

While there is definitely much to be gained by adding Minecraft to a school-based curriculum, there may be much lost in terms of the true value of the game played outside of a traditional school setting.

Home/Unschooling families have had similar debates over the years as Minecraft communities grow and users introduce more structured learning materials. Many kids who learn at home have access to Minecraft, with different structure around the experience. Groups such as Minecraft Homeschool, rebranded this summer as GameEd Academy’s Minecraft School, started out providing support and instructional materials for circles of friends playing together. Now their business has expanded to offer formal instruction for a fee. Another variation, called HomeSchool with Minecraft, promises secure servers, projects, instructor time, graded quizzes upon parental request, video links, etc., with “all information laid out textbook style.”

One of the most interesting discussions I’ve read between parents regarding formal versus informal Minecraft learning is on Amy Milstein’s UnschoolingNYC blog “Why we don’t do Minecraft homeschool” where she shares her rationale for Minecraft free play while her readers debate the pros and cons of more structured play.

At the end of the day, there is a tension that comes from trying to harness the power of an open-ended experience that has resulted in story after story of kids learning how to read, jumping into coding to set up their own Minecraft servers and mods, teaching parents to play, and expanding their own knowledge set in order to complete their own projects.

With Microsoft’s 2014 purchase of Minecraft for $2.5 billion, there will be diversification of the game and it will be interesting to see how the school’s use of the game impacts on its native ability to help kids learn.

What If You Built an EdTech Company and Not Enough People Came?

In January, Ambient Insight reported that global investments in learning technology reached $2.34 billion worldwide. In the U.S. market, with the industry reporting as much as $1.61 billion in funding halfway through this year, many would think we don’t need to worry too much about the future of edtech. After all, this already surpasses 2014 totals of $1.36B. The EdSurge Edtech Index lists nearly 1,600 different products in categories that include curriculum products, teacher needs, school operations, post-secondary and the all-purpose, everything else. There’s a lot of activity, right?

But if you look closely, as Frank Catalano did earlier this year in Geek Wire, although the numbers are rising yearly in terms of seed money, the percentages of investments decline significantly after that, with very little capital being invested for edtech in later stages. The bigger dollars go to more established companies, says Catalano, like the $186 M that went to Lynda.com before its purchase by LinkedIn. Most others fall far behind, with only 25 buyers spending more than $100M on U.S. edtech companies, reports EdSurge.

So, with all that activity out there, why is less money spent in this sector and less risk being taken on in later stages? Are there any lessons out there for edtech companies to learn from?

Try Not to Blame Your Target Market

News Corp’s $371M writedown of Amplify, the educational software and tablet company, gives us . . . ample reason to pause. Amplify is discontinuing its tablet-making business while it sorts through alternatives for the curriculum and assessment side of the business. According to a letter written by CEO Joel Klein to Amplify’s staff, the company will continue to support existing tablet customers but will not be taking on any new ones.

Not surprisingly, Klein’s letter, published in full on BuzzFeed, emanated pride of company. “Amplify designed a compelling tablet for classroom education . . . No one put as much thought and know-how into how teachers can work in a one-to-one classroom . . . In my view, Amplify’s work has been so innovative and transformative that we’ve been ahead of the market . . . However, sales haven’t moved as fast as we initially hoped. Too many districts across the country struggle with basic issues like sufficient internet connectivity. And change management in many places has been more difficult than many had anticipated.”

Klein goes on to applaud News Corp and Rupert Murdoch for their boldness of vision and commitment to education, admitting “As positive as this relationship has been, Amplify and News Corp both believe it is time to explore new and exciting strategic opportunities, working with partners who share a deep understanding of what it takes to be successful in education.”

And that there is the kicker. What does it take to be successful in education?

Is It Really Possible That People Just Aren’t Ready?

Is it fair for someone in Klein’s position to say we just weren’t ready for the product’s greatness?

While Klein’s comments come off as oddly congratulatory considering the circumstance, it’s neither out of character for him nor that outrageous in the world of high tech, where many of you reading this today have experienced, as have I, being on one end or another of an M&A deal.

This is not to say I have no sympathy for the people at Amplify who have most probably put heart and soul into efforts to develop a superior product. What struck me, however, were Klein’s comments regarding the readiness of the market.

His comments that seem to echo, for one, Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends 2015report for KPCB, in which she notes that “The Internet has been extraordinary . . . But in many ways, it’s just beginning.” The report indicated that education has had one quarter of the total impact (estimated degree to which Internet has changed behavior or outcomes in selected sectors of the economy/society) that a sector such as consumer has, for example.

Catalano also points out that edtech “at least in terms of investment, is a little weird. But in that charming, awkward kindergartener kind of way, like someone who — with or without epic funding numbers — may still grow up to be a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.”

What Does It Take to Be Successful in EdTech?

If Klein appears to have exhibited impatience with the people whose problems he was trying to solve, it wasn’t the first time for him. As Chancellor of New York’s vast public school system, he battled the long-entrenched unions as well as parents who opposed his many policies of change, which included establishing the Empowerment Zone, iZone, high stakes testing, merit pay, closing schools and opening charter schools, and more.

In his memoir “Lessons of Hope, Klein notes “We would inevitably try some things that wouldn’t work.” Alexander Nazaryan writing in Newsweek upon publication of the memoir, reflected “And yet failure was still preferable to inertia.”

When Klein says “. . . the forward-thinking districts that have implemented our curriculum in the classroom are proof positive that we are fundamentally changing the way teachers teach and students learn” you are left wondering about the nature of change and the means by which it can be obtained.

Amplify ran out of time. While revenues increased $21M over the previous year (earning $24M in revenues from April to June 2015 alone), it was too little too late. CFO Bedi Singh stated that the market for the digital curriculum was “disappointing and much slower to develop than we expected.”

Many of us are impatient and seek quicker solutions to what ails education. With the speed of software development may come false assumptions about the speed of adoption and acceptance to change. A tablet is not going to change K-12 education any more than an LMS will. Real disruption needs to come from a systemic change in how people perceive of learning overall and adopt curricular changes that reflect true 21st learning needs and goals.

The Latest EdTech Concept: The Decision-Maker Cap

The Decision-Maker Cap is the latest creation of our company, The Common Student. It is shaped like a baseball cap, is adjustable and comes in eight colors. The Decision-Maker Cap is now available for $55.99 and can help your high school senior make that very dreadful, very final decision: What should I do with the rest of my life?

What Does the Decision-Maker Cap Do?

The Deci-MC, as we like to call it, supports decision making by sorting through user memory, biorhythms, various social media outlets,and PAARC test scores. A weighted algorithm incorporates inputs into to the following questions into an overall rubric for decisions. All the user needs to do is wear the cap!

  1. What did I like about school so far?
  2. What did I not like about school so far?
  3. What did I excel in at school?
  4. What did I excel in outside of school?
  5. If I could do anything, what would that be?
  6. If I could go anywhere, where would that be?
  7. How much money am I going to have saved at age 65?
  8. How healthy am I going to be at age 65?
  9. How much more climate change will occur in the next four years?
  10. Will I ever be comfortable speaking in a large group?

Pilot Study

For our pilot study, we offered Deci-MCs to high school seniors in 30 high schools in 10 different cities in the United States. Three of the schools opted out of participation, citing discomfort with our data policy. Four others took the hats, attempted to resell to a competitor of ours, and were charged with illegal trafficking of high stakes technology.

The remaining schools participated in a three-week pilot during  which test users wore the caps in three different settings: in class, in sessions with guidance counselors, and at home. While results varied, we were able to conclude:

  • In 76% of all cases, Deci-MC activity was highest during class time, leading us to believe that students spend most time during class considering their options for life after school.
  • In 85% of all cases, Deci-MC activity was lowest during visits with guidance counselors, leading us to conclude that students do not focus on their future when placed inside a box with three class walls.
  • In all but 10% of cases, data from home usage was unreliable because these students’ guardians made them take their hats off.

 

Recommendations Made

The Deci-MC compiles data over a three-week period and sends its recommendations via email, text, or voicemail, depending on which notification method the student selected when first signing up. Recommendation messages include the following:

  • You should consider going to college; four years (or more) in a somewhat safe environment will help nurture your intellect, skillset, and social life significantly.
  • Take a gap year. You need to recharge before committing to the university experience.
  • Here’s the deal. You should work part-time and go to school part-time. You will be a better person for it. And you won’t have debt hanging on your neck for the rest of your life.
  • You really should think about creating your own learning program from a series of online courses, internships and travel experiences. A self-directed learner like you can benefit greatly from these experiences.

Decision-Maker Cap v.2

Our first release focuses on the recommended decisions and is meant to be used by students alone, or as part of discussions with friends, parents, guidance counselors, etc. Our next version will have increased capabilities to support the process of decision making, so that in addition to the final recommendations, they will get:

  • Daily updates with lists of Tumbler and other blogs with articles relevant to the user’s interests.
  • Recommended podcast playlists to provide more input per student interests.
  • Vibrating functionality to send students a quick buzz to help them focus while taking the AP classes listed on their college applications.
  • Weekly digest of options, including college, gap year, part-time, and self-directed learning to remind students that there are choices.

Disclosure: In addition to the other hats I wear as writer, designer and strategist, I am also the mother of a high school senior who has chronicled some of her own journey into growing up and decision making in song. If you are interested, take a listen here.

Can Two Extra “Vs” Help EdTech Save Education?

Last week I heard Guy Kawasaki talk about his passion for writing, his two latest books: “The Art of the Start-Up 2.0” and “The Art of Social Media,” as well as the updated MVP (Minimally Viable Product) model. During his livestream interview withStartup Grind’s founder Derek Anderson, Kawasaki reiterated his appreciation of the Lean Startup model and provided details on the two additional “Vs” he hoped might strengthen Eric Reis’s model. As Kawasaki says, “The concept is that you have this Minimal Viable Product. You do the prototype, you test, you get the product out there.”

Adding Value and Vision

So why do we need a couple of extra Vs?

According to Kawasaki:

  • The first V is for Viable. It’s foreseeable that you will make a return, that your revenues will exceed your costs.
  • The first extra V is for Valuable: You are changing the world. You are doing something significant. You are not simply making a buck.
  • The second extra V is for validation: You have something that makes a buck, but it validates your vision for the future.

Where Are the Two Vs in EdTech?

The two Vs reminded me of proliferation of EdTech products and companies and how we need to be wary of digital bells and whistles masquerading as the saviors of education. With the endless rollout of iPad apps alone (TechCrunch reported 20,000 education apps developed for iPad in 2012 alone), one has to wonder how much “V” (any V at all, really) has gone into each one.

Lest you label me a Luddite, I should tell you that I’m a huge fan of educational technology, and I spent half my professional career helping corporations train employees using online simulations and schools expand their footprint with online courseware. But I simply have to sometimes wonder how many of today’s solutions are developed with these two Vs in mind. How valuable is the solution in rescuing education from the test-driven, grades obsessed institution it has become? And what vision is the product serving?

EdTech Products in Largest and Smallest Concentrations

Think about where the largest concentration of technology tools in education is focused today. A quick scan on The EdSurge EdTech Index reveals the highest concentration of products in the following five categories:

  1. Math (134)
  2. Language Arts (90)
  3. Games (58)
  4. Assessment (50)
  5. Science (44)

With the exception of Games, these are fairly standard subjects, right? Much of the software in that list is designed to align with and promote success with implementing the CCCS. There’s a theme here.

Where do you think the lowest concentration of tools lies? Looking at student-facing applications in K-12 with 10 or fewer apps in their respective categories, we see:

  1. Digital Storytelling (9)
  2. Arts (9)
  3. Maker and DIY Tools (10)
  4. Social Learning (10)
  5. Video Instruction (16)

To be honest, I think this second set of numbers would be higher if there were more a little extra “V” involved.

Rifting on Value

Guy Kawasaki is as powerful a speaker as he is an effective writer. When he talks, you can’t help but pay attention and enjoy yourself. And most of the time you are wishing you had said whatever he just said. So maybe my rifting on the “two Vs” is my way of showing my respect. That being said, I’ve got to admit that “value” can be interpreted in a lot of different ways.

Using technology to help understand and expand the ways in which people can learn is of tremendous value. The work being done to understand how people think and learn and applying that to blended learning programs, for example, is adding great value to kids previously “stuck” in preconceived notions of how to solve problems and one-size-fits-all curriculum plans. These are real tools that can help teachers support learning in diverse populations. It expands and scales the capability of those who already know how to personalize learning and enables those who may not have been doing so much of that already.

Building a better way to help kids practice for a test?

One of the other topics Kawasaki and Anderson discussed was the concept of “nail it and scale it.” “When do you squeeze the trigger?” as Anderson put it. Kawasaki’s response is to run a qualitative test: “Have you jumped curves and pushed the technology enough?”

I think this is exactly what is happening. Everyone is pushing the technology, and that is a really exciting thing. But without a coherent, game-changing educational mission, an EdTech company on its own may just be pushing the technology. That’s not really enough.

You need a little more “V.”

How We Can Help Community College Students Graduate

What do Tom Hanks, Chris Rock, Walt Disney, James Dean, George Lucas, Teri Hatcher, Eddie Murphy, and Halle Berry have in common?

They all attended community college but never finished.

The same thing is true for 66 to 80 percent of students who enroll. But clearly, they don’t all end up with careers in the movies. This week’s NY EdTech’s “Community College Spotlight: Edtech at 2-Year Schools” illuminated the challenges for those who attend and operate these schools and presented some potential ways technology can be part of the solution to these huge dropout rates.

Panelists Making a Difference in Community College Today

The panelists represented a broad range of expertise:

Alexandra Meis, Co-founder and Chief Product Officer, Kinvolved

Kinvolved has developed an app to improve PK-12 attendance that records, shares, and analyzes data among families, schools and after-school programs. The company is extending its reach into the college market, and is a Finalist for the Robin Hood Foundation $5M College Success Prize, which recognizes the most promising technology interventions to help community college students continue their studies and attain their associate degree. Alex was recently named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Education and is a 2012 Education Pioneers Fellow.

Gina Sipley, Instructor, Nassau Community College, SUNY

Gina is a tenure track Instructor of Reading and Basic Education at Nassau CC and a PhD student studying Digital Literacies and Gaming at Hofstra University. She writes about EdTech for Al Jazeera America, EdSurge, Mic and is a nationally recognized Teacher of the Future.

Professor David Finegold, Chief Academic Officer, American Honors

David is the founding Chief Academic Officer for American Honors, an organization that expands opportunities and lowers the costs for talented students to obtain a high quality undergraduate education by building honors colleges at leading community colleges, combined with 2 + 2 pathways to the leading public and private US universities.

Melinda Mechur Karp – Assistant Director, Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University

Melinda is a leading expert on smoothing students’ transition into college and supporting them once there. Over the past 15 years at the Community College Research Center, she has led studies examining advising, counseling, and support services; college 101 courses; and dual enrollment programs.

Starting with Basic Truths about Community Colleges

The panelists agreed that, compared with private four-year schools, community colleges are asked to do more for their students with fewer resources. There appeared to be consensus that the $60 billion President Obama wants to spend on tuition relief for community colleges could be better spent on helping students to graduate instead. The main areas highlighted for improvement include:

  • Improving systems and processes to run the schools more efficiently and effectively (registration processes, administrative loads, etc.).
  • Investing in means of helping people graduate, providing them with the tools and resources to navigate (Better designed online resources, improved mobile access, more effective counseling services, etc.)

Who is Today’s Community College Student?

While community college students have typically been older than the students attending four-year schools, we are seeing younger students enrolling these days, with the average age of 27 years old.

Community college students typically:

  • Need to get caught up academically before immersing in a complete academic program.
  • Lack the “social capital” to navigate the college experience. Most are first generation college students and so have little or no resources at home to help enculturate them to the college experience. They have no guidance as to how to navigate course selection, scheduling challenges, etc. like students whose parents have already lived the experience.
  • Work part- or full-time and thus have less time to focus on their studies.
  • Have families and thus require more flexible scheduling or childcare or both.
  • Don’t form cohorts like most students in four-year colleges do.
  • Confront a major information barrier when it comes to policies, processes and procedures.

How Can We Help?

Suggestions for improvement were filtered throughout the evening’s conversation. As a means of shedding further light on what is needed, NY EdTech co-organizer Michelle Devan asked the panelists what they would say if they could speak to President Obama or Governor Cuomo about community colleges. Their responses included:

  • More consistent and reliable broadband.
  • Donors Choose for higher ed. (Like the popular online platform that enables K-12 teachers to ask for donations for specific projects or resources from anywhere in the country, not just from within the school). I need to credit Gina Sipley with bringing this up. It’s an interesting concept, folks!
  • More dual enrollment opportunities.
  • Doing more to prepare students for the college experience before they get there.
  • Putting systems in place for relationship building amongst students.

In terms of EdTech, the panelists had some suggestions for people who want to get involved:

  • Need to focus on process: Design, Develop, and Re-design.
  • Know your audience; for example, provide ways of communicating that get students where they are at. Depending on the age of the student, they may not use traditional email or Facebook. Texting is often a more efficient means of communication. Some systems allow for this already, for example, letting students select which mode of communication they prefer. It’s just one example of making sure you are designing for the target audience.
  • Design with empathy: How can you make these students’ lives just a little easier? The stories shared about people who strive to complete community college reveal tremendous financial and emotional challenges. One story shared told of a student who was raising his siblings after their parents left them. A fellow audience member told me his mother never completed community college because of the language barrier.
  • Consider using students as resources in developing tools and thereby provide them with meaningful work. For example, hire entry level programmers, host local hackathons, use students as beta testers, etc.
  • Get people to the table to discuss necessary change. Include students and administration to ensure all voices are heard.

Building Community for Community College Students

One of the main issues that came up throughout the evening was the isolation that many community college students feel either due to scheduling realities, the information barrier they confront, or the lack of meaningful advisement. The picture that was painted for us in the audience was of a student wandering campus trying to find his advisor and unable to do so.

It would be great to find a way to bring people whose lives are so challenging and so diverse together so that they could better succeed despite those challenges.

Got an app for that?

Thanks again to NY EdTech Meetup co-organizers, Kathy Benemann and Michelle Dervan for arranging such an informative evening. And thanks to the panel, for the work they do and for sharing it with NY EdTech. Explore the links in the article to learn more about what these people and their organizations are doing to help improve community college today. The ongoing research at the Community College Research Center, the programs offered by American Honors, the dedicated teaching by people like Gina Shipley and others, and the meaningful application of technology in this market by Kinvolved are impressive and are efforts many of us can contribute to in order to help drive progress in this sector.

Have some thoughts of your own on the issue? Share them here!

Sheri Handel’s passion for teaching, learning, and technology continues to evolve from a career as a college instructor to a designer and manager of online and classroom learning experiences for corporate, higher education clients, and K-12 learners. To talk about learning strategy and to partner on learning design for social impact in education, visit us at Designs2Learn.

What Drives Teacherpreneurship? The Need to Get It Done!

Who are your learning heroes? Is it a former teacher from elementary school? Someone you’ve read about making a difference in today’s embattled world of K-12? Or maybe a MOOC innovator within higher ed? Think no further. I have some nominees for you:

  • Maya Gat
  • Kara Carpenter
  • Mike Zamansky

Who are they, and how did they get on this list? Let me set it up for you. Then I’ll get into the details.

Why Teacherpreneurship?

There’s a lot of new terminology that has come out of the influx of technology into education in the past few years. Most of us know about the edupreneurs who have entered the education market to provide tools, services and dollars to implementing technology solutions into the field. More and more, we are hearing about teachers who are taking on the mantle of business ownership in order to parlay their expertise into providing educationally sound technical solutions to educational problems.

I was fortunate enough to spend the other evening at a great event called “Real Teachers of Silicon Alley: Teacherpreneurs’ Impact on EdTech” organized by NY EdTech Meetup, co-organized by Michelle Dervan and Kathy Benemann. I was blown away by the dedication, business savvy and technical expertise of the panel.

Classroom Challenges to Integrating New Technology

The discussion started with a provocative question addressing concern around the products and the bad rap that edtech is getting in educational circles these days. The biggest two challenges, as we have written about before in this space, were summarized as:

  • Teachers are in danger of spending more time dealing with new technology than with actual teaching.
  • Much of the technology being introduced can be classified as “substitution products,” or “digital replicas” of existing, and perhaps sub-par teaching practices. Think test prep on steroids.

Each of the three teacherpreneurs is certified classroom teachers. Two have left teaching to focus on running their companies, one is still teaching. The fourth panelist is serving as the iZone Director of Special Projects for the NYC Department of Education.

The panelists shared various anecdotes and perspectives on gaps in the current offerings and processes for integrating technology into the classroom:

  • Trading existing best practices in the classroom for time spent working with new software programs
  • Not enough release time or time to actually learn the systems
  • Lack of appropriate content or toolset

The Basic Business Challenges to Teacherpreneurship

As our small sampling illustrates, the major challenge to teacherpreneurship is that it often takes people who truly love being in the classroom out of the classroom. Therefore, if a teacherpreneur does leave the classroom to start up a business, maintaining a team of teacher content experts, developers and consultants is a large requirement for developing the right kind of product.

Additionally, while teachers may have their fingers on the pulse of what kids need, they may not have the business acumen required to start and operate a business in today’s dynamic market. Some teacherpreneurs take on a co-founder or partner to fill this role.

More on our learning heroes

So let me present today’s learning heroes, three teachers who have taken technology into their own hands in order to improve learning.

Maya Gat, CEO and Co-Founder of Branching Minds

Prior to starting Branching Minds, Gat taught both locally and overseas. Through her own experience trying to understand why certain students struggle in the classroom, and through the principals of activism that were inherent to her teaching, Gat started Branching Minds to help identify appropriate strategies for individual students. Part of the solution lies in Gat’s understanding of neurodiversity and the role that plays in how people learn.

A series of questions answered on the Branching Minds site, much like those you may input into a “Web MD type application,” provides users with the learning strategies tailored to their particular learning style.

The platform enables you to:

  • Identify students’ learning challenges
  • Find research-back support
  • Track and report on student progress

Branching Minds just won the Netexplo Digital Innovation Award for 2015. Off to a good start (up)!

Kara Carpenter, Co-Founder of Teachley

Carpenter started up Teachley in 2011 while finishing her Ph.D. in Cognitive Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University. She has over 10 years of classroom teaching experience from kids to adults, and has also taught overseas. Teachley’s program is a research-driven, game-based product that recognizes the distinct thinking processes different learners apply to solving math problems. Knowing how that child approaches these problems, a pathway to learning appropriate to that child can be developed.

The platform provides:

  • Personalized learning
  • Progress monitoring
  • RTI and intervention support
  • Professional development

Teachley has been recognized by the Breteau Foundation as a 2015 Prize Finalist and was awarded a Research@Work Honorable Mention in 2014 by Digital Promise. Their work has been cited by Scholastic, the Wall Street Journal and other outlets.

Mike Zamansky, Teacher and Founder of CSTUY

Mike Zamansky was a software engineer who left his job at Goldman Saks to teach. He and a group of fellow master teachers built developed the series of computer science courses taught at Stuyvesant and out of that developed the non-profit organization CSTUY (Computer Science and Technology for Urban Youth) to bring computer science to an audience that may not otherwise have access to the type of teaching and learning that CSTUY provides. Through afterschool and summer school programs, they bring best-in-class CS learning to a much wider audience.

One strong component of the CSTUY program has been bringing together the hundreds of Stuyvesant alumni and creating a network of advisors and connections to those just coming up.

Zamansky is passionate about teaching and learning, about providing quality computer science offerings to students within his school and beyond it.

The Need to Get It Done

The other day I wrote about the need to disrupt education if we want to change it. It was great to hear how these powerful innovators are using technology and business modeling in a way that is truly disruptive in order to improve education. When asked why they would take on teacherpreneurship despite the challenges, the consensus was that “it needed to be done.” These are the reasons I’ve added them to my list of learning heroes.

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