Searching for the Future of Education (and finding it, too)

Lessons from my quest for what’s next at FETC 2020 in Miami.

UNPACKING EDTECH | by Mark Gura

Yes, I’m that guy; the one who was stalking the sessions and exhibit floor at the recent FETC (Future of Educational Technology Conference) actually looking for the Future of Education. A crazy thing to do? Was I taking the conference’s name too literally? Maybe. But considering that it’s the turn of the decade, that the pace of change in our world is so accelerated and the need for relevant education so acute, it made sense to me.

By the way, a great deal of what I discovered at FETC really had to do with The Current, what’s going on right now; or, as is often the case at such gatherings, what I came across had to do with improved ways to get more mileage out of what many in the field agree is an educational paradigm whose expiration date is long passed. But yes, I did find the future of education at the conference and while it took me a while to recognize it, what I found is pretty cool!

What The Future Did Have

To be sure, throughout the conference there were new computing devices, digital displays, LMS’s and the like… of course. And, I saw Student Robotics and eSports, lots and lots of them, and coding, coding, coding. And, yes, there was much chatter and buzz about A.I. as well; all great stuff that speaks to the excitement and progress in education that is The Present.

The future though, at least the side of it that I tracked down, didn’t have nearly as overwhelming a presence, but it was reassuring. In fact, it showed up less in market-ready resources and educator sharing of recently developed classroom practices than it did in ideas that were accompanied by ‘that’ look in the eyes of the explainer… a kind of dreamy certainty that comes from knowing one has freshly identified a need and is on the right track of finding something important to address it.

I was unexpectedly moved at the conference’s opening ceremony when Miami/Dade Superintendent of Schools, Alberto M. Carvalho (pictured, right, with LRP Media Group Sr VP Robert Avossa – left), invited us all to experience the America of 15 years into the future… right now, in the rich, diverse, demographically varied stew of humanity surrounding us on the streets of South Florida.

And like all sharings of accurate visions of the future, this one rang true. I could feel the expansion of the crowd’s understanding as his words were still reverberating around the immense auditorium.

Dan Pinks’ keynote followed. Essentially, he lobbed a very inconvenient truth bomb into the mix; that scheduling has everything to do with success in teaching and learning and that schools have been rather oblivious to this, pacing and scheduling learning opportunities in ways that can be downright counterproductive. And he offered some solid advice on how educators might take advantage of the research results that he presented to make important changes.

And then, YES, it was time to dive into that exhibit floor packed with goodies for schools. There were many that I was familiar with, but also there were roughly 40 new items.

Ever Intrigued, Inspired by the Inventive

Ever intrigued by Student Robotics, I was quite impressed with OZOBOT’s new Ozobot Classroom, something that I see as a logical and much needed next step in making student robotics part of regular classroom instruction. This is the kind of thing that will move robotics beyond the margins to which schools to often relegate it. Often offered only as an afterschool or special activity, robotics belongs as part of the regular daytime instructional program, supporting core curriculum, subjects like science and math, and, of course, technology classes.

The new Ozobot Classroom is a management system that allows the teacher to keep track of a class set of robots in active use in the hands of a busy group of students hard at work discovering and learning excitedly with robot-based activities. This LMS-like system shows learning progress, identifying issues and enabling serious, ongoing robot-based STEM learning to be implemented practically and thoroughly as would be more traditional, content-based learning activities. I think this is a significant step forward in the development of student robotics resources, one that will deeply support the further and deeper adoption of student robotics as a powerful approach to STEM instruction.

As always, BirdBrain Technologies’ booth inspired me. With some very inventive, student robotics creations displayed. What knocks me out about Birdbrain the wonderful intersection of electronics parts and pipe cleaner-like crafts supplies and recycled cardboard that kids use to create robots which, for instance, illustrate works of literature (poems brought to robotic life), demonstrate art applications (imaginative model parade floats) and more. To me, blurring the lines between factory made tech items and fuzzy found objects – between serious STEM and playful STEAM; that’s where people and their education should be headed – an invigorating breath of the future right there on the exhibition floor.


Future Glimpse: Michele Haiken

One of the sessions at the conference that in my mind represented some of the best and most forward thinking of The Now, but that also clearly offered the goods for clearing a path toward the future, was Michele Haiken’s titled Personalized Reading: Digital Tools and Strategies to Maximize Learning Potential. Michele wisely offers that “Our classrooms include not just one type of student and learner, but are diverse and teachers are called upon to differentiate their teaching to maximize learning potential. Today teachers are called upon not to teach reading, but to teach readers. There is no one way of teaching that fits all students.”

Personalized Learning is a sweet spot concept in literacy instruction with one foot firmly planted in the last few decades of the 20th Century and the other still settling its weight in the 21st. Taking this from concept to functional, teacher and student-friendly reality is an important piece of business currently. Model practices and ‘just right’ resources to support them pave the way and beckon many to walk toward emerging varieties of education. Michele, by the way, is the author of the popular ISTE book New Realms for Writing – Inspired Student Expression with Digital Age Formats (watch EdTech Digest for an upcoming review and interview with Michele).


Wonderful Conversations

But again, my thirst for peeks at the future of education had my ears cocked for ideas. Fortunately, I found myself in some wonderful conversations.

One of these was with Brad Spirrison, who sometimes describes himself as a serial entrepreneur. He’s a thinker, a former student of Dr. Neil Postman, the famed educational theorist, and a bit of a dreamer (my kind of guy). I had a great conversation with him about his interest in developing resources to foster student ‘executive function’.

Brad sees that today’s youth, coming up in a digitally saturated environment, approach their self-management and workflow differently from the preceding generations – their teachers, parents, and potential employers. They would benefit from a type of support not currently provided by schools. This would help them develop the enhanced executive function that living and working effectively in the 21st C increasingly demands He sees the current increased focus on executive function through the current interest in Social and Emotional Learning as a good sign, a step in the right direction; it provides an entry point for the greater executive function work he feels needs to be done.

He feels that parents are going to play a huge role in addressing this and he envisions the development of apps that will coordinate between student, teacher, and parent, getting them in better sync to analyze what students do, how effective they are at juggling their interests and learning and growth opportunities, finding weaknesses and strengths, and offering solutions in what they agree are areas to be worked on.

In view of our chat, I can’t help but think of how far the field has come from the emergence of drill and (s)kill software and how important pure analysis of where we are currently, partnered with visions of how to address as yet, under satisfied need, are truly what propels us into the future. And how inspiring it is to witness this process “in the wild!”

AllHere

A great example of the kind of fully matured thinking that represents the future of education is the new resource AllHere.

On sitting down with representatives for AllHere and hearing that it will help districts address the crisis of chronic absenteeism, I thought this would turn out to be yet another resource to reach out to parents. And while it is that, it is the fruit of a fresh and much deeper look into the bundle of social dynamics that contribute to chronic absenteeism and generally defy fixes that often focus simply on compliance.

The Founder of AllHere, Joanna Smith, worked as a middle school math teacher in Boston, where she faced so much chronic absenteeism that she was unable to be an effective teacher. After serving as an attendance and family engagement coordinator, Smith built the company from a shoestring budget and a spreadsheet into a fast-growing, 15-person startup that has already secured nearly $4 million in capital.

This resource not only tracks absenteeism, looking for student issues and plotting trends, but based on the analysis and diagnosis it generates in response, offers schools suggested interventions. The next level beyond noticing chronic absenteeism is to identify root causes and address them. AllHere has a management tool that backs into a library of evidence based interventions. This is designed to empower schools to move beyond the tired approach of a phone call, a letter, and then an angry letter, a tried and very tired failing approach that perennially falls short of making a difference.

Today’s classrooms have benefitted from a tremendous amount of work in pairing learning performance data with interventions to implement with students, the emergence of AllHere raises the question of why that sort of deep work hasn’t been applied to keeping those students in the classroom where they can benefit from the instruction.

Solvably

Another new resource that grabbed my sense of ‘the next’ was Solvably.

Generally, when I think of learning activities that have kids collaborate to creatively solve problems and acquire STEM skills along the way, I conjure up an image of what many colleagues have come to refer to positively as a “messy classroom”, In other words, the orderliness of traditional classrooms has been done away with as learners function without the usual behavioral and intellectual constraints. And while this is a lofty ideal of progressive educators like myself, as a former school administrator I fully understand the management, assessment, and instructional differentiation issues that come with it. Accordingly, many teachers and supervisors are leery of it.

When I took a look at some early materials from Solvably, I saw the resource as a transitional approach, one in which students work through their screens in a program that allows teachers to monitor student progress on solid STEM/STEAM activities with a great deal of the management, assessment, and differentiation handled by the technology; all this while still offering activities structured as challenges that involve design thinking and creativity in a communications-rich, collaborative context.

I was informed that “The platform features a library of 450+ challenges – covering science, technology, engineering, art, math, English language arts, social studies, career and technical education…”

I’m intrigued by Solvably’s underlying instructional design philosophy that involves “…five interconnected creative problem-solving phases of discover, explore, imagine, create and reflect enable learners to engage with authentic challenges, conduct research, interpret findings and brainstorm and present solutions while applying what they’ve learned…”

…and also with the description that “…the instructor delivers formative feedback and assessment via real-time messaging, wherein instructors and peers can further challenge learner progress and participation, ultimately supporting higher order thinking.

“In short, our path to the future must accommodate teachers at varying levels of preparation for it.” 

And finally, impressed that a good number of progressive education ideas have been woven into a platform that offers the teacher a good deal of traditional control, Solvably asserts it “…fosters student agency (constructivism learning theory) found in popular gaming experiences and escape rooms… features authentic assessment which includes efficacy, reporting and tracking, featuring a 360-degree evaluation of learners’ 21st Century competencies using the 4Cs Rubrics…”

In short, our path to the future must accommodate teachers at varying levels of preparation for it – I appreciate this one as it seems to address the needs of those just beginning their journey, no small thing.

Welcome to the Probing Edge

I guess in the end, if you really want to grab a vision of the future, a clear and actionable one, then maybe you gotta craft it yourself. Our own EdTech Digest Session (Welcome to the Probing Edge: Looking at Education’s Future, Today!_ – devoted to wrapping our brains around the near term, likely future that will matter greatly to those working in the field right now and those who will enter it soon – was a panel consisting of Rachelle Dene Poth, Don Wettrick, and myself, Mark Gura.

Rachelle spoke about how Professional Development for teachers is evolving, with expanding opportunities, richer, more relevant content and deeper, ever more supportive ways to collaborating with likeminded colleagues. The conversation turned to a session she held on Facebook in which a discussion she and a handful of enthusiastic colleagues had about A.I. and teaching.

The takeaway is that this somewhat spontaneous, informal discussion, was held using the Zoom conferencing resource and distributed through the Social Networking platform Facebook, was attended virtually by an ad hoc Professional Learning Network; all of this hyper user-friendly and in many ways, eclipsing its labor intense, professionally organized, formal equivalents – a glimpse into the near future for sure.

Don spoke about the curriculum of the near future, something sure to be included the fostering of student innovation through its important real world application, entrepreneurship. He spoke of how he developed what he now advocates for through his foundation — in his own Innovation classes at the high school he formerly taught at.

The digitally connected world we live in now not only requires those who will succeed to be the sort of innovators that can succeed in entrepreneurial contexts, but also provides a platform for learning skills required for it. He spoke about what he calls Open Source Learning, in which students make the shift to tracking down the knowledge they need by finding and contacting experts via the web, absolutely the kind of shift that we are going to be seeing more and more of in successful education of the near future.

Ever taken with robotics, I presented my thoughts on an area that I hadn’t paid close attention to in the past, on that I think will not only present itself strongly, but actually dominate facets of teaching in the near future. I’m talking about Teaching Robotics, devices that teacher or foster learning. And perhaps referring to them as digital teaching and learning assistants is the spoonful of sugar that will make this dose of reality check easier to swallow for many.

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Point number 1 is that there are by now actually many examples of actual, in school implementations of real robots teaching actual classes of real kids. Many of these have been in Asia and Europe and while these very early examples may not necessarily be seen as proof of concept, they are testament to the persistence of a concept that simply won’t go away.

In fact, the onward spiral of sophistication and penetration of application in education of A.I. suggests that at some point we will have to acknowledge, embrace, and surrender to such robots: it’s simply the direction human development is moving in.

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Point two is that while the early versions of this idea are all humanoid robots, robots that support learning can take any form and by now we’ve seen a great surge of interest in using robotic devices like Apple’s Siri. Amazon’s Alexa (Echo Dot) and Google’s Home smart speakers in classroom use. These are very much robots tasked to support learning and much has been written about their early classroom applications.

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Point three is that while so much reactive energy has been invested in asserting that “computers will never replace teachers!”

A clear headed, objective understanding of the proposition takes us to the understanding that teachers who persist in personally doing what robots can do will be replaced by robots (as will just about every other task in the lives of people) and the smart reaction is to embrace and commit to having robots do those things and for teachers to do other things… and those things, by the way, represent a step forward in establishing a far richer education given to our students.

Thus, Teaching Robots truly should be given the role of Digital Teaching and Learning Assistants to render the situation a win, win, win: a win for students who will be exposed to more and better instruction – a win for teachers who will be freed up from teaching drudge work (e.g. drilling kids on basic skills memorization), and a win for machines who will win their appropriate spot as instructional beast of burden drones.

I wrapped up my presentation by pointing to the work of Dr. Rose Reissman and colleagues at Ditmas Middle School, an inner city public school in Brooklyn. This community of learners has made several recent forays into writing and illustrating student reflections on what it will be like to live and work in a world in which robots are highly present and do a great deal for humans. And this I think I think is a crucial idea. While we currently have much going on in teaching kids to design, construct, and program robots, the other side, what it all means to use hasn’t even been touched yet. Now there’s a need to be addressed!

With the conference behind us now, the following takeaway keeps asserting itself in my mind:

The act of organizing and participating in this panel afforded the opportunity to focus on the future, from identifying those defining parameters that are most relevant, to the process of analyzing and highlighting the best of what turned up from our research, to crafting a presentation. This seemingly straightforward set of activities actually changed my relationship to the ways I perceive and consider the future.

In fact, beyond the usual crystal ball novelty factor that seems to drive so much of what’s written about it, we found that a serious dive into the future offers some much needed counterpoint to all of the other stuff that is our due diligence in getting up to and maintaining speed on The Now that fills our heads with. 

“This seemingly straightforward set of activities actually changed my relationship to the ways I perceive and consider the future.”

We’ll be doing more of this, whatever form it happens to take.  And I can see that for all of us with busy, busy professional lives that are unfolding in this period of profound, rapid change, such a brief deep dive into the future is something that we really ought to do every now and then. For me, FETC — The Future of Educational Technology Conference — is a perfect opportunity to do just that.


More…

Some more things I experienced at the conference that I want to share. In each I found at least a little bit of that confidence in the future and the path we’re treading towards it; wonderful to behold!

Troxell-CDI

Generally, visiting the booths of hardware purveyors is something I avoid. They’re simply not my meat and potatoes. I’m far more interested in the ways that teachers use the things these folks sell than in the things themselves. My visit to Troxell-CDI gave me a peek, though, at where the field is going. This influential vendor seems to sell the full gamut of everything and shared with me that they go out of their way to fully serve their school and district clients by informing them of the possibilities of practice that various hardware items address, as well as advising on how to get the most for their money, taking into consideration what’s truly important vs. what may simply have caught their attention.

Vernier

I was impressed at the Vernier display by the very wide variety of probes (e.g. temperature, acidity, conductivity, etc. .) to support student experiences that involve real world data collection. They’ve embraced the use of mobile student robotics to enable authentic student activities that involves delivering probes with robots, something easily implemented in classrooms.

Recently Vernier Software & Technology partnered with SAM Labs to teach middle school students important coding and computational thinking skills through data-collection STEAM activities. Students can use a variety of Go Direct sensors with SAM Labs STEAM Kits and the Google Workbench programming canvas to collect real-time experiment data and bring their SAM Labs projects to life.

It has also partnered with OpenSciEd to make it easy for middle school teachers to integrate Vernier data-collection technology into OpenSciEd’s lessons, which align with the Next Generation Science Standards. The free, high-quality lessons engage students in hands-on investigations using Vernier technology to sharpen their critical thinking skills and participate in three-dimensional learning.

OpenSciEd is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of—and access to—science-focused instructional materials. It creates free curricula designed to help students meet NGSS performance expectations and prepare for STEM careers.

Flinn Scientific

STEM Education seems to be very well served by instructional resource providers. I was taken with Flinn Scientifics’ Whitebox Learning display. WhiteBox Learning is a web-based STEM learning system for grades 6-12 that brings real-world design to the classroom. Using the system, students can access, analyze, and save their designs anytime, anywhere.

The system also allows students to collaborate with their peers on their designs and offers opportunities to participate in design competitions with fellow students in their school, district, and state, as well as across the country and world. WhiteBox Learning addresses various learning styles and provides all students with an engaging way to gain exposure to engineering design and the STEM career cluster for Career and Technical Education.

An interesting development is their new Drone application to teach middle and high school students about the principles of drone flight, vehicle control, and quadcopter flight as they utilize an extensive suite of virtual modeling and simulation tools to design a drone. Once their design is complete, students can move on to the build phase.

Mark Gura is Editor-at-Large for EdTech Digest and author of The Edtech Advocate’s Guide to Leading Change in Schools (ISTE), and co-author of State of EdTech: The Minds Behind What’s Now and What’s Next. He taught at New York City public schools in East Harlem for two decades. He spent five years as a curriculum developer for the central office and was eventually tapped to be the New York City Department of Education’s director of the Office of Instructional Technology, assisting over 1,700 schools serving 1.1 million students in America’s largest school system. He is currently a professor at Touro College

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