10 Burning Questions About Innovations in Learning

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In preparation for the 2014 ASU GSV Education Innovation Summit, Mike Moe and Deborah Quazzo invited a group of advisors to contemplate the burning questions about innovations in learning. We discussed 10 big questions.
1. What will the new teaching models look like?
Resources like LyndaUdemy, and Khan Academy suggest that next-gen learning models will include customized playlists. Great schools and training programs like General Assembly suggest that learning in community remains highly desirable. While anytime, anywhere learning is world-shaping opportunity, it is clear that most effective and sustained learning experiences will be in the context of a relationship.

  • Big opportunity: engaging community-connected standards-based projects; recommendation engines based on learner profiles
  • Big challenges: game-based content is compelling but expensive; learning content developers are competing with unbundled open resources

2. Are degrees still relevant?
The largely unchecked inflation in higher education and bump in structural unemployment brought about by technology and the Great Recession have reduced the ROI on education. Tier one universities aren’t likely feel the pinch, but third tier colleges are on their way out of business. In dynamic job clusters like web design and development, degrees are largely irrelevant having been replaced by new marketing signaling.

  • Big opportunity: wrapping MOOCs in student services; credentialing/badging formal and informal learning; competency-based sequences
  • Big challenges: accreditation is badly out of date and needs to consider new models, part time enrollments and competency-based models

3. Will competency-based systems replace time bound systems?
We have an age cohort and time-based system because there wasn’t a better way to manage student matriculation and assessments weren’t deemed trustworthy measures of learning. Now that we’re getting better at personalizing learning and dynamic scheduling is a bit easier, we don’t need to rely on age cohorts as the organizing principle it’s been for century. However a full shift to secondary and postsecondary competency-based models will require a new generation of sophisticated assessments–and a lot of advocacy on their behalf. Credits will be redefined as units of learning rather than hours of delivery. Accreditation (to the extent the concept remains relevant) will shift from inputs to outcomes. Money will follow students to a variety of unbundled learning options.
New learning models will occur at the intersection of standards-based and interest-based learning–more for-me and less for-degree, more just-in-time and less scheduled, more asynch than synch, both individualized and social.

4. How is social networking impacting learning?
The growth of Edmodo and other connected educator platforms suggests that social learning may replace age cohorts as the basic building block of learning institutions. Given the importance of a social learning context a substantial portion of formal and informal learning may remain cohort-based for the foreseeable future. However, the cohorts will be dynamic and varied (e.g., interested-based, project-based, performance-based, geo-based).

  • Big opportunity: purpose built professional learning communities (see Plugging Into Professional Learning Communities); professional development platforms that embrace personalized and social learning
  • Big challenges: current staffing contracts/models/practices, funding models, assessment and accountability models

5. What’s up with the tablet frenzy?
Tablets are portable, inexpensive, and have long battery life. Touch technology is engaging and particularly promising for special needs populations. Mobile learning extended day and can engage the family. However, tablets are showing up at schools and universities by the truckload with no plan and plenty of headaches. Even schools that claim poverty suddenly seem to be able to afford tablets. Gone are time honored textbook adoption cycles (and some schools are building coffee tables out of old textbooks ). Tablets are lousy production devices and most are hard to manage.

  • Big opportunity: building a plan before buying devices (see Blended Learning Implementation Guide); bundles with management tools
  • Big challenges: layering technology on top of how we’ve always done school

6. What are the real facts about digital learning?
With lots of background assessment and use tracking, it should be easier to gather the facts about what works in digital learning, we still don’t know much. Some ask if we’re celebrating innovation or results? Is there a better way to rapidly judge efficacy? How should we calculate a return on an educational experience?

7. Is education inherently a bad investment?
Given long lead times, lack of sophistication, and sheer numbers, many investors say they won’t invest in companies that sells to school districts. Selling learning products to consumers is no picnic either–they’ve been trained to get their primary and secondary learning for free. On top of market foibles, there has been a series of witch-hunts: the Higher Learning Commission capriciouslydestroyed a higher ed innovator; short sellers depress the market, bloggers dampen ambitious plans. There are a couple active acquirers but public offerings aren’t really an edtech option. In spite of the odds and oddities, the explosion in edtech investment continues driven by optimism, impact investors, and the handful of deals that resemble consumer Internet.

  • Big opportunity: foundations are beginning to make grants and equity investments to create a longer runway for next-gen tools and platforms
  • Big challenges: proving new business models (#9) and a few more venture exits will burst the bubble buzz

8. Are there relevant models of innovation?
What would a productive edtech ecosystem look like? Brad Feld argues that geographies can promote innovation. As we’ve chronicled in Smart Cities, U.S. urban areas are increasingly adopting portfolio strategies that combine school improvement, new school development, and innovation incubation. However, the public dialog around learning innovations is particularly murky and misleading. The “privatization” ruse is a distraction from the meta-trends of personalization learning and performance-based systems.

  • Big opportunity: leveraging rapid adoption of mobile learning technology by teachers, students, and parents
  • Big challenges: can the media be used more effectively to promote innovations in learning?

9. Will new business models pan out?
There are two pathways to impact and sustainability: 1) lean startup, free apps, viral adoption, network benefits, and monetized premium features; and 2) well funded thick startups that take on big opportunities. The later takes big names and big backers, the former occasionally works in the consumer space (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) and is widely attempted but largely unproven in edtech.

  • Big opportunity: a few exits and a handful of transitions to profitability will help validate viral marketing and freemium business models.
  • Big challenges: some emerging capabilities (e.g., mastery tracking, achievement analytics, learning platforms) will take a longer runway for widespread sustainable adoption.

10. How to prepare teachers and leaders to leverage new technology?
Perhaps the most important question is how do we better prepare teachers and support them in the adoption of new tools and strategies–a complex mix of the hiring/preparation pipeline, ongoing development opportunities, incentives and compensation, and tools.

Who knows, some of these questions may turn into sessions at the Education Innovation Summit. See you there!
Bloomboard, Edmodo, General Assembly, and Udemy are portfolio companies of Learn Capital where Tom is a partner

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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