John shares his thoughts on the role education technology plays on greater reform initiatives and where we stand as a country in these efforts. We also learn about Digital LearningNow! and their current work to advance policies aimed at the creation of high-quality digital learning environments. John shares his thoughts on the power and staying-power of MOOC’s and other advances in education technology.
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Dr. Rod: John, Welcome to the program.
John: Thank you, it’s great to be with you.
Dr. Rod: It’s nice to be with you too. I want to make sure that everybody understands a little bit about digital learning before we dive into some of the topics at The National Summit on Education Reform here in Boston. Please share the mission of Digital Learning Now! and some of the objectives that you are working towards.
John: Digital Learning Now! is an organization that grew out of the work that Governors Jeb Bush and Bob Wise launched two or three years ago. They asked the question, “What are the policy and regulatory barriers that are getting in the way of new uses of technology and how can we use those either to help strengthen teaching, improve learning, or to create entirely new models of education?” We have a lot of legacy regulations that were formed, and laws passed, never envisioning the types of online learning, computer adaptive learning, and blended learning models that we have today. We need policies and regulations to create space and room for innovation. We work with state policy makers to help create that room for innovation.
The reason we focus on states is because that’s where the vast majority of regulation and policy is for the majority of education in the United States. We do a little bit of federal work but to give you a sense, last year there were 800 digital learning bills debated in state legislatures. Of those, 151 passed and were signed into law. That’s an incredible amount of volume. In comparison, not a single federal education bill passing. There are enormous amounts of activity and interest in education. We want to make sure the conversation is informed and helpful.
Dr. Rod: For the parents that are sitting around at their kitchen table listening to this interview, what level of confidence should they have in state leaders that they (state leaders) are going to get their children to the next step utilizing a digital platform? You hear a lack of trust from parents that state leaders can stop the infighting in D.C. and put together packages of curriculum that matter, so that kids want to go to college. We see the college enrollment numbers declining again this year, and there’s just that fearful question from a parent’s standpoint of, “Are our leaders actually working for us to make sure that our students are the best and the brightest?”
John: To put it another way, are our leaders up to the challenge that we face as a nation? Parents are rightly sensitized to it in terms of their children and their experience, After all, we are doing this interview literally hours after this whole budget and debt ceiling got resolved. But I would also say, you have no greater contrast in terms of public policy making than what has gone on the last 4 weeks in Washington D.C., versus the 800 state policy leaders here that have come from across political spectrums, We have Democrat and Republican here that are passing laws and programs, are trying out new approaches and new innovations, and are learning from each other. They really are trying to tackle a lot of the different challenges and I’m hugely optimistic.
I think we have an incredible crop of state leaders. We work a lot with this organization called Chiefs for Change . They’re some of the leading Chief Education Officers in the country. They’re looking at very creative ways to make sure teachers are supported, that we measure and hold schools accountable, but that we also give them the resources, tools, and interventions to help reach the kids that are hard to reach. They’re also working to help kids that can go on faster, to take more advanced courses. I think that increasingly, we’re seeing policy makers turn to technology and next generation models of learning. Those are just some of the tools in educator’s toolbox, but I think they’re very powerful tools and they provide a lot of option to parents, teachers, and school leaders.
Dr. Rod: How do we turn the focus on teacher preparation? I’ve just had a number of interviews around the new standards that CAEP put out. There are a lot of individuals looking to get States to buy into that so we can have a better crop of teachers. It often seems in the media, and the public eye, that we’re not really focusing on the next group, yet new teachers leave within the first 5 years. 46% is the number I think . So how do we engage them with a focus on teacher preparation?
John: We have to take a step back before we think about teacher preparation, and think about the teacher profession. Teaching is probably the only profession where we expect someone who starts in it, to stay in it for 30 years. It is an unusual cultural phenomenon. If you find that there is someone who trained to be a lawyer, and they were a lawyer for 5 or 10 years but then they switched and went into a non-profit or went to become business leaders, we don’t think any differently of that. We don’t judge the law profession as being inadequate. We say the same thing of business. We find a lot of business leaders, when they get to a certain point, they want to pivot and try something different. They want to go into a non-profit or go into teaching. We have to stop thinking of the teaching profession in our generation’s style, where someone was a teacher for 30 years.
I definitely think preparation is a key element to it, but we also need to be reaching teachers with different opportunities for them to gain the skills they need to be successful in the classrooms. Some of that is going to be learning technology skills. We also think some of that is going to be learned through residency programs. If you think about it, teaching may not be rocket science, but it’s very close to being a skilled surgeon. A skilled surgeon can only get so much from textbooks and lectures in a college before we say, “the best way for you to learn how to be a surgeon is to put you in a surgical room, where you’re learning from a master surgeon, where you get to watch the procedures, and are slowly brought into it.” We think there’s going to be a lot of room for these residency programs, and we see it as a way to cultivate really high skilled teachers and leaders. So some of that (new preparation) is going to be using technology, some of it will be learning good classroom management, and some will be good classroom instructional techniques.
As a side note, we’re really excited about some of these new technologies that are videotaping teachers, and giving them a chance to have their peers rate them. We do this in sports all the time. The day after the game we get up and we watch films. Anyone who watched Friday Night Lights got to watch the film reels and we do it on ESPN as Monday armchair quarterbacks. It’s a critical part of the way that we do training and how we learn. Increasingly, that’s an option and tool that’s available to a lot of teachers too.
Dr. Rod: We talk about blended learning and that can be a different animal for teachers who are trying to incorporate different modes of operation and curriculum delivery. Talk with us a little about massive open online courses (MOOCs), their value, and enter your opinion as to their staying power.
John: Great questions and it’s really two questions because blended learning is combining the best of online learning, with the best of in-classroom instruction. It blows up this myth of “It’s either completely all online or completely traditional.” I would say that in almost every single blended model that I’ve been to, whether it’s a classroom model or whether it’s a homeschool model, there is one thing that has struck me in terms of talking to the teachers. They were very intimidated by it, when it was first presented to them, but after going through and learning how to teach in this style they never want to go back. That’s because it reinforces all the reasons why they wanted to be teachers in the first place.
Often in a blended learning classroom, you may have a larger class size, but the teacher is actually working with a smaller group of students. That’s because these computer systems are helping to diagnose students and find their strengths and weaknesses. Then they are able to help choreograph the students that need more one on one time with the teachers. They help identify which students can actually work with a parent professional, or maybe a junior-teacher that is learning, or with a mentor educator that is teaching in small groups. So this type of classroom, far from replacing teaching, it actually empowers teaching in a lot of different ways.
MOOC’s are sort of this new experiment that are happening in a lot of different ways right now. The cost to build online courses has fallen, the technology cost, the distribution cost, even the production cost of what it takes. You and I with our iPhones today, could create essentially a video lecture. It would even be in a relatively high quality compared to what it would have taken and cost a couple years ago. As a result it’s very cheap now to produce a course and to deliver a course. I think what we’re seeing in terms of the experimentation is educators asking, “What is the best way to do that?” That could be in terms of duration, along with the right combination of lecture, assignments, simulations, and activities. The goal is to have something that will lead to students not just completing the course, but actually learning the material, and demonstrating that they’ve learned it.
The conventional wisdom right now is trying to position MOOC’s as “Is it going to replace higher education?” or, “Is it going to replace K-12 education?” But I don’t think it’s one of these things where it’s going to replace these institutions. It’s probably going to replace a set of courses that we had in those institutions. So we might have a MOOC instead of the freshman level, 200 person, college lecture hall introduction to math. Or maybe MOOC’s are a way of keeping students and graduates engaged once they leave the school. Whether its high school or college, it can be a way for them to stay up to date with their favorite professor or favorite lecture. I don’t think it’s going to replace the institution, but I think we’re going to see a lot of experimentation. We’re particularly interested in whether or not MOOCs are one tool for supporting teachers in their professional development.
If you think about it, these blended learning systems are constantly churning out data that can really help educators. Let’s say the blended learning system tells the teacher that the whole class is struggling with fractions. A teacher doesn’t need to go to a 3 day pre-Algebra professional development course. They just need a very quick course in how to teach fractions. Maybe the best way to do that is through a 1 week MOOC. That’s something that could be done on the teacher’s time, and on the teacher’s schedule, in a way that helps them address the particular area that they’re struggling with. We’re very intrigued by this notion of MOOC’s helping to revolutionize professional development as a way of providing more support for teachers.
Dr. Rod: A couple things come to mind in your response there John. One would be the word “institution” and everything that seems to go with an institution. I think of the stereotype of its slow-moving approach to change, and the fear that is associated with it sometimes. We hear that throughout education. Governor Bush this morning talked about how “empires do not go quietly into the night.” I thought that was sort of a fantastic wrapper today in looking at this. How can we change that from a public relations standpoint, so that teachers aren’t afraid that they’re being replaced and pushed into a facilitator role? What can be done so teachers feel that their skills are being embraced, and how can we at the same time bring in new talent that maybe spent the first 5 or 10 years of their profession as a lawyer or some other profession?
John: It’s a great question, and I think that these forces are not just purely technological. If you talk to any parent and most teachers right now, the primary vehicle through which education used to be provided is through the institution of public schooling. You had a building, and that’s where schooling took place. Very slowly over time, that ecosystem of learning started expanding. We had 4H clubs, after school clubs, model rocket clubs, sports (a critical part of education), arts (also a critical part) and band. Over time those experiences and opportunities have grown exponentially. I think we’re more sensitized to it now, because technology is creating an explosion of opportunities in a way we never could in a traditional setting.
Now with a laptop and an internet connection, a student can start taking courses from edX at MIT or a Coursera course with Stanford . It raises some really interesting questions about how we, as an education system, are going to recognize that experience and how we are going to award credit for it. Also, what does it mean for a teacher in terms of being able to build on that? It raises a lot of questions and we think technology is going to provide some of the answers. In the past, that was just asking way to much for a teacher to try and manage all that learning. Now you have a lot of different types of technology systems that can help manage a portfolio of activities for students. Again, through the data mining and through some of the personalized learning logarithms, technology can help sort of flag for teachers where students need some help. It can offer teachers some additional suggestions like saying the student maybe needs these types of activities. It’s not about replacing teaching. We think it’s very much about empowering and really amplifying what teachers and good teaching is all about.
Dr. Rod: One area that I’ve not heard discussed today at The National Summit on Education Reform , and maybe they will throughout the evening and tomorrow, is actual curriculum and the content. I think the education system in this country has been driven by very large publishing houses that have developed and shaped curriculum. In our own education experiences, that’s just what we had and what we knew. Those books went with us and our siblings read the same books. Now that we have, in essence, the world at our fingertips, how is the digital world looking at content and evaluating good content, and how can we trust it as we try to reform our educational system?
John: It’s not just trusting content, it’s also the scope and sequence. By that I mean asking, “What is the path you go through the content?” In the past you were faced, without technology, of having to educate millions of students in our country. Then the old publishing model made a lot of sense. You wanted to get a lot of really good experts who could curate some form of content. Then put that into a book that was building skills in a linear type of way. It may not work for all kids, but it worked for most of them. You had sort of the bell curve with most of the kids in the middle. It worked relatively well. What we’re finding, when you go and talk to the great folks at Khan Academy , or the people at Wireless Generation , is that if you take all the different elements of a curriculum that a student needs to know and personalize it, you can do very different paths of learning. They are discovering all these different types of paths that some students learn through, that defy the path that most research has said students go through. We think that’s good. We think that this is a change to make sure that students get a path that is customized to their needs, at that particular moment, at their own pace. In this way, the data helps inform instruction and evaluates the content itself.
We’re fascinated by this one experiment that’s going on with Western Governors University , and I think McGraw Hill Education , with a new performance model. We used to pay for performance models with online courses where we said, “If the student took and completed the course, there is some sort of bonus payment paid.” They’re doing that with content. So let’s say at Western Governors University you use a particular piece of McGraw Hill content and pass the course at the end. Not only does the university pay for that piece of content, but they also pay a slight performance bonus too. You can now start measuring the quality of not just a curriculum, but also of the content down to the text and object level, and start seeing that maybe it doesn’t work with all students. Maybe it just works for Hispanic female students. That’s great to know, and it provides the kind of content that we should keep serving up to that segment of students works for. This is all about meeting students where they are and giving them the right tools and content, in the right way, at the right time. You could never do that in the past models, but you can do that today thanks to the personalized learning that we have.
Dr. Rod: John, I’ll close with this. I’d be remise if I didn’t talk a little about your experience in Washington in the White House. Take us inside. What is it like to be part of discussions when you’re looking at the federal government, and the states, along with all these concerns we’ve got around education? What is it like to sit there and have those conversations, at such a level, and really try to guide this country in a reform movement?
John: I’ve had those conversations at two different levels. One at the governor’s office level, when I was in Pennsylvania, and then one at the White House. In both situations, there are incredibly invigorating conversations and debates. Regardless of party, you have incredibly wicked smart people in the room, debating very complex issues. These are complex issues that have escaped easy answers. If they’re easy answers they don’t end up at the White House and before the President’s desk. They also don’t end up in the State Capital before the Governors. With the debate comes a fair amount of argument and passion, and that was encouraged. We were encouraged to disagree. We were encouraged to bring in different perspectives. The thought was that different perspectives are the only way you’re going to help find at least the right set of answers that could potentially be pursued or tried. At the White House, it’s a little bit more difficult because you have to think through more than just the federally policy levers that could be pulled to help create the incentives or enact the reform. You also had to think through what the right level of balance, and how do we push decision making down to the lowest level possible, in a way that’s not going to give up on accountability or quality. How do we push most of the decision making down as close to the student as we can? Often times that’s down to governors, from governors to state chiefs, from state chiefs down to superintendents, superintendents down to the principals. In the past, it was always sort of thinking through a lot of that conventional leadership hierarchy.
I think now, because of the internet, it allows for a much more sort of networked type of solutions. You could do crowd sourcing. The current administration has done some pretty fantastic work, it’s sort of taking big challenges, turning it out to the community to come up with some really interesting, innovative, and out of the box ideas. Then they’re running with that instead of turning to the normal experts. The network technologies allow you to reach parents and teachers in a way that you could never do before. The debates were always difficult and challenging, but it was still some of the best experiences I’ve ever had.
Dr. Rod: I like that we’re in Boston and you used the phrase “wicked smart.”
John: (Laughs)…But without an attempt at the accent which could have offended Bostonians everywhere!
Dr. Rod: (Laughs)…Agreed. Well, we want to thank John Bailey, Director of Digital Learning Now!