How about a “Who’s Who” of education? Suppose you were asked to name the twenty most influential people in education today. Who would you come up with? In the first milliseconds you might be foolish enough to think of some of the more effective educators you have encountered in your life. A great teacher from your past, perhaps? A truly inspiring and effective fellow-educator? No doubt that person would embody your notion of a great teacher: a bit tough, knew her/his material and, most importantly, truly cared about students and whether they succeeded. Nailed it, right? No, I am not clairvoyant—those traits, especially the third, are widely known to be the ones associated with what most people consider to be great teachers. People like that do exist. In fact a healthy fraction of professional educators have one or more of these traits to a significant degree, some more than others, of course.
Unfortunately you immediately dismissed those from the list, didn’t you? Despite being great teachers, despite the effect they had not only on you, but also on the many, many people they have worked with through their career they probably would not be considered–in this context–as great. Their reach was just not wide enough. They touched many people, sure, but not enough. They likely influenced their peers but, again, not enough.
Great teachers didn’t make the cut. Sad, is it not?
How about politicians? While we all enjoy pointing out the many, easy-to-find faults in many elected officials, it must also be said, in al sincerity, that a huge number of them are honest, hardworking, intelligent, and, most importantly, effective. They also have significant effects on education—both good and bad. Consider state/provincial deputy ministers/ education secretaries or whatever you call them. Education policy, budgets, and therefore, to a large extent, practice, come right under their jurisdiction. School district directors/superintendents/CEOs or whatever you want to call them too; same for principals. See the pattern: getting smaller and smaller? Again, the reach is not sufficient for any of them to be truly considered all that influential on a broad scale. The fact is most of those functionaries have precious little room for discretion. Budgets are set at higher levels than theirs so they can only work with what they have. After salaries, utilities, maintenance, bussing and supplies are paid for there’s generally nothing much left to fuel growth and innovation. The decisions that would have the needed effect to create change almost never happen. What’s more, those people are generally so busy just looking after the routine stuff and fighting fires there’s no opportunity to really plan for and create positive change.
So who makes the list? Anyone?
Sure. You just have to look.
Let me throw out three names: Daphne Koller, Andrew Ng and Sebastian Thrun. The first two founded Coursera and the latter, Udacity. All three have a similar vision: create massive online courses and allow everyone to enroll, for free. In their vision, expensive, no, worse exclusive, university educations will soon become a thing of the past as people all over the world throw themselves into the wondrous world of higher education. Free higher education, that is.
Here’s another: Salman Kahn. Perhaps you’ve heard of Kahn Academy? A few years after CDLI (my previous employer) put a massive amount of free multimedia online learning resources online for students, Kahn invented the concept in parallel, only he was more successful. Today, thanks to generous donations from many (including the next person who’ll be mentioned) Kahn academy has thousands upon thousands of useful multimedia resources of all kinds. All for free too. Kahn Academy shares a similar vision as does the one just mentioned: free, high quality public education.
One more name: Bill Gates. Yes, THAT Bill Gates. As you probably know he’s by no means Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons.” Far from it; he has pledged to give away his huge fortune and, what’s more he has successfully convinced many others, including the almost-as-rich Warren Buffet to do the same. Yes, he’s a major funder of many educational projects, including the already-mentioned Kahn Academy.
These four, and people like them—connected and well financed types whose vision is based on non-exclusive education for all through self-directed online courses—are, in all likelihood the kinds of people who wield the most influence in education today.
Great stuff, right? It’s heartening to see that smart, powerful, effective and well-intentioned people such as the ones just mentioned can be counted as global-scaled movers and shakers in eLearning. Given, the best teachers didn’t make the list, senior politicians didn’t make it, senior civil servants didn’t cut it, along with the many “lesser” administrators. But these guys made it and they’re pretty good, aren’t they?
Well, yes and no. Their vision is a good one so let’s assume that the “yes” is pretty much self-explanatory and just leave it at that. We’ll just work on the “no.” What could possibly be the problem?
First, they don’t serve (i.e. “answer to”) the public. Face it—they all serve themselves to varying degrees. The vision is not “The” vision but rather “Their” (“MY” from their point of view—the one that counts) vision. Sure they have good ideas but society is a big place, with a huge number of competing values. A single vision and a single point of decision-making just won’t cut it.
They may have other interests. The goal of education is not nearly as straightforward as it appears: better achievement, right? But better achievement in exactly what? See—there’s the complication. Here’s the answer, in as simple terms as possible: Better achievement in areas selected through a slow, rancorous, messy but mostly inclusive public process.
As for those mentioned and those like them? That’s not their interest. Frankly they probably haven’t bothered to think it sufficiently through. Perhaps “Get them (the students) through their science and math” is the vision. You can bet it is for some of them. But—hang on here! Sure, science and math are important (I majored in Physics and Math, by the way) but so are first Language, second languages, social studies, the Arts, etc. Who gave one individual the right to decide? Nobody!
Here are the two biggies: (1) these guys are too clever for OUR own good. What? Yes—too clever and that’s a major problem when you couple it with (2) they just don’t understand the audience at all. Let me state this clearly: learning came FRIGHTFULLY easily to most of these high-fliers and they figure that’s the case for everyone.
So this: the vision they have for education is just plain WRONG. They truly believe that most students value the kind of knowledge-based learning that many people believe (incorrectly) is true math and science. They believe that most students are just held back; bored and busting to get out of the classroom and that these online materials will be the best thing ever. People will all of a sudden value the math and science, grab on to it and just plain start to fly, academically.
The truth is something different. Let’s summarize the truths they are missing:
- Education is more about absorbing knowledge about math and science. Think about it—math and science is much more about absorbing knowledge about math and science! …and that’s just two out of eight or nine subject areas. …and, when you think about it education is much more than subject areas. Talk about off-base!
- Most people find learning difficult in many different ways. It’s not a matter of “quickly show me and I’ll get it.”
- Far too many people do not have the time to work through the content. Not only is education hard but so, too, is life in general.
- Even fewer value the content sufficiently that they will stick to it enough. Learning much of the things that matter is, after all, truly difficult—not necessarily fun at all.
- Finally, the people who could benefit the most from this stuff may lack the resources to get to it.
So here’s the first consideration: The movers and shakers are not subject to the complex set of influences that public education should be and are thus not necessarily guided in exactly the right direction. Significant time and resources may, therefore, be devoted in pursuit of the wrong goals as people just play “me too,” “follow the leader,” “join the bandwagon,” or whatever name you wish to ascribe to whatever goal they deem to be worthwhile..
Next: This is not to say that the use of technology in education is not useful. It truly is but one must realize that (a) you can’t pretend that it makes things easy and effective “just because” and (b) mostly gains are small but still significant. The zealots hurt the enterprise, but those at the other extreme do just as much damage. How many don’t even bother to consider educational technology? Closed minds are not helpful either.