From the very onset of this newest phase of education technology - the internet and connectivity phase - the greatest promise of edtech has nested in its ability to enable scale.
Online, a single teacher could reach multiple more pupils, one class could teach 3,000 instead of 30. It was the promise of MOOCs and nearly everyone got it right away.
And while the success at internet-enabled scale in education has been hit and miss, replete with significant wins and spectacular failures, this new era of edtech also held hope for changing the way teaching was done - the modality, the new and diverse resources that could be used, the increased opportunities for collaboration and customization. Now a decade and change into this new era, some of that modality dynamism is starting to surface.
We have not seen the top-end of that change yet. We don’t have completely connected classrooms in which every student gets a custom, tailored learning experience based on their learning preferences and interests. Almost everywhere, courses, and lessons within those courses, are still delivered in pre-cast blocks, in chunks of material generally designed to be the most accessible to the most students, occasionally supported by add-ons or mix-ins such as video, open projects, community engagement, remote guest experts.
But what we are starting to get now is genuine diversity in those lesson blocks - not just add-on resources but entirely different learning experiences than were possible, even imaginable ten, twelve years ago.
New startup Tract is a perfect example.
Tract has developed an education model in which students teach students by making their own multi-media presentation units, reviewed, vetted and shared across a wide array of learning subjects, all accessible online. At Tract, students from middle school to graduate school make their units - usually as fun, engaging videos - in subjects from Harriet Tubman to a marine scientist dishing on Disney’s Finding Nemo movie to the history of skateboarding.
The lessons are free to teachers and because they’re created by students, they are unlike most anything any of us has seen in a classroom.
“The lessons look and feel unique because they are unique,” said Tract’s co-founder and CEO, Ari Memar. “They are not what teachers think their students care about, they are what students care about because they’re made for students by other students - it’s just a night and day different approach to teaching and learning.”
It’s not a free-for-all where anyone with an idea can access the platform and put on an education hat. The Tract system is heavy with teacher engagement in the creation process and built-in product review for accuracy and pedagogy in the distribution and access process.
But two other aspects of Tract are even more interesting and potentially more important.
One is that the Tract model of students teaching students is teaching the student-teachers as much as it is teaching the students.
To develop a Tract presentation, students have to use current technologies and really focus on using skills such as creativity, communication and resilience. Being a Tract contributor and creator also reinforces the rewards of those efforts in a way even an “A” can’t - Tract contributors are paid when their videos are used. In our current creator economy driven by influencers and freelancers, that’s a simply amazing lesson to be able to deliver in middle or high school. Even more, back to pedagogy, the act of teaching is actually hardcore learning.
“They say you don’t really understand something until you have to teach it,” Memar said. “Nothing better demonstrates mastery than the ability to break something down, explain it, phase or frame it in new ways so other people can understand and appreciate it. Whether they know it or not, that’s the learning journey our creators are on every day.”
The second potentially big thing about what Tract and other innovative content makers are doing is that they are - by design or consequence - diversifying teaching. Now, not only are young voices sharing knowledge and skills in their ways, students can hear girls explain physics or how to make the perfect tackle in the NFL. They can hear experts who look and sound like they do - or maybe hear from people who look and sound nothing at all like they or their teachers do.
In the learning academy, we have nearly 50 years of research showing that who is teaching whom matters. It’s an entirely different educational experience, for example, to hear a 15-year old Black girl talk about Harriet Tubman than a 50-year old white guy. Getting that kind of diversity in classrooms is a big deal. Being able to do it for free, with a few keyboard clicks is a game-changing development.
Tract has thousands of lessons, learning pathways, created by thousands of students. And the inventory and reach are both growing quickly, set to double every month, the company says.
“We simply could not do this without today’s technology - the ability to create and share at scale, afford flexibility and creativity in the creative process and the learning process, that simply could not be done any other way. We really do think it has the power to upend, or at least, greatly expand what we think of teaching - who does it as well as where and how it’s done.”