Hacking Education 2.0

More than ten years ago, USV hosted a small group of educators, entrepreneurs, activists, and investors for a day-long session called Hacking Education.  In summarizing that discussion, our partner Brad described the group’s collective optimism about the role technology would play in driving down the cost of learning and increasing access to knowledge.  With an understanding of the hard work ahead, he noted –

“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.”

In many ways, the last nine months have been that ‘abrupt and brutal’ transition.  More than 90% of households with school-aged children adjusted to distance learning overnight.  Our institutions are still learning to adapt.  Many students have been left behind.   In this moment, a little more than a decade after the first, USV gathered a small group together for “Hacking Education 2.0”.  We reflected on what the next decade of K-12 education might hold, and the questions we’re all wrestling with today.

In-person vs. online

There was broad consensus that the structure of the school day will undergo a permanent shift.  In-person learning will be supplemented with online interactive experiences, some delivered in the classroom itself.  We might see a more modular school day, where blocks of time are spent using 3rd party content or digital lessons that aren’t created within the confines of a specific school. 

Such a change opens up the possibility for cohort-driven learning that doesn’t depend on age or zip code, but rather excitement and mastery.  Students might work up or down a grade level in most subjects, or be taught by their peers.  We might also see a rise in learning by doing – taking the plunge immediately and asking questions along the way, rather than spending time in a textbook or with a formal lesson upfront.  

This shift requires a reimagining of the technology stack used in the classroom and at home.  While platforms like Google Classroom predate the pandemic by six years, they were not widely used until this spring, in part because the 1.0 translation of live, in-person learning directly to the screen still needs refinement and innovation.  Educators also need additional support and resources as they transition their students to a new medium that has a different bar for attention and success.  

Most importantly, further digitization of curricula will place a resource burden on educators and students both in the classroom and at home.  Without equitable access to devices, reliable wifi, and a comfortable place to learn, some students will fall further behind while others are presented a new slate of digital tools and learning modalities.

As coursework continues to move online, Nick Grossman, Partner at USV, highlighted that platforms more responsive to the individual student might emerge –

“One of the things that’s most exciting to me about where we are right now is that the shift to online learning has moved a lot of assignments, curriculum, and assessments from analog to digital. They are now programmable because they are digital content.  And the thing that has made it possible for online and tech-enabled education platforms to be adaptive, responsive, and flexible is how they’ve digitized – they can process mass amounts of data. We haven’t figured out what to do with that yet, but it’s easy to imagine how you could personalize learning to make a student more successful.”

Core curriculum vs. interest-driven learning

There was also agreement that today’s students will need to cultivate a life-long love of learning rather than concentrate the majority of education (time + dollars) in the first few decades of life. Amir Nathoo, CEO of Outschool, suggested that letting students direct their learning experience outside of the core curriculum will be critical to sparking this necessary curiosity –

“If we just stick to the core curriculum, then it is very difficult for kids to develop differentiated skills.  More of the school day needs to be spent on kids pursuing their interests with the benefit of increased autonomy and self-direction – with this, kids’ motivation to learn can increase.  There’s going to be so much change in technology and society in the next 10 years, I think we will head in a direction of hybrid core + self-directed.”

Shripriya Mahesh, Founding Partner at Spero Ventures, agreed, and specifically highlighted the need to learn by doing –

“One of the spines, if you will, of how we think about K-12 education is how do we give every child a chance to love learning and to learn by doing?  Those two are more tied than we think.  The reason we think about hybrid curriculum is because for every child, there is a teacher or content that can inspire that child.”

We have already seen core subjects augmented with self-directed study where learners develop mastery in the disciplines that matter to them.  The approach is gaining traction across grades and geographies – for teens at schools like Sora and for younger learners at Prenda or Primer.  Students might build a video game, help a small business launch a marketing campaign, or invest time learning the math behind their favorite kind of music.

Handing the reins to students stretches today’s pedagogical assumptions about how much trust we place in learners to direct the arc of their education, and at what age they are well-equipped to do so.  David Noah, Founding Principal of Comp Sci High, highlighted that in many cases, students don’t have the resources or knowledge to self-select into what isn’t already familiar to them.  This can further disadvantage some learners more than others.  He noted –

“I think there is a question for everyone, about what are the minimum barriers to entry for self-directed learning?  I don’t just mean a stable wifi connection, but also how much do you need to know about something to be able to be interested in it or to direct it yourself?  How do you get to that point if you initially hate it?  I bet we all hated something at first that we later came to like.  At what point is it appropriate to say, you know enough and are prepared?  Because my experience would suggest it is not always responsible to send kids out on their own, at least for core schooling.”

We debated whether or not students should be allowed to forgo whole subjects entirely, and at what point such a decision is responsible.  Those favoring more autonomy, sooner felt that failing early and often in the things one cares about is a way to cultivate a deeper curiosity and sense of discovery.  Those who pushed for more initial structure emphasized the importance of a strong, shared knowledge base for young learners.  Most did agree that late middle school/ early highschool is the age where students are best suited to direct chunks of their school day and in general, more structure is better than too little.

Access and equity

A significant focus of the conversation was then around the rising inequities of the US education system.  Concerns started at the most basic – stable internet, a safe place to study, healthy food for a growing mind.  Then, structural – many students face caregiving responsibilities on top of school, hold a part-time job, or don’t see leaders who inspire and look like them.  Finally, we thought about how the autonomy and trust enjoyed by small pockets of students today could reach those at all corners of the system. 

If learning will be life-long, hybrid, and often self-directed then the benefits of this approach must be scaled to reach the public system.  Linda Chen, Chief Academic Officer at New York City’s Department of Education, noted that –

“Every student has a love of learning and it’s our responsibility to provide the opportunities that allow this love to be unlocked for every student. Technology has certainly underscored the disparities, but it can also be a gate-smasher. Self-direction should be something that every child has access to and is entitled to – how can we do that in the public system?”

Shripriya agreed –

“If we’re not able to bring some of that student agency, with technology, to the majority of children who are in K through 12, then we are saying that only the kids who can afford it are curious, or can be lifelong learners. And I think that will be a really sad place to end.”

Dr. Tarika Barrett, COO of Girls Who Code, highlighted that a critical piece will be hearing from a more diverse set of communities, and building with a broad set of needs in mind –

“We have to invest in the right places.  When you go to invest, are you investing in founders of color? Are you keeping an eye on businesses considering social impact? Are you putting dollars into solutions that work for the diverse many, not just the select few. If we keep investing in companies that benefit the same communities, we leave other communities behind and with them, brilliant ideas on the table.”

When we kicked off Hacking Education more than a decade ago, we were wondering what it would look like to bring the benefits of the web to learners at large.  Peer-to-peer learning networks, digital credentials, learning through games, and developing alternatives to the traditional system were all on our minds.  Many of these concepts have flourished in the years since that conversation.  At the same time, our ongoing crisis suggests the broad-based access we were hoping for remains elusive.

While we’ve gotten better at defining what great digital learning looks like, many families have yet to experience it for themselves.  The context in which our education system functions – politically, socially, and economically – means it will continue to take a coalition of educators, policy-makers, and entrepreneurs to bring the distributed power of the web in new formats to more learners.   At USV, we were excited to hear from these leaders as we think through the next wave of K-12 learning and would love to discuss the same topics with you.  If you’re brainstorming or building, please don’t hesitate to reach out – our inboxes and minds are open.

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