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How Will the Schools of Tomorrow Look?
By Danielle M. Bennett


Dr. Sal Khan, CEO of the Khan Academy
Dr. Sal Khan, CEO of the Khan Academy

Those vested and invested in education gathered together recently at the New York Times third annual “Schools for Tomorrow” conference to discuss the global effectiveness of online education and its impact on how education is delivered.

The hundreds of attendees including educators, politicians and government officials, investors, technology specialists and philanthropists were addressed with issues such as the changes necessary in technology and public policy to meet the challenges of education globally and how education and technology can partner to fundamentally change how we learn. Peripheral topics included personalizing education and incorporating social learning.

A panel moderated by John Merrow, education correspondent at PBS “News Hour,” focused on bridging the knowledge gap between educators and students and how new technologies can assist in that effort.  Panelists were Aditya Bhasin, consumer marketing, analytics and digital banking executive for Bank of America; Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware; Ted Mitchell, President and C.E.O. of NewSchools Venture Fund; Jennifer Tescher, president and C.E.O. of the Center for Financial Services Innovation; and, Joanne Weiss, former chief of staff to the secretary for the U.S. Department of Education.

A key issue the panelists agreed on was the digital divide---the reality that not all children, by virtue of their economic status, have access to technologies that is available to some. Gov. Markell commented that the technological movement in education was far from perfect. “I don’t think it’s a slam dunk.” Tescher agreed that the digital divide was a real problem, underscoring that it is more pronounced when one does not have the technology at home to continue the learning process.

The panelists also discussed the new technologies that make it possible to collect data on student’s progress instantly. Merrow questioned whether or not these new technologies would be used to judge teachers on whether students are meeting the common core standards. Mitchell claimed the assessments generated by the tools would positively set expectations for the students. Weiss stated that the assessment data collected from the new technologies would be telling of student progression and level of mastery, which should be a priority. “We’ve been treating time like it’s fixed and mastery is not optional,” said Weiss. Time should be variable; in other words, students should take whatever time they need, individually, to learn material.

With respect to online education in general, Gov. Markell underscored that for many students, the traditional classroom setting didn’t work, but the online tools and assessments might be better suited for them. According to Bhasin, the success of online education would be based on being able to cull down choice and zero in on what students needed to know.

One of the questions from the audience involved project–based learning. Mitchell admitted that a lot more work was needed on how to assess non-traditional learning.

“What will the schools of tomorrow look like?” asked Merrow. Mitchell responded in the words of his colleague, Weiss: schools should make mastery non-negotiable but time variable.

Sal Khan, CEO, of the Khan Academy, delivered the keynote address revealing, with honesty and humor, that his unlikely rise to digital world fame came from the modest mathematical tutoring sessions he provided to family and friends. But with the financial support of Google and Bill Gates, Khan Academy emerged full swing into the digital world in 2010 as a not-for-profit organization that provides free online resources based on Common Core Standards in math, science, economics, finance and the humanities.

Khan Academy’s content is available to teachers, administrators, students, and parents—virtually anyone with Internet access.  Presently, Khan Academy is in 200 countries with 8 million registered users, 3.2 million problems answered and 30,000 classrooms using the program. Once signed up, users take a pre-test and the system will assess what users know and don’t know. As users work through activities that gradually get more complex, they receive immediate feedback about their progress. A user’s skill growth will reflect light blue for emerging growth; a dark blue color indicates complete mastery of a task. A teacher will have access to a master chart or dashboard that reflects colors of light blue, dark blue and red, giving the teacher an overall look at students’ mastery level.

Khan is proud of the global appeal of his academy. He shared in his keynote address the story of a 17-year-old girl name Zia from Mongolia who was able to access Khan Academy. In spite of the success of the program, Khan admitted that there were still problems to solve such as the privacy, ethical issues and especially, the digital divide. His goal was for every child, no matter where he or she lived, to have access to the same resources. Nevertheless, Khan assures that his academy is meant to be a resource, not a replacement for teachers.

With respect to an audience member’s question about the future of Khan Academy as a degree-granting organization, Khan could not answer definitively. But, the academy was interested in other post-collegiate matters such as offering pre-assessments for professional exams such as the LSATs, MCATs, etc.

Among several conference panelists who joined Sal Khan to discuss the necessity of universities were Anand Agarwal, president of online non-profit, edX; Biddy Martin, president of Amherst College; and, Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of SUNY (State University of NY). David Leonhart, Washington Post bureau chief for The New York Times moderated.
The panel’s general consensus was that universities weren’t going anywhere. Martin advocated the strongest for universities; the “success of a nation depends on universities,” she said, thinking about the knowledge that students around the world gain from their post-secondary institutions. “Stay with it, I beg you,” she added.

But Martin recognized the importance of embracing online education, saying that residential education (universities) should integrate whatever was needed.

The New York Times Op-Ed columnist, Joe Nocera, and Michael Horn, co-founder of San Francisco nonprofit think tank, Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, discussed issues fostering a disruption in higher education. During their conversation, Nocera asked Horn where higher education was going. Horn replied that tuition has outpaced inflation and alumni contributions aren’t what they used to be. The financial crisis hit endowments very hard, said Horn. In his home state of California, thousands of students are on waiting lists for community college. With respect to the top 200 elite institutions, Horn said they were not in danger; but the others were vulnerable. Nocera then asked Horn to comment about the weaknesses of MOOCS, massive open online courses. Searching for a sustainable model and assuming such courses offered through elite institutions are good were two weak areas, said Horn. He was also skeptical that online lectures were effective. For a student completing coursework online, an audience member wondered how seriously a future employer would take that student’s online certificate.
Another panel shared their insights about increasing student engagement. Yvonne Chan, principal of Vaughn Next Century Learning Center and Diane Tavenner, founder and C.E.O. of Summit Public Schools cited the importance of travel: get kids to think about their own goals. Use technology and digital learning to flip education; make “kids own their own learning.”

Specifically, Chan stated that getting students to explore and learn about other places and how to get to those places has been effective at her school. For the past two years, Vaughn Learning Center has engaged in international cultural exchange between its students and Chinese students that have come and stayed from July to mid-August and January to mid-February. Vaughn students also have had an opportunity to travel to China and learn with those students in their environment. To also increase student engagement, Vaughn followed an extended day schedule, giving students more time to learn and explore.

Tavenner said online education was a great opportunity to increase student engagement. She said engaging students in digital learning allowed for individualized instruction because it freed up teachers long enough to work one-on-one with students. Digital learning also increased student engagement by helping students develop research skills.

Joining Chan and Tavenner on the panel was John Palfrey, Jr., head of school at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA. During the panel Q &A, Dr. Pola Rosen, publisher of Education Update, asked the panel if kids from lower-income families could attend boarding schools in groups or small cohorts.  Palfrey answered yes, the posse strategy could work.
Senator Bob Kerrey provided conference attendees food for thought and more than something to chew on during his conversation with New York Times Op-Ed columnist Bill Keller. “I don’t see a broken system,” said the senator to Keller with respect to the conference’s focus of online education. But he admitted there was room for improvement. He also said innovation needed to be encouraged because of how aggressively technology was applied in today’s world. Classrooms will eventually go away. Students are using Starbucks as libraries, said Kerrey.

Sen. Kerrey is executive chairman at the Minerva Institute based in San Francisco. The Institute, set to begin in the Fall of 2014, recruits highly motivated and entrepreneurial students who are ready to engage in global exploration and critical thinking as they travel and live in different universities around the world. Only 15-19 students will be selected around the world to attended Minerva, tuition free. That inaugural cohort will establish extracurricular activities that can serve as a model for future students.

The idea of Minerva is to provide high quality education for a fraction of the cost. Minerva does not receive Title IV funding. “I don’t want Arne Duncan telling me what to do,” said Sen. Kerrey candidly, arousing the laughter of the audience. #



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