Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing the World- 2013 Update

The first draft of Getting Smart was written three years ago and a lot has changed since then.  I reread the book on a plane recently and it holds up reasonably well but there are things I wanted to provide in an update.  Below are the top 10 developments I’ve seen since writing Getting Smart.

Ten Developments Over The Last Three Years

Thirty months isn’t a lot of time…except when you’re in the middle of a revolution.
The Arab Spring started in December 2010 and a few months later there were hopeful signs of democratic uprising in North African and the Middle East. Thirty months later Egypt is back under military rule and Syria is engulfed in a civil war.  Progress will be more difficult than some anticipated.
Two years after the Great Recession a 2011 poll found that more than half of all Americans thought the U.S. was still in recession or depression although economic data show a historically modest recovery. But two years later the stock market is back to all time highs. Housing prices have rebounded from their lows in 2010 (but haven’t returned to 2006 bubble levels).
The number of mobile phones grew by about 50% in the last three years.  There is now a mobile phone for every person on the plant—but they’re not yet evenly distributed.
Tablet sales went from near zero to about 180 million units.
Steve Jobs died 26 months ago and Apple stock went on a free fall with little confidence that the company would continue its streak of sector shaping innovations.
The climate continues to change.  In 2010, only four commercial ships sailed the Northern Sea Route through the Arctic.  By midyear, more than 200 ships have already been given the green light.
Gay marriage is legal in 18 states, more than double three years ago—we just witnessed what must be the most rapid change of American views on a basic civil rights issue in history.
Blended learning revolution. This is not reform, it’s a phase change. We’re in the early stages of reinventing how people learn and how states provision public education services. I remain as convinced as I was three years ago (when the last draft of Getting Smart was written) that we have a great opportunity to boost achievement levels by motivating and personalizing learning.
Following are ten developments—some fascinating, some frustrating—of the last three years.
1. MOOC. In 2010, I wrote, “It’s getting easier to find free college courses online or at least free lectures from the world’s leading scholars on sites,” but I didn’t predict how rapidly that would happen with the explosion of massively open online courses (MOOC) in 2012 and the formation of MOOC providers Coursera, edX, and Udacity.
2. Investment. Private investment in edtech is even higher than predicted. CB Insights reported edtech companies received a total of $1.1 billion in 2012 from investors.  “The rise of the social network paradigm is the inflector,” according to Rob Hutter, it’s less about efficiency and more that “social software designs drive learning productivity.”
The inflow of talent into the sector has been as breathtaking as the cash—all the smart kids want to work in education now.  However, more seed investment chasing lean startups has created a hamster wheel of talented developers building small apps to address small problems.
3. Platforms. The big learning platform ecosystems I described in Getting Smart have been slow to develop.  The big guys just have not made the big investments and the public and philanthropic investments haven’t panned out.  We still don’t have sophisticated gradebooks, learner profiles, recommendation engines—the tools to personalization learning and manage competency-based environments.
On the other hand, teacher adoption of free social learning platform Edmodo has exceeded expectation while building giant virtual teacher networks.
4. Tabs & phones. The iPad was introduced in spring of 2010. Apple has sold about 10 million tablet educational institutions.  Even CEO Tim Cook was surprised, “The adoption rate of iPad in education is something I’ve never seen from any technology product in history.”
I worry about the truckloads of iPads showing up at schools without a good plan for teaching and learning—that’s why we wrote the Blended Learning Implementation Guide.
Smartphone penetration continues to grow—even among low-income families. Rocketship founder John Danner was so impressed with phone penetration among his families that he formed Zeal, a mobile learning company to address the emerging opportunity.
For school and system heads, the rapid adoption of mobile technologies among parents, teachers, and students may be the most important development of the last three years.
5. Appsanity.  And, holy cow, there are a lot of apps—more than a million apps in the Apple store with more than 100,000 focused on learning. It’s really hard to keep track of the evolving world of web and mobile applications.  A handful of sites are trying but it’s hard to keep up with the folks that are trying to keep up.
Half of the learning apps target preschool kids where parents have proven willing to spend.  It has proven more difficult for startups to penetrate the consumer learning app market–looks like parents assume that schools should be footing the bill.
6. Blends. The shift to high access environments is on.  In some cases, these will be blended environments that work differently and better for students and teachers.  In many cases, schools will layer technology on top of how they have always done things creating a more expensive version of what we have.  Blends worth watching include:

7. State Policy.  Digital learning is continuing a 15 year trend of aggregating control over seven big policy levers at the state level.  Most states now control at least elements of standards, assessments, accountability, funding, human resources policies, student data, and authorizing statewide programs.  Michael Horn notes that “more than 150 bills related to K–12 digital learning were signed into law,” with more activity in 2013.
The fact that many students are learning in multiple applications daily and have growing access to part time options in a multi-provider environment makes it critical that sector develop better growth measures.  Teachers need the ability to compare growth rates produced by different programs.  Schools need the ability to combine data from multiple sources into useful reporting systems.  Parents need the ability to compare different providers and schools.
8. Federal Policy. Over the last three years America has become more politically polarized.  Congress is driven by knee-jerk fringe elements and is incapable of doing anything requiring thought. It is criminal that we’re a decade overdue for a reauthorization of federal education policy. Good education requires good governance—and we don’t have it.
Race to the Top was the most impactful grant program in history—and most of the benefit was derived before the money was spent. Reforms adopted by the majority of states in 2010-12 suggest that we’ve entered a new era of data-driven education and there’s no going back.  You’ll recall that RTTT was tacked on to ARRA, the 2009 stimulus bill indicating that congress can only act when things crash.
The RTTT funded testing consortia are busy building online tests for 2015.  A handful of states have dropped out which will reduce comparability but will create more of a market for tests and a culture of innovation.
9. Deeper Learning. It’s now obvious that a broader set of habits and dispositions that are important to success in college and work.  The parallel youth development and workforce skills movements were given a boost in the last two years by:

It is good to see more attention being paid to engaging students, supporting their development, and tracking broader measures of success.
10. Path Forward.  There is more consensus about a portfolio approach to meeting  urban  challenges—multi-provider school improvement and new development.  Three initiatives are advancing the cause in half of the big cities in the country: CEE-Trust, Gates Foundation Compact Cities, and CRPE Portfolio Districts.
This work is complemented by charter quality initiatives of the authorizers and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and and iNACOL’s effort to boost the quality of online learning.  The last CREDO study is evidence that it’s working.
Tom Vander Ark is a director at iNACOL. Edmodo and Coursera are Learn Capital portfolio companies 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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Josef Blumenfeld

Absolutely right about #4. Blended learning is only part of the hurdle. We all forget that there are still schools that lack an adequate power supply to juice those iPads or other tablets, enough outlets to charge them, or someone to plug them in and maintain them. For many students, a tablet is an incredible learning tool (mine included) - but for others, it's little more than an expensive "shiny object" so schools can show parents that they're making the leap to digital.


Tom Vander Ark

Thanks Josef. We agree and tried to cover this topics in our updated Blended Learning Implementation Guide


Hi Tom, your article is a gold mine of really useful insights and information. I have chanced upon some very practical tips for guiding school systems as they embark upon the journey of blended learning, found the Blended Learning Implementation Guide especially useful. Thanks for writing this piece.
In a country like India, where there is a huge divide between the urban and rural worlds, technology can play the role of a leveller particularly in improving access to quality education. Yes, we have huge issues of access to basic facilities like electricity in several parts of the country even today, something that is crucial for using technology tools, but with devices like mobiles, tablets some access to electricity for charging the device can certainly work. Mobile networks and broadband have permeated most of the remote towns and villages. In this scenario, perhaps a model that facilitates community ownership for blended learning may accelerate the transformation of education, particulary in the public school system. It will be great if educationists and blended learning specialists with experience of good workable models are able to offer a customised support to countries like India. Several changes and innovations are taking place but what is missing is concerted effort and a clearly defined path to deliver 21st century education that reaches the scale without compromising quality.

James Stanfield, E.G West Centre

Any thoughts on the future of qualifications? Where will they come from and what will they look like?


Tom Vander Ark

Great question, worth a blog

Tom Vander Ark

Perhaps you saw my partners blog on this topic: The Degree is Doomed:

James Stanfield, E.G West Centre

Thanks, will take a look. The degree, masters, PhD framework certainly needs to be challenged. The same applies in secondary education. Perhaps a variety of specialist qualifications will emerge focusing on different subject areas thereby allowing schools to offer a wide choice. I'm sure the branding of these qualifications will also be important as this will prevent standards sliding and ensure they are up to date. For example CISCO and Microsoft will need to make sure their certificates are up to date, because if they become dated and irrelevant then this will damage the brand. I suppose you could have Khan Academy Grade 1-5 for Maths etc etc

James Stanfield, E.G West Centre

I forgot I did write a blog on this subject in 2012, titled 'The Coming Qualifications Revolution'
With the benefit of hindsight perhaps I was over optimistic to expect a revolution!

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