Hacking EducationPosted: March 11, 2009
Well, I was waiting to digest this more but since Stephen and Alex have started processing it already, I thought I might make an initial stab at some thoughts on the Hacking Education roundtable. And maybe give a bit of aid and comfort to Alex as well.
First things first — the conference was a great thing. It brought a wide array of people together, smart people, and our hosts did a wonderful job of hosting and moderating. I was glad to be invited, and only hope the eventual transcript edits out some of my rambles.
Second thing — as many of you know, I’m not much a fan of the status quo in education. This comes largely from my faith in network-based systems over centralized structures, but it is also grounded in personal experience. I was bullied for a period in middle school, and recognize there is a sick element to primary and secondary school culture. I graduated at the bottom quarter of my high school class because I refused to do any homework, considering it a waste of my time (and I hated the systems that would dock me points off my 100 percent test scores for not doing the work that was meant to prepare me for the tests). I managed to get a 0.0 GPA one semester in college because I got it into my head I was going to be a folk singer, and essentially left school without telling anyone.
And most things that have helped me in life I learned outside the system. I got into educational technology b/c I wanted to replace a system that I felt was sorely outdated and ill-informed. And particularly as pertains to K-12 education, I wanted to help create a system that would expand opportunities for my daughters rather than limiting them.
That said, I came away from the conference oddly defensive of institutions.
Why? Because this is how I see the world:
Public <=====> Private
And I think I’ve realized that there is a significant portion of the Web 2.0ers that see the world this way:
Private Networks <==========> Public Institutions
It doesn’t come out right away. Initially people seem to agree quite a bit. But when the talk turns to solutions, a significant number of people support the voucher route — take the mythical x dollars spent per student, and give it to the student to spend. Let the marketplace decide.
Academically, I think one can make the point that we are conflating the supposed efficiencies of consumer-driven education with a new network pedagogy, and that they are not the same thing at all. One does not necessarily follow from the other.
But I worry about the larger picture. I am worried that the work that I do and that others do will be used not to just deinstitutionalize learning, but held up as examples in the attempts of others to reroute around the public nature of education. I’m worried that the talk about the efficiency of peer learning leads inextricably to anti-teacher rhetoric, and that consumer-driven education is a handy way to resegregate the schools, abandon the disabled (which is what will happen if everybody gets their “share” of the education money), and create yet another funnel of public money to private corporations, a version of Bush’s failed “Social Security Reform” for education.
Faced with that possibility, and the difficulty of pushing finely grained plans in a world of broad ideological goals, I walked away from the conference thinking we need to really talk about this in a different way, one which respects that we can not make words mean what we want to.
The institutions stay. The buildings stay. The public funding stays. And teachers stay, in some capacity — although I agree with Fred Wilson that the situation of the modern teacher is much like that of the reporter in the 1990s — we have to rethink what it is to be a teacher, realizing that many of the core skills and talents of teachers *can* transfer to the new environment, if we approach this mindfully.
What we want to do is keep that stuff in place — much of it really is foundational to our society and economy, like it or not.
But we have to alter what happens inside those institutions — make it less industrial age, less internally institutional, more network oriented, more student-driven (which is related to consumer-driven but not the same). We have to make it less about getting docked for not doing math homework, and more about setting up meaningful contexts in which math might be naturally relevant.
In short, the conference metaphor was exactly right — we have to hack education, not rebuild it from scratch. I think where fault lines appeared in the discussion, this was the fundamental underlying difference of opinion. And for me, it was one of the lessons of the conference — that I often talk revolution, but that this is a situation where attacking our institutions too hard as bulky, increasingly irrelevant entities could lead not to their reform, but their destruction.
Thanks again to Union Square Ventures for a great conference.