Hacking Education

It has been two months since we hosted a great group of academics, entrepreneurs, educators, and administrators at our Union Square Sessions Event, Hacking Education. Fred posted his initial thoughts immediately after the event and in a great example of peer production, Alex Krupp curated the Twitter stream that captured the thoughts of folks inside and outside of the event.

I finally found some quality time to spend with the transcript that is now online, and thought I would try to expand on Fred’s initial thoughts and develop a couple of the key themes that came out of the conversation. Before diving in, however, I’d like to make a pitch for the transcript. It is not perfect (imagine trying to record 40 high powered people all talking at once), but it is readable and full of lots of insights. I would encourage anyone who is interested in the impact of technology on education to plow through it. I have tried to pull some of the highlights here, but there is no way that even this overlong post can do justice an energizing and enlightening afternoon.

There was broad consensus that the internet is enabling substantial changes in the way we learn and teach. It has always been possible to learn outside of a school setting. The ubiquitous connectivity and very low cost of content production and distribution seems to enable the unbundling of key components of education.

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Dissagregation – David Wiley broke education into these components, 1) content provisioning, 2) research – conducted, archived, and disseminated, 3) help provided to a student with a question on the content, 4) a social life, and 5) issuing credentials.

Historically all of these components were bundled together in the experience of on-site education in a K-12 or University context. Already today, it is possible for a student to get many of these services outside the walls of a traditional educational institution. One of my favorite illustrations of all of this is a story recounted by Mimi Ito in her report – Living and Learning with New Media (pdf link)

In her study of anime music video (AMV) creators (Anime Fans), Mizuko Ito interviewed Gepetto, an 18-year-old Brazilian fan. He was first introduced to AMVs through a local friend and started messing around creating AMVs on his own. As his skills developed, however, he sought out the online community of AMV creators on animemusicvideos.org to sharpen his skills. Although he managed to interest a few of his local friends in AMV making, none of them took to it to the extent that he did. He relies heavily on the networked community of editors as sources of knowledge and expertise and as models to aspire to. In his local community, he is now known as a video expert by both his peers and adults. After seeing his AMV work, one of his high-school teachers asked him to teach a video workshop to younger students. He jokes that “even though I know nothing,” to his local community “I am the Greater God of video edit¬ing.” In other words, his engagement with the online interest group helped develop his identity and competence as a video editor well beyond what is typical in his local community.

In theory, Gepetto could have learned video editing in school. In practice his school was not equipped to teach it. He found content, help, a social life, and even credentialing (as others linked to his work) on www.animemusicvideos.org.

Rob Kalin kicked the discussion on the separation of learning and credentialing into high gear with this story.

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I graduated high school with a D minus average. …My guidance counselor said “drop out of high school, you’ll have an easier time getting into college if you just get a GED.” I [decided] to graduate with this D minus and see what it does for me. I didn’t get into any accredited school . I got into a diploma program in an art school in Boston, and it was near MIT. … I used the art school to make a fake ID to go to MIT. Someone said [college is] expensive. I said no, it’s free, you just won’t get credit for it.

Today, no one is going to ask Rob for his college transcript. His credentials are the companies he has created. Not every student can be so cavalier about the lack of a diploma, but the web is having an interesting impact on the value of credentials. In an earlier era, it was very difficult to evaluate a student’s work directly, so a grade from an accredited institution served as a proxy. Now, if an employer wants to hire a video editor, Geppeto’s work is on the web readily accessible. Students in the future will be as likely to be evaluated on their portfolio of work, as they are on their grades. That’s lucky for Geppeto because, as his story makes clear, there is no way his school was capable of evaluating his work.

Fred pushed the conversation about disaggregation to another level when he suggested that in the future, he’d like to see students be able to opt in or out of a school on a class by class basis.

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When I think about where we are going to be in 50 years, I think we are going to have a marketplace model for education where the student is in control of their education and they determine who is going to educate them, when, where, and how… I’d like my kids to be able to avail themselves of the quality classes and teachers they have in their physical space but then opt out of those [classes] that aren’t good and go get that knowledge somewhere else.

A byproduct of the disaggregation of education will be to weaken the authority of schools, but the bigger challenge may be to align their cost structures and business models to remain competitive in a hyper connected world.

Bing Gordon dropped a bombshell just before lunch when he proposed that we should work to drive the marginal cost of education to zero.

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From an economic point of view, I would say the goal… is to figure out how to get education down to a marginal cost of zero. Somebody mentioned Oxford. I think the marginal cost for a student at Oxford is probably $250,000; at a U.S. university it’s probably $90,000. That’s what it costs per student. That’s not what they charge. Public school, I think, they are trying to do it for $6-8000 per student. So, what if we had to get it to zero? We’ve seen technologies that get the marginal cost [of services] to zero, plus bandwidth.

This is not as crazy as it sounds. Knowledge is, as the economists say, a non-rival good. If I eat an apple, you cannot also eat that same apple; but if I learn something, there is no reason you cannot also learn that thing. Information goods lend themselves to being created, distributed and consumed on the web. It is not so different from music, or classified advertising, or news.

For Shai Reshef the idea of reducing the cost of education isn’t just theoretical. He described University of the People this way.


It is a non-profit, tuition free, online university…students are not going to pay for courses or tuition. However, they pay admission and they pay for exams that they take after each course… The idea is open admission to everyone.

…We use open source and open courseware… basically everything that is available for free… there are not going to be any teachers in the classroom. Students are going to teach each other…

… [the discussions are] asynchronous… because of the time differences and there is not going to be any video… it’s very, very simple [so] that anyone around the world can get it.

… we teach only two courses, business and information technology… these are the most needed degrees to get a job.

It’s not for everyone. You need to know English, you need to have a computer… our assumption [is that the students will be from] the upper end of the lower class or the lower end of the middle class… its people who almost made it… who could have been at the university but missed their chance.

So by targeting a very specific audience, delivering only two courses, using open courseware and open source technology, asking students to teach other on a very simple platform, Shai hopes to be able to deliver a limited, but valuable education to an important segment of the global population for free. He will ask them to pay only for testing (accreditation).

Shai is not dropping the marginal cost of education to zero. But he has figured out how to deliver two courses at a marginal cost of pretty close to zero. His costs (and the price to students) is in accreditation. The marginal cost of Gepetto’s self directed “course” in video editing was also zero plus bandwidth. He did not pay for accreditation. The only “credit” he got was the approval of his peers on the web site and the recognition of his teachers back at school.

I had a lunch conversation with David Wiley (it’s not in the transcript) about whether or not it would ever be possible to reduce the cost of accreditation to zero. I was stuck on the problem of grading papers. I understood how a computer could grade a math exam, but how could you grade an essay on Aristotle. The best I could imagine was that underpaid, but still costly, teaching assistants grade the student’s essays. David said, “oh that’s easy”. You agree with the students on a set of criteria for how the essays are going to be graded and then have each student read a few essays. The readers critique can then also be read by a couple of students and the students final grade is based on how well they wrote and how well they critiqued according to a jury of their peers. By having every essay and every critique reviewed by multiple people, you eliminate the outliers and arrive at a fair grade. So at least in theory, it is possible to peer produce the critique something of as abstract as an essay on Aristotle.

The possibility that education can be unbundled, and that, as an information good, it may be possible to radically reduce the cost of providing at least some types of education could have important social consequences. We spent a good portion of the afternoon talking about some of those issues and some creative ways to use technology to address the issues that technology is creating.

As the web becomes more central to learning, bridging the digital divide becomes more critical. The webs resources are only available to someone with a computer. That sounds simple but as Danielle Allen points out, it’s not.

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A small anecdote on the issue of technology in schools to underscore the fact that any conversation on education needs to take a whole bunch of other factors into account, which are pretty absent from our conversation. I’ve served on the board of the University of Chicago Charter School for a number of years. We had to quit handing out laptops because kids were getting attacked. First, we tried school buses so they did not have to walk home, but that wasn’t enough, and it’s super expensive. So, it wasn’t a sustainable program, just because of various social factors.

The difference between those who have computers and those who do not is important but there was also a lot of conversation about those who do not have the cultural background that would lead them to take advantage of the learning opportunities on the web.

dana boyd reminded us that “technology does not determine practice”

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Just shoving broadband into a group of kids, just giving them an iPhone, we can think of a gazillion designs that are valuable … but, if you don’t have a culture embedded in it, [it] becomes just another toy you can text your friends with… I’ve become so infinitely frustrated with… “let’s just dump a bunch of laptops into a population and see what they do with it”… That doesn’t work… We’ve watched students rip out the batteries and use them for everything else under the sun…. I don’t think we can just think about the technology…. We have to think about it in a broader system.

Even if you solve the real world problems Danielle cites, and embed the technology into a framework that enables meaningful learning, students will still fall into two groups, those that were lucky enough to have been raised in a cultural context that values learning and those that who were not. The story of Gepetto suggests that someone with access to a computer and a desire to learn can learn a lot on the web. What about that portion of the student population that is not self motivated? How can we reach them?

Jon Bischke reminded us of the William Butler Yeats quote “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”. Several people suggested that this is the role of a great teacher. Steven Johnson described how he learned a passion for baseball and suggested that game mechanics may be one way to light a fire when a great teacher is un available or unaffordable.

When I think about the skills that… I got when I was a young kid that are still valuable, I think back to when I was 10 or 11 when I spent thousands of hours playing baseball games and designing better baseball games. I got a huge amount out of that in terms of the math involved in creating the whole statistical model of how baseball works and stats, and a lot of collateral learning experience… But the most important thing about that was, I learned how to be obsessed with things… I got obsessed with these things and I had a series of stages in my life where I got obsesses with something else. And I just immersed myself to learn as much as I could. And it’s that mechanism I used again and again and again in my professional life. So how do you teach kids to be obsessed with things?

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I think one of the advantages we have with technology and particularly with games is that they have a built in structure, almost to a fault, as most parents would say. They have an addictive quality where people will just immerse themselves and become obsessed with them…When you look at the games that most of these kids are playing, the amount of information that they have to accumulate and master to perform well in these games is massive compared to the amount of information they are willing to learn at school… there is something in this kind of platform. Without anyone telling them to do it, they are going out, learning all this information, and becoming really skilled at it.

Katie Salen has spent the last two years trying to tackle all of these problems at once. She has created a New York City public school that will open in the fall that is based on the idea of game based learning.

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We wanted to open a public school because we are really interested in the equity and access question.

Like Dana, Katie understands the importance of context and culture.

In order to actually have transformative change, you needed to work at a systemic level. So the idea was to design a school from the ground up. All aspects of the school, the curriculum, the professional development program, student recruitment, the kinds of technology and communications platforms in the school, the leadership model – all of that is built around a pedagogy, which is the way we think kids learn best.

And it’s based on game dynamics.

In a lot of our work we found that kids that have struggled in traditional schools do really well with some of the work we have been doing around game-based learning.

As encouraging as Katie’s story is, there was also some real concern about the future of education. Fred put it this way:

the problem is that the whole economics of that physical space breaks down as [students] opt out [of parts of traditional campus based education]. Maybe this is just what we’re going through in other industries… that they get crushed by the organizing efficiencies of the Internet. But I don’t know how to get across that chasm

Fred is suggesting that the education industry may soon face the same challenges that currently confront the music industry and the newspaper industry. Like those industries, education can be peer produced, delivered as bits, and curated by a community. Like the music and newspaper industries, the cost structures embedded in the education industry’s current business models may be very difficult to support in the face of competition from hyper-efficient, web native businesses.

Unlike the music and newspaper businesses, education plays several roles in current society.

Diana Rhoten pointed out that:

School is a safe place for a lot of kids. It’s not only the single parent argument. But, it’s also that school represents the eight hours of your day when you are actually warm and have food. Not every kid can opt out of that.

Katie Salen picked up on that:

In the early part of the [last] century there was this configuration between home, church, and school. And it was understood that kids learned in those three different places and it was really clear what was learned in those three places. And over time…. all of it got stuck back in the school.

The day was characterized by this conflict between the technologists and entrepreneurs who were driven by the conviction that we can use what Tim O’Reilly calls the “magic powers” of the web to drive down the cost of learning and increase access to knowledge. This optimistic view was tempered by the concern that education is not music and that the existing structure of education delivers a lot more that knowledge. If the transition from the current high touch, but high cost, learning environment to an efficient peer produced learning network is as abrupt and brutal as the transition we are witnessing in the music and newspaper industry, the social consequences are likely to be a lot more severe.

Early in the day Bob Kerrey‘s reminded us that education is not like other industries, that it has always, at least in the U.S., always been tied up in our notions of citizenship, and that the collective decisions we make about education have always been politicized.

It is worth remembering that the history of the common school in the United States is a history of people attempting to pass state laws mandating education at an early age, mandating the creation of public schools. And up until the 1920s, when there began to be the a rise of the nativist movement, as a result of the enactment of the openly racist Immigration Act of 1924 and the creation of the American Legion, that resulted in the rapid expansion of public schools in the United States of America for the purpose of teaching citizenship. That’s why the Pledge of Allegiance is mandated in all schools. If one of your 11-year-olds is found out on the streets of Atlanta this afternoon, they can be arrested and found in the juvenile justice system for violating their — as an offender of their status. They’re required, for approximately a thousand hours a year in all 50 states, to be in schools. So, that’s the context.

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Secondly, you’ve got to sort of imagine yourself — I have a 7-year-old in the largest public school district in the country, the New York public school system. If you’re trying to have an impact on PS41 where he goes to school, to put it mildly, that’s a hell of a challenge. Just to try to have an impact upon the arrival of air-conditioners in June, let alone the curriculum and the budget and other sorts of things. So, I think you have to separate the conversation between the effort to improve the public schools and the effort to improve the non-public school environment. These are two completely different things.

And finally, you have to get used to the idea that you have to bring an argument inside the context — you haven’t been in a room full of parents. There are 2 million parents in the New York public school system that might, I should say, have a slightly different attitude about what they want the New York public school system to accomplish than I do. And these board meetings can be raucous, dispiriting and at times counterproductive. You find yourself saying, Gee, I don’t want to do that anymore. You can find yourself fighting the battle to get curriculum imposed and brought to the schools and it’s exactly what you wanted and, two years later, the board of election occurs and the people you supported get turned out.

So in the end, the technologist’s enthusiasm for radically reinventing education was tempered by an increased awareness of the broader social role that our educational institutions play and a greater appreciation for the political will needed to bring the full benefits of the web to public schools. The academics and educators heard about a number of interesting experiments that use peer production, game dynamics, super distribution, and the ubiquitous connectivity of the web to create meaningful demonstrations of what can be done. The challenge for all of us it to find ways to exploit technology to reduce the cost and increase the accessibility of education; build political support for the structural changes needed to make this a reality in public schools and architect a transition from the current industrial model of education to a network based model while minimizing social dislocation.

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