Innovation in Education

Today, President Obama will visit TechBoston Academy together with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Melinda Gates. The President is likely to renew his call for more innovation in education, with initiatives such as the creation of a federal education research funding effort to be called ARPA-ED (modeled after DARPA).

At Union Square Ventures, we too are excited about the potential for innovation in education and have been for some time, dating back to our “Hacking Education” session two years ago. Since then, we have continued to learn about how the Internet is disrupting traditional media and have met with many inspiring teams creating terrific new web services with the goal of doing the same in education.

Based on our learning from those meetings and from spending time with the team at Edmodo, where we invested this past fall, we have come up with three suggestions for accelerating innovation in education:

1. Empower Teachers to Adopt New Technologies
Teachers are on the frontline of education every day. There are many teachers who are early adopters of new technology in their personal lives. Giving teachers broader permission to use some of these new technologies in their classrooms will help to more rapidly bring innovation into the classroom. Often teachers won’t even need money to do so, as some web services are entirely free to use for teachers (such as Edmodo) and others operate on a freemium model with meaningful free offers (e.g., Glogster). For paid services, teachers may be able to use DonorsChoose to fund their usage in the classroom. It would also be relatively easy to peer-produce a list of services and technologies that should be teacher adoptable.

2. Foster the Peer Production of Micro Chunked Creative Commons Content
That’s a mouthful but each part of it has meaning. The Internet is a huge engine for the creation of content. Much of it may be trivial but there is also amazing new educational content created every day. Whether these are videos such as those recorded by Sal Khan or flash simulations created by a physics professor. Over time, these micro-chunks will fill more and more areas of learning and can be used by teachers in the classroom, by students directly, by adaptive learning systems, by lifelong learners. Having content in micro chunks makes it far easier to dynamically provide the right content to the right learner at the right moment than was previously possible with large monolithic blocks of content. Having much of it Creative Commons licensed means that it can be used freely for non-commercial purposes (which includes all public schools). Individuals creating such content should receive ample public recognition and the use of Creative Commons licensing should be encouraged.

3. Create Data through Engagement
There has been a longstanding desire to better and more scientifically understand what works and doesn’t work in education. Much of the research has been hampered by the difficulty of collecting the relevant data. The same problem has been encountered in trying to better measure how students are progressing on a day-to-day basis and how teachers (and schools and districts) are performing. Starting with expensive data collection systems usually does not work well, as teachers, students and administrators generally don’t have the time or inclination for additional data entry tasks. Instead, we have to succeed in building systems that are fun to use and engage students and teachers alike. Once we have a few systems like that in use at Internet scale, we will have plenty of “data exhaust” that will support many of the analyses we all would like to be able to conduct.

What all three of these suggestions have in common is that they are highly cost efficient. They are aimed at unleashing the power of the Internet to let us all work together to innovate in education. We would love to see them embraced at the federal, state and district levels.