Business, Business Strategy, Children, Corporate Responsibility, education, IAMPRESTONBYRD, No child let behind, Non-Profit, Operation Help, Preston Byrd, Preston Byrd Memphis, Preston Byrd Memphis TN
Jim Shelton is the acting deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. “Education, worldwide, is a $5-6 trillion marketplace,” he said, explaining that there are many countries that won’t be able to make the switch to connected learning by themselves. “Some country will need to lead on this; hopefully it will be us.”
Other than Shelton’s comment, the focus was mostly domestic at Connected Learning In The Digital Age: Improving American Education Through Technology. The event, organized by The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands, The LEAD Commission, Common Sense Media, and the New School Venture Fund was a change of pace for me. Ordinarily, I meet with developers, educators, researchers, and tech entrepreneurs; they focus on envisioning the future. At this conference–star-studded with moderators like Chelsea Clinton–the focus was more policy oriented. The objective was to “move the needle forward,” to work toward 100% adoption of connected and blended learning. In the words of Steve Case, who spoke early in the day, “this is about how are kids learn and how our country moves forward.”
I woke up early to take Amtrak from my home in Philadelphia to Washington D.C. I sat in the audience, surrounded by business leaders, lobbyists, philanthropists, and child advocates. I watched the auto-refreshing columns on tweetdeck. On the right was the hashtag #edtechconnect, filled with blended-learning buzzwords like “adaptive,” “individualized,” and “interactive.” Spirits were high and tweets were inspirational. The column on the left was different. The hashtag #Philly1stDay showed tweets from hundreds of parents, teachers, and students. They were lamenting the state of Philadelphia schools. Severely crippled by budget cuts, they start the year without enough counselors, teachers, and basic school supplies.
I hardly need to point out the contrast. The juxtaposition speaks for itself. As I type “juxtaposition,” I can’t help but remember the high school english teacher that taught the word to me. I appreciate the elite private school education that I was privileged to receive. I appreciate the progressive private school education I’m privileged to be able to provide for my kids.
I never had the privilege of studying economics; and although I’m smart enough to understand the basics, when it comes to schools and education, I’m confused. The macro conversation is about this giant lucrative nut that’s just waiting to be cracked. The micro conversation is about underfunded districts. When I’m wearing my journalist hat, I hear folks like James Coulter, LEAD commissioner (and #229 on the Forbes 400), talk about T.A.M. (total available market). “What we need to do in the K-12 market is increase the T.A.M.” and that starts with how many schools are wired. Meanwhile, Philadelphia parents tweet:
My 11 yr old reads 3-5 books/ week. Number she’ll be checking out from school library this yr? Zero. No librarian. Sad reader. #philly1stday
— Anne Pomerantz (@AnnePomerantz) September 9, 2013
How can you have a market with no money to be spent?
Basically, only one thing is clear to me. Education is not doing what we want it to do. It needs to be fixed. And there seems to be a unanimous consensus that technology is the answer. Speaker after speaker at the conference reminded us that it is no longer a question of WHY. Instead, they told us, it was a question of HOW. How do we connect every classroom?
Meanwhile, my thoughts resonate with those of panelist Susan Crown, who worked with Common Sense Media to focus on content and make crowd sourced app ratings easily available to teachers through graphite.org. For Crown, it is all about the content, how do we identify what kids need to learn in the 21st Century. There’s a question that needs to come before the HOW, and should’ve come before the WHY. We should be concerned about WHAT we teach.
But HOW is easier than WHAT. HOW is safer. HOW is a non-partisan question.
Representative John Delaney (D-Maryland) stepped onto stage for just a few minutes around midday to tell us that the goals in education are three-fold. We have to “improve outcomes, increase access, and bend the cost curve.” He didn’t define those outcomes clearly. There was little discussion of the content to which we want increase access. I’m all for bending cost curves, but I’d like to know what we’re buying first.
If we stick with words like “holistic,” “child-centered,” and “ongoing assessment,” we can keep the discussion focused on the tools. The folks from Comcast and Verizon know this. The folks from FCC know this. “We are not where we need to be on digital learning,” said Mignon Clyburn, FCC Chairman, “our schools need faster connections.” She spoke about bandwidth because “broadband has the potential to be the great equalizer.”
Yes, we’ve heard this story before. The mythology of the internet is ubiquitous. It promises the new American dream. YouTube is big media’s mom and pop shop, where anyone might catch a big break. And social media, they tell us, gives everyone the opportunity to be a media mogul. Given access, were told, anyone can contend with media conglomerates. In truth, however, the internet gold rush is over. You can’t be Justin Bieber. You can’t be Matt Drudge. But the internet promise obfuscates the fact that the new media oligopoly is already well established.
I’m all for more equitable access to information, but let’s not pretend that providing better access will level the playing field.
Perhaps I’m being too critical. I don’t mean it. If you follow me on Forbes, you know that I’m one of edtech’s biggest cheerleaders. I believe that blended and connected learning, through education technology, has the power to completely transform our education system for the better. And I agree that a more connected infrastructure is the first step. As Tom Luna, superintendent of the Idaho State Department of Education, said in one of the conference’s final panels, “today in education, school is where students have the worst access to information.”
Something needs to shift. But the shift is not only about HOW our children learn, it is also about WHAT our children learn.
If we still agree with Plato (and I think we’d be foolish not to), who defined education as “that training in excellence from youth upward which makes a man passionately desire to be a perfect citizen,” then it is doubtful that education reform can remain a non-partisan issue. At its core, education is moral/ethical issue. We’re going to have to make some judgments about right and wrong. We’re going to have to make some judgments about the kinds of citizens we want to create. We can’t pretend it is about infrastructure alone. We need to push for more than just tablets, laptops, and bandwidth. These things are essentially just fancy chalkboards and faster libraries.
Our post-modern commitment to acknowledge cultural subjectivity and moral relativism might be preventing us from making difficult judgments. So, we only ask “HOW.” Because the “WHAT” is sticky, ambivalent, and controversial. However, as long as the discussion is all about “HOW,” we’re allowing the moral and ethical teaching–the epistemological message–to develop by happenstance. And I think a pretty good argument could be made that this desire to focus on infrastructure alone is how we arrived at the current state of education in the first place.
Yes, I agree with all of the well-intentioned folks at the Connected Learning In The Digital Age conference. We need to use market forces to disrupt the current education infrastructure. However, we also need to remember that education is more than just a marketplace.