One of the questions that I am asked regularly by college students and recent college grads is whether they should teach or go straight into edtech. My first inclination is to say TEACH, and go on with my day. But it’s not so simple…and that wouldn’t be very nice.
I loved teaching and coaching teachers, and feel that it has informed everything that I have done in edtech. It grounds me. That said, many of the brilliant entrepreneurs, developers, and product managers that I have worked with in education technology have never taught. You need people with different backgrounds and skill sets to make this industry work. If you are interested in starting your own K12 edtech company, teaching will undoubtedly give you enormous insight into the challenges that teachers face and the problems that you might work to solve. But you also could also get insights from observing classrooms and listening to teachers.
Ultimately, the decision should not be a strategic one but a personal one. Teaching is really, really hard, especially if choose to teach in a low-income school. A stamp on your resume is not going to get you through it, at least not at the standard that students deserve. You have to want to teach. And if you do, I could go on for days about how amazing it is. You have the opportunity to change how students view themselves and the world. What an honor that is. Maybe, someday, I’ll even go back.
In the Wall Street Journal this week Professor Adam Falk writes an opinion piece entitled, “In Defence of the Living Breathing Professor”. I agree with much of what he writes. Williams offers a phenomenal educational experience, not dissimilar to the one that I received at Pomona College. Almost all of my undergraduate classes had less than 30 students and relied on discussion rather than lectures. I even had one upper division course with two of the top professors at Pomona and only three students. When I applied to graduate school my undergraduate thesis advisor asked to reread my thesis to write a more complete recommendation—my thesis was on Habermas and probably should never have been read once let alone twice! I feel infinitely grateful to the professors I worked with and for the education I received.
But I think Professor Falk is missing two very important points:
1) Most college students today in the US are “non-traditional.” Only 25% of first-year students are enrolled in a four year residential college and one third of students work full-time. When we look globally there are many students that simply don’t have access to higher education courses at all. In many countries demand far out strips supply.
2) The rising costs associated with traditional higher education are unsustainable (both for individual and for society at large). During the last 25 years the cost of education has gone up about 440%. Over 2/3 of students are graduating with student loans and this is up 27% just in the last 5 years. Given the current economic climate students are questioning the return on this investment.
Online education is not a threat to Williams or Pomona—at least not at this point. So much of their value proposition falls outside of the lines of what technology currently can offer (check out this framework put together by Michael Staton, co-founder of Inigral). The hope is that online education can help the other 99% of students, while at the same time challenging elite institutions to rethink their use of technology to both lower costs and improve teaching and learning.
I love this TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson—witty and insightful and on the too often neglected but oh so important topic of creativity and education. I watched it a few years ago, and stumbled across it again today in a fit of procrastination. Enjoy!
When I first learned about the digital divide the focus was on access—-ensuring that low-income schools had the same access to computers and the internet as higher income schools. This access gap was real and the focus was justified. In 1998 the ratio of students to instructional computers connected to the internet was 17.2 in schools with greater than 50% minority students enrolled and 10.1 in low minority student schools—a very significant gap. But over the last 12 years, as the price of computing has fallen beyond anyone’s expectations and with federal programs like ERate, the in-school access divide has all but disappeared. A study by Gray and Lewis (2009) showed that high schools with student populations of more than 20 percent at or beneath the poverty level have just below the amount of access to online district resources (90 percent compared to 94 percent) of higher SES schools as well as access to course management and delivery software (58 percent compared to 59 percent).
The digital divide however persists, albeit in a new and perhaps more troubling form. The new divide focuses on how students actually engage with the technology. Low income and higher income students are using the technology differently, and new research suggests that these differences may have implications on what students actually get out of their technology usage. A study by Neuman and Celano (2006) tracked how students used computers in public libraries. They found that children in low-income areas spent nearly half of their time (49%) on below-age-level activity. Comparatively children in middle income areas spent only 7 percent of their time on below-age-level activities. Additionally children from the middle income area engaged in activities that resulted in three times for reading than children from the low-income area.
Low income youth’s engagement in lower level activities may in part be to lower levels of literacy (Neuman and Celano, 2006), but it may also be influenced by less access technologically sophisticated adults. Neuman can Celano found that middle income youth were mentored by parents, peers, or staff to use the technological resources strategically. Low income youth, on the other hand received virtually not mentorship.
Regardless of the reason why lower income youth are engaging with technology at lower levels, what is clear is that unless technology usage—-and not just access—enters into the discourse, technology has no hope of being the great equalizer that we’d all like it to be.
There is an implicit fear when it comes to education technology that the goal is for computers to replace the teacher, the human. With this fear comes the argument that there is something special—something that can never be replicated by a machine—within the teacher-student interaction. And I think this argument is right. A monitor and a keyboard will never be able to have the impact that your second grade teacher had on your life. But why not use technology then, to maximize those moments that allowed that teacher to have the impact that she/he did. She wasn’t your favorite teacher because she graded your additions facts or because of her lecture on borrowing with double-digit subtraction. It was because of things that were more intangible, more human. Why not let technology—-technology like Khan’s videos—humanize the classroom, freeing teachers to spend time on those meaningful intangibles.
I spent the weekend in DC for the 20th Anniversary of Teach For America. The event was energizing and engaging, and felt kind of like, as Kim Smith of New School Venture Fund put it, a revival at a megachurch. Throughout the weekend over meals with old friends who I taught with and in conversations with current corps members, I kept feeling waves of nostalgia. There’s a lot I’d like to write about TFA—and I know that TFA often incites fierce debate within the education world—but for now I’d just like to bask in my nostalgia and share a letter that I wrote as second year corps member to the new incoming corps.
January 6, 2006
Dear Future Bay Area Corps Member,
The sun is just emerging from behind the yellow foothills as I drive to Lester Shields Elementary each morning. A world away from its geographic neighbors, Google, eBay, and Apple, I exit highway 280 into Alum Rock, San Jose, the community where I teach, the community that I have come to love. I pass La Taqueria, Lee’s Vietnamese sandwich shop, and Target, and drive by the row of single-family homes that lead to my school.
When I was first accepted into the Bay Area corps, I didn’t know much about San Jose. I thought of it as a relatively new city. But fourth grade California history taught me that San Jose is one of the oldest cities in the state. It was established as a mission in 1797. In a sense, however, I was right. The face of San Jose is constantly reinventing itself, appearing always new. The city experiences continuous influx; people move in every day from all corners of the world to pursue technology, agriculture, education, or simply better living circumstances. It is not uncommon for a student to show up at my classroom door two months into the year, with a blue note that reads, “Please welcome Freal into your class.” Before me today stood a nervous boy who has just moved to the U.S from the Philippines. People move here for their future.
“Estás estudiando para tu futura,” Vanessa’s mother told her during parent teacher conferences last week. My students’ parents understand that education is the key to advancement. They look at the public schools, overburdened as they are, as places of hope, opportunities for a better life. And you, the teacher, “la maestra,” embrace that hope, encourage that drive and, through lesson after lesson, begin to create the tools that can make those dreams become a reality.
In the dynamic bed of overlaying cultures that shape my classroom, nothing is ever simple. Progress is sometimes exposed as bittersweet. I couldn’t help but applaud the first time Eric spoke in English in class. At the same time the first crack in the gulf that may well separate him from his Spanish-speaking family was created. Students struggle to understand the differences around them, and I, the teacher, struggle to learn how to orchestrate them.The multitude of perspectives can invigorate and enrich the learning environment. But it is a give and take process where everyone changes and new cultural hybrids are formed right before my eyes.
At times, the responsibility of being in charge of the education of 34 fourth graders is overwhelming. I look over their reading scores, at students two, three, four years below grade level, and the urgency of the situation intimidates me. I feel inadequate. But low student performance is not some abstract concept I grapple with in a textbook. It is something I work to improve everyday, in every interaction that I have with my students and their families, from shaking their hands each morning before they enter class, to thinking of an engaging way to teach long division, to giving a student a high five when they finally get 100 percent on a spelling test. The faces of my students inspire me, and the support, creativity, and dedication of my fellow corps members rejuvenates me.
Brett, a gregarious fellow corps members from Michigan, and I planned our lessons together for the first several months of school last year. It would take us an entire day to do what we can now do in a few hours. Together we wrestled with confusing aspects of the curriculum, gave each other advice on ways to motivate challenging students, and tried to think of ways to make whatever we were teaching a little more fun. The spirit of collaboration has continued into my second year, where fourth grade teachers come together, frustrated with a math curriculum that failed to address the fourth grade standards, and created a long-term math plan. My classroom has never been an island; my colleagues are present daily through concrete teaching practices as well as the development of my pedagogy.
At 8:00 in the morning, the bell will ring. Your students will be waiting in line, silhouetted against the backdrop of the foothills. A parent will wave to you across the playground, as children stand ready for a new day. And you will lead your class into your classroom to make a difference.
“The moment we, our generation, is living through is the largest increase in expressive capabilities in human history.” This is an interesting TED talk by Clay Shirky, a social media theorist. The increasingly collaborative and interactive nature of media presents opportunities for the education world. Some of the most innovative education technology start-ups that out there right now (Grockit, Livemocha, Edmodo to name a few) are the ones that understand the new role of social media and are harnessing it for student learning. I am excited to see more EdTech companies take advantage of the trends in social media and online networking.
There is a growing disparity between youth technology consumption inside and outside of school. Reading the study “Generation M2: Media and the Lives of 8-18 Year Old,” made me realize quite how stark that disparity is. Understanding how youth are engaging with technology outside of the classroom will be key to understanding how to leverage it within the classroom to promote learning. Here are some highlights from the study:
8-18 year-old spend 7.38 hours a day, seven days a week with media (TV, Internet, video games, songs, websites), this is an increase of a of 1.2 hours from 5 years ago
When you account for multi-tasking youth spend 10.5 hours a day with media (!)
For the first time since 1999 (when they started doing this research), the amount of time that young people spend watching regularly scheduled television has declined (by .25 hours a day from 3:04 to 2:39 hours). The total number of minutes watching TV or movies has actually increased (by 38 minutes) due to the proliferation of new ways of watching TV or movies on the Internet
20% of media consumption occurs on mobile devices
For those youth who have a cell phone, they estimate they send an average of 118 text messages a day
On average 7th-12th graders report spending about an hour and a half (1:35) engaged in sending and receiving text messages
70% of youth go online in a given day (from home 57%, school 20%, other location %14)
I had dinner the other night with a friend who raved about Davis Guggenhiem’s (creator of An Inconvenient Truth) new film Waiting for Superman. The film debuted at Sundance last winter and took home the audience award for US documentary. One review of the film reads,”Full of refreshingly honest insights and some powerfully upsetting statistics, the film seems angry and critical, but never hopeless. We’d like to think that every kid in America has his own fair shot at a strong education … but we know they don’t. Not really. Movies like Waiting for Superman would like to change that.” I’m looking forward to the film’s September release.
In a speech delivered at the National Charter School Conference last summer Secretary Duncan pledged 5 (now 3.5) billion dollars to support the turnaround of the lowest 5 percent of schools. “We need everyone who cares about public education,” he stated, “to take on the toughest assignment of all—and get in the business of turning around our lowest-performing schools.” It is not surprising that Duncan chose school turnarounds as a focal point in his national education plan. Over 5,000 schools nationwide, according to a study by Mass Insight Education, were designated to enter some form of restructuring by 2009-2010. School improvement programs, which support more incremental methods of change, simply have not worked in the nation’s most underperforming schools.
Duncan’s call to action, however, fell on a vastly underdeveloped market place. According to New Schools Venture Fund, at the time of Duncan’s speech, there were less than ten organizations engaged in turnaround work and there were no organizations operating at any scale. Duncan’s plan called for 100-200 turnaround schools to open by this fall. Clearly there is a significant gap between the industry’s supply and the government’s demand.
Duncan hopes that existing Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) and individual charter schools with track records of success will step in to fill this gap. He is offering access to facilities and pushing state legislatures to lift their caps on charters. Turning around a school, however, is a very different challenge than doing a start-up, the approach that charter schools have traditionally taken. It is unclear whether most CMOs are equipped or willing to take on this challenge. In addition, there lacks a body of research or knowledge on best practices for school turnarounds, making turnaround endeavors all the more uncertain. To date, with the exception of Green Dot, the leading CMOs have not stepped up to the plate.
While the turnaround market is risky, it does present an opportunity for growth and innovation within both the non-profit and for-profit education sectors. This opportunity is driven by: • There are over 2,500,000 students in the lowest performing schools. More gradual methods of school reform have not worked. Turnaround strategies could work, and could thereby change the life opportunity of 2.5m students. • There is a large market. 3.5b is not insignificant. • There is little competition.
Non-profits and for-profit organizations have the resources and leeway to transform what education looks like for low-income children in the United States. This is a tremendous opportunity if the market matures quickly enough to seize it. The New York Times article, “Inexperienced Companies Chase U.S. School Funds,” written his week by Sam Dillion suggests however that that market has not made that maturation in time. Instead we are seeing unqualified and ill-equipped companies clamoring to position themselves in the windfall of the 3.5 billion dollars.
This frightens me. I taught in a school that would qualify as one of those 5,000 schools in need of a turnaround. Ensuring that my students succeeded in that environment took every piece of heart, mind-share, and effort that I had. Getting that success at a school level takes not just heart and effort, but also real experience, leadership and talent. The federal government is giving us a once in a lifetime opportunity to really change these schools. Let’s not let it be squandered by mercenaries or the fear of wading into these uncertain waters.
I had a few conversations with KIPP administrators this week and can’t help but be inspired by their dedication and ingenuity. I know they are in the thick of preparing for the start of the school year, and thought I would share a little bit of their inspiration.
President Obama defended his educational program at the 100th anniversary of the National Urban League on Thursday. His plan has come under recent attack from some minority and teacher groups. Teacher unions have objected to the program which places a significant emphasis on teacher evaluations. Minority groups have expressed concern over the extent to which a competition based plan will help black and Latino students.
Obama framed the challenges facing education in the larger economic context. “Education is an economic issue, if not the economic issue of our time. It’s an economic issue,” he went on to say, “when the unemployment rate for folks who’ve never gone to college is almost double what it is for those who have. It’s an economic issue when eight in 10 new jobs will require workforce training or a higher education by the end of this decade. It’s an economic issue when we know countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”
(Given that my mom represents 25% of my current readership and no doubt accounts for a significant number of my page views, I thought a shout-out was only appropriate. Know your audience. Shout-outs may be doled out to my other three readers over the next couple of days. Be warned.)
Former 4th grade teacher, TFA Program Director, joint MBA/MA in education Stanford GSBer, and Xoogler. I'm currently having a love affair with my no-longer-new city San Francisco, and I have a major weakness for dark chocolate.
I do bizdev and strategic partnerships at Coursera.
Here's a link to random selection of my photos: pics.juliasblog.me
The views expressed here are mine and do not reflect the views of my employer.