A perfect storm

Authors: Jonathan Grudin
Posted: Wed, May 01, 2013 - 7:03:24

Full disclosure: I generally don’t mention my company’s products in print, but can’t avoid it here. It’s not something I worked on.

The summer after high school I was hired to teach tennis at a local park. It was before Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors turned the sport upside down. There was a “right way” to hit every shot—forehand, backhand, volley— but I favored a then-dismissed two-handed backhand. It went without saying that I would teach the proper one-handed backhand, but they said it anyway, and also asked me to use a one-handed backhand when competing that summer to set an example for my students.

Sports instruction changed. No longer is there a right way. Video is analyzed and an improvement plan constructed around an athlete’s current state. The era of the personal trainer arrived. Teaching was much easier back in my era, but not so good for students.

In K–12 education, the one-size-fits-all approach to a first approximation continues in most schools today. But it is finally changing, with technology playing a large role, for better or worse. I believe it is for better, much better.

Since shifting my research focus to K–12 education I have been sitting in classes, talking with students, teachers, administrators, and educational technology developers, and reading literature. Previously, my exposure was through mass media and as the parent of daughters in elementary and middle schools. I had opinions, and now some of them have evolved.

K–12 education is on the cusp of dramatic change in the United States and probably everywhere. How can I see it as positive? Examine plans for making sausage in an era of budget cuts and conclude it will be tasty? Have I become a clueless “oldie,” as my daughters put it? Well maybe, but I see powerful converging forces creating the conditions for a perfect storm that will sweep through our schools over the next two to five years.

Force #1: The Common Core State Standards

For a decade, annual state assessment tests have sought to measure basic math and language arts proficiency. They can identify severe deficiencies, but the result of focusing education on passing multiple-choice, fact-based tests is problematic, especially for higher grades. In response, 45 states banded together to develop the Common Core State Standards, focusing on “21st century skills” such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking, complex problem-solving, and project-based learning. After years of development the curriculum is to be fully adopted in the 2014-2015 school year. The devil is notoriously in the details, but it looks to me to be a great step.

Force #2: Online assessment

A student’s mastery of these 21st century skills cannot be assessed with pen and paper multiple-choice tests. Two consortia formed to develop assessment tools, each comprising about half of the 45 states. Their approaches differ but both require online-only assessment by the spring of 2015. Large-scale pilot tests began this month.

The implications of “online” are huge. Rotating students through computer labs is suboptimal. Scheduling for large schools would be a nightmare and students with less online experience could suffer. In March, the Los Angeles Unified School District issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) to deliver over 600,000 tablets by December 2014. Other RFPs are out. Implementation matters: Throwing technology at a school does not insure progress. Change will not come overnight. But again I see solid grounds for optimism.

Force #3: Advances in ‘blended learning’

As technology costs decline and old schools get wired, as new schools are built wired, experiments that blend online and traditional learning proliferate. We can identify what works and what doesn’t. One model is “station rotation”: one-third of a class works on exercises on a bank of computers with adaptive software that matches problems to current performance, one-third on collaborative efforts perhaps overseen by a teaching aide, and one-third receive a lecture or the teacher’s attention; then they rotate. Another is the “flipped classroom”: Prior to class students watch a video lecture (Khan Academy, VideoNerd, Discovery Learning, teacher-created, etc.). Class time is then spent solving problems and interacting. This merges a non-massive version of the university MOOC (massive open online course) concept with traditional face-to-face education. Well-done case studies and detailed models describe experiences with these and other innovative approaches.

As online resources proliferate, textbook publishers compete with high-quality interactive digital supplements. Adaptive exercises steer students to easier or more challenging problems based on how they are doing. Online video lectures are provided to back up the instructor’s.

Force #4: Deployments with stylus and OneNote

One-to-one deployments of networked tablets with keyboards and active digitizing styluses are rare. They have been expensive. Deployments exist, though. When students and teachers have a capable device with them at home, school, on field trips, and so forth, tremendous efficiencies and capabilities arise. Students and teachers develop skills, discover resources, share techniques, and unleash creativity in a fashion that seems without parallel. Videos of deployments at Cincinnati Country Day School (from WIPTTE 2013, the Workshop on the Impact of Pen and Touch Technologies on Education) and Whitfield School in St. Louis are powerful accounts.

Low-resolution capacitive touch display devices such as the iPad can reduce the weight of books lugged around by students, but these lean-back devices are primarily designed for content consumption. High-quality content creation—annotating, highlighting, sketching, and so forth—required a high-resolution stylus with active digitizer. I recently realized why I had long under-estimated the stylus: In few professions are handwritten notes or sketches part of the final product. Education is one of them. Teacher mark papers, students take notes in class.

Textbooks have company in crying out for digitization. Students in middle and high schools carry large notebooks with sections for each class. Tremendous benefits accrue from putting notebooks online with a tool such as OneNote, which comes with Microsoft Office. Students can easily copy and annotate materials from almost any source into OneNote, including learning management systems such as Moodle and DyKnow. They can insert links to audio and video and share sections with teachers or classmates. Teachers can mark homework or quizzes without collecting them, providing students with immediate feedback. Teachers estimate grading time is cut to one-third, preserving time for interaction.

The Storm

The forces described here are converging and they are converging fast. Schools in the Common Core standards coalitions have strong incentives to move to 1:1 deployments by 2014-2015. Not only will assessment be online, software supporting 21st century skills has appeared and effective uses identified. Tablet costs are already dropping quickly and the emerging volume—recall the 600,000 for Los Angeles alone—will drive them down sharply. In May, when Los Angeles announces its decision, a new floor for tablet prices may be found.

Observations of existing deployments convinced me that a golden era of educational achievement looms. Students who carry devices with them, more so than the generation that carries only a phone, will be a truly digital generation. 

It won’t happen in two years. It won’t be smooth. Some predict a train wreck—schools unready in the spring of 2015. Educators who have focused for 10 years on teaching kids to pass multiple choice assessment tests will require time to adjust. Tools like OneNote were not designed for use on this scale, but can rise to meet the challenge. Education is not like other disciplines. For example, I was initially perplexed by the fierce insistence of many teachers that they needed better stylus handling during presentations—I rarely see a speaker use more than a laser pointer. Eventually it dawned on me. In presentations to university students or adults, viewers can generally identify the bullet item or diagram part to which a speaker is referring. Not so in K–12. Teachers didn’t write out lecture notes once and then copy and redistribute them—each year they wrote on a blackboard or whiteboard, underlining and circling, pausing for emphasis, drawing arrows to connect concepts. With a tablet and projector, they can do this equally easily and more colorfully, and without turning their back on the students. (This would have impeded note-passing in my youth, but some things never change –students today develop ingenious digital note-passing strategies.)

What could derail my upbeat projection?

Cuts in education spending in recent years are depressing—if cuts continue, the many enthusiastic and well-trained teachers coming along won’t deliver to their potential. Also, although the Common Core State Standards were endorsed by the Business Roundtable chaired by the CEO of Exxon, the Republican National Committee has come out strongly against them. In Texas, one of five states not adopting the Common Core, the dominant Republican Party platform education section “opposes the teaching of higher order thinking skills, critical thinking skills and similar programs.” An impressive number of Presidents and senior members of Congress come from Texas, so this is not a good omen. And because we have lost the habit of teaching kids to think, the new tests could spawn a wider resistance if not managed well.

Outside the Lone Star State perhaps, childhood education is a protected place, one of few in which commercial interests have not gained free rein. I am optimistic. We have a sense of where education should go. We have tools to help us get there.

Posted in: on Wed, May 01, 2013 - 7:03:24

Jonathan Grudin

Jonathan Grudin is a principal researcher in the Natural Interaction Group at Microsoft Research.
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