Today marks the last day of TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco, so we’re providing a recap of Monday’s education technology panel that featured moderator Greg Ferenstein of TechCrunch and the following panelists: Khan Academy Founder Sal Khan, former Chancellor of New York Public Schools and Amplify CEO Joel Klein, and Udacity co-founder and Stanford computer science professor Sebastian Thrun.
Ferenstein opened the panel discussion, asking: “Every time you hear an education panel, we always say ‘we need to change education.’ So why isn’t the education sector being disrupted by technology as fast as all the other sectors?”
Klein was the first to answer, citing that K-12 education is currently a politically-driven system. For entrepreneurs that are performance- and customer-driven, the incentives to innovate in education aren’t nearly as enticing as those in other industries. Yet with the recent adoption of common core standards and the shift toward competency standards (i.e., allowing students to work at their own pace rather than teachers lecturing to the entire class at the same time), Klein believes there’s reason to be optimistic. However, he warned the audience that effecting change in education will be slow-going: “If you take nothing else from this discussion…nothing comes easy in K-12.”
When asked about the future of personalized learning, Sal Khan answered that Khan Academy is only “the top of the first inning” of personalized instruction, particularly in bringing it to scale in K-12. He explained that public school teachers are in a tough position right now, as he found out when he piloted Khan Academy with an algebra class in Oakland. Students were expected to complete algebra problems, but they lacked basic arithmetic skills. While the teacher agreed that the most pedagogically sound thing to do would be to let the students work at their own pace until they had mastered the fundamental math skills needed to move on in algebra, he also had state assessments coming up and had to move forward. So while he acknowledged that he had to help remediate these students’ math skills, he also had to get them through basic algebra concepts in order to meet state standards.
Sebastian Thrun pointed out that there’s an amazing potential to make education more accessible in online education. He said some of the brightest students he’s ever taught were not necessarily Stanford students, but rather students in his Udacity courses (12 of whom he’s helped place in jobs because of the skills they demonstrated in his courses). “I think there’s an entire discovery to be made about learning, about pedagogy,” said Thrun. “We’re so enthralled with this thousand-year old model, where a teacher stands in front of a classroom.” Students don’t learn by listening to lectures; they learn by doing, and particularly doing things that reflect topics they’re interested in. “The key,” said Thrun, “is to invent pedagogy.”
As the discussion wrapped up, Klein said that technology in and of itself won’t make a dent in education. The advances companies are making need to empower teachers and students. What education needs is a revamping of curriculum — “a dynamic, interactive, customized, gamified curriculum that gets kids really excited…in the end, that will change the game.”
Ferenstein made the point that there’s a misunderstanding as to what incentivizes teachers — as if throwing money at them will make them better teachers, as if educators got in into teaching for the money. Klein addressed this misunderstanding: “Teachers are like most people — they want things they think will empower them, and will make them more effective, and get them excited about the process.”
In closing, the panel agreed that education desperately needs a new model. The key to effecting change in education will not be in trying to fit new innovations into an exisiting model, but rather to completely change the model itself. The current 200-year-old lecture model in education is broken — when K-12 students can’t work at their own pace, they run the risk of falling further and further behind their peers. In higher ed, tuition has become prohibitively expensive, as student debt has exceeded both housing and credit card debt. Bottom line: both K-12 students and higher ed students are slipping through the cracks, whether that’s because of financial reasons or lack of opportunity to learn basic skills. As this panel pointed out, if innovators in education want to fix this broken system, they need to be prepared to disrupt it completely.
Take a look at the full video of the discussion provided by TechCrunch, embedded below. Share your thoughts on disrupting education in the comments or with me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.