Tom Vander Ark - Education Reform
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Show 1431:Air Date: August 3, 2014
Rob McClendon: Well, if there is a revolution underway in education, Tom Vander Ark may well be leading it. A former senior executive turned educator, Vander Ark has served as the head of the XPRIZE Foundation as well as being the first director of education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And I was able to sit down with him after he spoke.
Rob: Tom, you’ve said we’re at the beginning stages of education reform. What are some of the big changes that you’re seeing and what are some of the big changes that we have yet to see?
Tom Vander Ark: We’re in the earlier stages of this shift from print to digital, so we’re seeing big increases in student access to technology. Schools are probably at three kids per computer. I think next year it’ll probably be down to two kids per computer. At our high school level, you know, before the end of the decade will be one to one – high-access environments. And in addition to that, many schools are encouraging kids to bring their own device. So school is a much more connected place, and then secondly, educators are gaining a better sense of what to do with all of that, that connectivity. There, there’s exciting new tools – applications, mobile apps and Wii apps – and these new school models where these kids sort of take advantage of the best of both worlds – rotating through online learning and face-to-face learning.
Rob: And is that called a blended classroom?
Vander Ark: It’s a blended classroom or a blended school model.
Rob: And I think you made an important point, you know, there was a time when a student would come in with their cell phone and get in trouble, but those days are quickly passing.
Vander Ark: They are. It’s just this year it’s really become the majority of schools that updated their acceptable use policy to make it OK to bring a device to school. Now in many cases they’re still allowing teachers to make the final decision about what happens in the classroom in the extent to which they, they use the device. But it’s becoming the norm that schools have a policy that say you can bring a device; they usually ask them to use the local network, and then they have an acceptable use policy that, that makes it clear there’s some times you can use it and some times you can’t. And there’s some good sites to go to and some sites that are prohibited. So getting the policy right is important. Reinforcing the practice classroom to classroom is even more important.
Rob: I want to talk about adoption, and I want to just start off with students. They adopted to new technology, I’m assuming, pretty well?
Vander Ark: Most of them do. Most of them are using a lot of technology outside of school, and so when they come into school we ask ’em to sort of shut down. We were talking about an algebra class. If you walk into most algebra classes, it’s really boring, you know, and you contrast that with their life of playing video games and always texting – high-engagement, high-activity – and then walk into a classroom where there’s worksheets where kids are all supposed to do the same thing at the same time and the same way. And the gulf between sort of real life and class life for many kids is really wide. And it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s so many great math applications. You can make math really exciting, and now a teacher can run a math class where every kid is working at their own pace where they have a playlist that really closely matches their individual needs. And soon, we’ll be at a place where you can not only match the level but the sort of best learning modality. So if you learn best with games, and I learn best with simulations or with group activities, I can do more of how I learn best, and you can do more of how you learn best. And so these sort of customized pathways are gonna become much more common.
Rob: What about the educator? I know there has to be adoption there if they’re gonna teach this type of classroom.
Vander Ark: First of all, there’s a third of our teachers have adopted these new tools and are off and running. So first task is to find out what is already happening in your classroom. So superintendents need to spend time in classrooms, and they ought to survey and find out what teachers are already using. Secondly, there’s a group of teachers that just aren’t yet comfortable with the new technology or the new teaching strategies, so we need to do a better job of supporting those teachers. The interesting thing is the solution is the same as it is for kids – that I have a blended learning experience where they have their own individual development plan and that’s supported by a bunch of online resources that they can access anytime, anywhere. And they ought to work in a team where they can learn from master teachers. The exciting thing is that we can not only better support teachers, but we can create these environments that just have much, much better working conditions for teachers.
Rob: Can this new system, can it evolve in the established system when we’re seeing smaller and smaller budgets coming to at least public schools? Is this something that develops outside of public schools?
Vander Ark: The answer is both. And we’re seeing, we’re seeing interesting charter schools being developed and interesting private schools. The most interesting thing is that, and the reason this isn’t just another fad or a reform, the system is being enveloped by technology in the consumer space – it’s at home, it’s everywhere. So this is an undeniable shift in the way human beings learn. It’s not something that is gonna come and go; it is how we learn, and we just need to find ways to really take advantage of it. And the smaller budgets, the good news is that while there’s a capital investment in, in new technology and training to go with it, it is possible to create schools that work better that are sustainable even on lower budgets.
Rob: So if that is where we are now, you say we’re at the beginning, where do we go to?
Vander Ark: That’s an interesting future. I spend all my time thinking about that and writing about that. What seems very clear, especially at the secondary level, our students are gonna have a lot more learning choices. They’ll have more learning choices in school. We’re moving from big unitary textbooks to modular learning. And so you’re learning might be a playlist just like on iTunes – a video game and then a chapter and then a simulation and then some problems. So you’ll have a playlist of these modular objects. But you’ll also have the ability to choose from some online classes – some that your district offers and some that come from a tech center down the road, some from another teacher that’s been approved as a statewide provider. So you’ll have this big catalog of opportunities, of blended classes at school and then online classes from many different providers. So I’m excited about that range of options, but what we need to pay attention to is we need to make sure that as we expand all these options that there’s a, there’s a spine of guidance and support. So that we’re making kids make good decisions and that they’re getting the academic support that they need even though they’re taking classes from a number of different people.
Rob: From a national perspective, are we ready for that type of choice? Politically, are we ready for that type of choice?
Vander Ark: It’s here. It’s coming. It’s coming at different speeds in different states, but there’s probably 4 million high school kids taking online classes today. There are states like Louisiana who have created a really interesting course-choice system where they’re inviting providers to come in, and the providers include some of the big companies that you’d expect, but they also include teachers that want to be approved as a statewide math teacher, a statewide French teacher. So teachers as providers is a really exciting subject. This is coming, and it, you know, whether it’s sanctioned by a local district, kids are still going home and studying Khan Academy at night. And so they’re blending their own learning. So this is happening everywhere in the United States, but it’s a time when leaders, they can either try to stop it, or they can try to use it in a way to create better opportunity for teachers and kids. And so I think our leaders right now need to be creating community conversations about the new opportunity set and then breaking these changes into sort of manageable chunks over the next few years so that a community really has time to incorporate the new changes and to be part of a conversation about what’s working and what’s not. So it’s gonna take this sort of iterative, communitywide conversations as the opportunity set improves.
Rob: All right. Well, certainly some interesting, exciting times in education. Tom Vander Ark, thank you for your insights.
Vander Ark: Thanks.