The State of Edtech According to Michael Horn

The noted futurist and education disruptor shares his view of now and vision of the future.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Michael Horn speaks and writes about the future of education and works with a portfolio of education organizations to improve the life of each and every student. He serves as the Chief Strategy Officer for the Entangled Group, an education technology studio, and as a senior partner for Entangled Solutions, which offers innovation services to higher education institutions. He is also the co-founder of and a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a non-profit think tank.

Michael is the author and coauthor of multiple books, white papers, and articles on education, including the award-winning book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns and the Amazon-bestseller Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools. An expert on disruptive innovation, online learning, blended learning, competency-based learning, and how to transform the education system into a student-centered one, he serves on the board and advisory boards of a range of education organizations, including the Clayton Christensen Institute, the Robin Hood Learning+Tech Fund, and the LearnLaunch Institute. He also serves as an executive editor at Education Next and is a venture partner at NextGen Venture Partners.

Michael was selected as a 2014 Eisenhower Fellow to study innovation in education in Vietnam and Korea, and in 2018 he was named one of EdTech Digest’s TOP 100 INFLUENCERS IN EDTECH. Michael holds a BA in history from Yale University and an MBA from the Harvard Business School.

What prompted you to start speaking and writing about the future of education?

Michael: I would say it was dumb luck.

I had a public policy background and a writing background and if I’m being honest, I went to business school to escape those.

And while there I had the fortune of taking Clayton Christensen’s class on innovation and it totally changed the way I saw the world and literally at the end of class one day he said, “I have this opportunity to write a book with me about applying my ideas to public education system to help it innovate. Anyone interested stop by.”

And I stopped by, and a few months later signed up to write this book with him and then we started the Clayton Christensen Institute together and it sort of took off from there and it has become my passion and purpose in life, to help move this education system to student betterment.

How many others stopped by?

Michael: Good question. I wasn’t the first choice, I will say that. I don’t know the answer of how many did, but I know that there was another candidate that he was looking at who ended up taking a different job.

Might be a testament to your tenacity—or a good match—who knows, right?

Michael: Yeah. You know, in life, people are often looking for direct pathways into things. But I think it’s often the opportunities that hit it—fortuitous times—that you just jump, blindly. I went for a year, there, writing a book without a salary, for example. And you just have the blind faith that it’ll work out. And I think it has.

Certainly did, it’s a well known concept now “disruption” of class, and we’ll get back to it, but before we do: what’s technology’s role in education?

Michael: This is a really interesting question.

From my perspective, technology has to be an enabler toward improving education for each and every single student. A lot of times I see education technology efforts being first and foremost about the technology, we’re doing a one to one laptop program or we’re going to put smart boards everywhere or whatever it might be, and then they only ask the educational purpose or model second.

Instead, I think we need to flip that and ask ‘Why are we doing this, what are we trying to achieve for individual students? What’s the education rationale and how is technology an enabler to allow us to do things that we couldn’t do before?’

And when you look at it that way, technology, the ability for it to personalize learning, for it to meet individual circumstances and all sorts of states of need is just unbelievable and it really starts to bring the power of tutors and individual supports to a level where all learners can benefit from them.

Broadly, what is the state of education today?

Michael: We’re seeing that the future is here but it’s not evenly distributed, to quote the often-used quote about the future. What I mean by that, and we can go K-12 through higher education, is that there are a lot of models that have emerged in schools, in classrooms, in entire programs and degrees.

What the future of learning can look like, we have really cutting-edge opportunities where people are using technology to personalize learning to bring down costs, to better serve students to help them get where they need to go and so forth. It’s really not evenly distributed throughout the country or worldwide.

Certain schools are working much more aggressively on this and other schools are still very trapped on a time-based system where they conceptualize that, based on when you were born, that dictates what you should do on a given date regardless of whether you’ve mastered the concept or not. And based on the credit hours system and the like.

Much of the system is still stuck in that regulatory and processed path, while we’re starting to see exemplars of innovation really emerge checkered throughout communities—which is exciting and hints to the future, but it has not happened system wide by any means yet.

What interests you about edtech and this ‘sector’ or field?

Michael: Good question. Two different directions. One is, and I know that I keep harping on this need for personalizing learning incentives and mastery based progression as opposed to time based and stuff like that. But you know, and I tell often stories of students that I’ve visited in certain classrooms and seeing how the model is flipped, enabled them to exceed in ways that they never thought that they could.

Even more personally, I remember the last math class I ever took as a freshman in college and how the professor just sat there telling me that in multi-variable calculus, that Green’s Theorem was very important, and never said anything more than that—and I, still, to this day, have no idea what Green’s Theorem says. But I could just imagine that, if I had had online learning at that point, if I had had the ability to use technology to connect with different faculties, different teachers, peers, other resources and like—the ability to unlock where I was stumbling and getting held back—because we had an assumption that learning happens within the four walls of this classroom and it’s time-based and the teachers that you get, and so forth.

If I’d had the tools of the modern era with what’s happening in education technology today, I’m confident it would be a very different outcome.

And maybe I would have continued taking a lot more math which, going into college, was one of my favorite subjects.

I didn’t do particularly well, and that was the last math class I ever took. But I just see what’s coming out daily and it inspires and excites me. And I had the opportunity to be around Sal Khan quite a bit when he was creating the Khan Academy.

Early on, our office was literally, their offices were literally two or three blocks from each other in Mountain View, California. It’s just inspiring. The fire that he’s ignited—that that simple tool caught on to help people unleash mathematics and now many, many other subjects for learning in their lives.

Have we now gone the other way—too much technology—and is there a case for ‘everything in moderation’? With tech waves crashing down, there’s a dangerous riptide perhaps; you’ll even see an article once in a while about tech CEOs keeping their kids away from technology.

Michael: Yeah, yeah.

Born in the 70’s, when I see all this social media technology—it almost brings more problems. There are certain highlights, but there’s something to be said for shutting it all off, going out and enjoying nature. Your thoughts?

Michael: I totally agree with you, I think moderation is extraordinarily important and something that people probably would be surprised we practiced quite a lot with our own kids and maybe too much thrown the other way, but I think you have to be age appropriate and context specific on this.

So that doesn’t mean kids should be night of the living dead on technology.

In say five hours a day of school, interaction and working with others and so forth is critically important and especially when you’re young just being outside and being active and healthy is really important.

And we have crises of health in this country where people aren’t active enough and obesity is skyrocketing. I don’t think we should be a slave to technology by any means, moderation is clearly the way to use it and that’s why I think making this all about technology is a mistake that a lot of people like me, who are fans of what it can do, a mistake that they make, because they think it’s all about the technology and that which you’re supposed to enable on it.

The other thing I will say is that it’s the reason why schools creating thoughtful and holistic instructional models, it’s so important upfront, and then using technology to turbocharge those when and where it makes sense. Because kids are using these technology tools outside of school anyway and they’re binging on them and using them for all sorts of purposes that are not educational.

Having a very thoughtful design that incorporates responsible use of technology in it and doesn’t assume that just because people are born in this digital era that they are digital natives, which I think is a mistaken concept. It is really important to teach responsible usage in life and how you view tools to harness the positive, but avoid a lot of those negatives that you were hinting at.

What past highlights most inform your current approach? Got any anecdotes from years back—with some truth about edtech or education that’s still valid today?

Michael: When Khan Academy was being implemented in a fifth grade classroom in Los Altos, California, the school there, I got to visit several times throughout the year and it was remarkable that kids who are brought in—one in particular who, if he was in a traditional class would have been grouped in the bottom of the math class, it would have meant he would not have seen Algebra until high school, and that would have severely impacted the choice of colleges that he had for him.

It turned out he had just had some basic misunderstandings in much earlier grade math, second and third grade math. But in this class they implemented blended learning, only using technology by the way, for I think it was 30 minutes—maybe a little bit more but not much.

Students were able to move into the units that made the most sense for them. And he was able to go back into his early mathematics and fill in those gaps and then he soared and literally 70 days later, not even halfway through the school year, he was third or fourth from the top of the math class. All the way from third from the bottom in a class of 25 or 30 kids, to third or fourth from the top.

That traditional system is literally education malpractice. We have the opportunity at scale now to provide that tutor-like experience for every single student. And that’s what really buoys me seeing—let’s be honest, Khan Academy, especially in 2010, this was a super primitive tool.

But even then it unleashed that sort of personalization. The tools have only gotten better since then and I’m tremendously excited about what we can do.

One of your many affiliations is Entangled Solutions, which touts an ecosystem approach to advancing education. How would you define, describe or characterize today’s education ecosystem?

Michael: Today’s education system is largely built around the need for the industrial era economy and we’ve moved into a knowledge-based economy. And yet most of our institutions, colleges, universities, districts, and the solution providers and the like, have remained rooted in that industrial era.

What’s needed is to help those players and new ones come in across the ecosystem to help transform into a knowledge-based education system that can meet the need of this knowledge-based economy.

That means not sorting students into particular roles or trying to sell [to] them, if you will, but really taking mind into helping every single student figure out, how can I build my passion and get excited about something?

And then personalizing to make sure that they can fulfill that potential of theirs, and then finding something rewarding in life.

It’s a pretty broad set of actions, everything from those who finance it to those who provide a curriculum, to those that provide the food in residency and child care and so forth, throughout the system—are part of what we think of that “ecosystem”—and all have a role to play in transforming it.

What’s needed is to help those players and new ones come in across the ecosystem to help transform into a knowledge-based education system that can meet the need of this knowledge-based economy.

Many of our readers are leaders in education. Others are thinking about starting up their own tech company to provide solutions to education. What questions should edtech startups ask themselves before they get too far in?

Michael: Two critical questions from my mind, actually maybe three.

One is:

Are we solving a meaty problem in the system rather than enabling the old system, or are we really helping advance what this new ecosystem can look like for this knowledge economy of what we’re going to be able to personalize for all students?

Are we really tapping something meaty and transformational?

That’s the first question.

The second question is:

Are we developing something that people will actually use? Helping them make progress in their lives, in their circumstances?

And it’s not: “is it because we’re deploying it in the wrong context?”

Meaning, maybe we haven’t found a new system the new actors are able to use such a thing, or is it because we’ve misunderstood what progress people are really trying to make.

A third thing I would say is:

Think very carefully the corporate structure and funding that you’re going to use for whatever you develop—whether that’s for-profit, non-profit—and whether that’s going to be a venture-funded route or some other route to getting funding to get started.

Be very intentional about that.

I see a lot of education technology companies, for example, that go down the venture funding route. And venture funding is great for certain things—but venture funds tend to want people to get out, to have some sort of exit in five to seven years.

And if you’re doing something truly transformational in education, my experience is it’s going to take a lot longer than that to make it work; 10-15 years.

Really ask yourselves seriously:

Who are the right people to be supporting me financially as I go down this journey?

Excellent advice. Great strategic playbook material. Continuing on the advice theme: In the tech age, iteration is key. Things move fast, it’s the way of the future. So what questions should already-established companies ask themselves?

Michael: Great question. It’s the Wayne Gretzky quote, right?

“Skate where the puck is going, not where it is.”

I’ve seen so many companies in this space either with decades of experience, or recent ones, just think that the way things that work are the problem that they have solved, will continue to be the way that it is.

And I think these changes happen slowly, but if you look at the textbook publishers, ten years ago they threw us a, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve heard this all before, it’ll be fine.”

And look at them today, they’re significantly weakened, because indeed, people have really moved to more modular, un-bundled, sometimes open-source solutions.

So really, be constantly thinking, “Where’s that puck going?”

Because my strong bet is it’s going to be very different from the way things have always been five, ten years from now—and if you wait to respond until then, it’s going to be too late.

The largest most competitive awards program in all of edtech—The EdTech Awards from EdTech Digest—are coming right up, highlighting innovators, leaders and trendsetters. From your view, who’s doing some of the most interesting things in edtech?

Michael: I’m really intrigued with the rise of mobile learning and micro-courses and things of that nature, so things like Smartly, the free online MBA, I think is fascinating.

Duolingo, Pensar Learning, there’s a whole set of these micro-learning mobile-first providers that have popped up that I think are doing just outstanding work and really through a pedagogical or instructional design perspective, so much better than a lot of the video based MOOCs and things of that nature that I think we’ve been way too over-hyped on the video in the edtech space.

Education is all about the future; technology, too. What are you hopeful about? What makes you hopeful for the future of humanity?

Michael: I think we’re living at the coolest time despite all the craziness in the world right now, I think we’re living in an amazing time where two things are happening.

One, broadly speaking, online, mobile, digital, learning, whatever you wan to call it, is the first disruption in the education since the printing press was invented.

And that means we have an unbelievable opportunity to reinvent the education system, we’re living through it now.

And what that can do to human talent and potential, I don’t even know that we know exactly where that’s going to lead us over the next 100 years, but I think it’s a really exciting time to be actively shaping that.

The second thing maybe takes you off course a little bit. But I think it’s connected and it goes to a question asked for moderation in education technology, which is I think we’re making huge gains and strides in how we understand health and hopefully leveraging a lot of those education tools to help people think more carefully about their health.

And health care is obviously a huge cost driver and sucks resources away from learning, which we’ll need to be doing a heck of a lot more of, and if we can unify these fields, which I think we’re increasingly going to be able to do, I think it can help a lot of people lead more productive, fulfilling and happy lives.

We have an unbelievable opportunity to reinvent the education system, we’re living through it now. And what that can do to human talent and potential, I don’t even know that we know exactly where that’s going to lead us over the next 100 years, but I think it’s a really exciting time to be actively shaping that.

We’ve covered a lot of ground, but are there are any other major trends on the horizon that leaders in both education and technology need to watch for?

Michael: The rise of autonomous funding solutions. I think they’re going to be breakthrough in the sense of there’s some 250 million students that don’t have access to primary school across developing-world nations.

There’s a number of efforts going on, Imagine Worldwide, where I’m a board member, the Global XPRIZE for Learning, another one out of MIT called Curious Learning, there’s a number of efforts afoot right now to see can we help young learners without a highly qualified teacher around them become literate and numerate.

These early times are extremely exciting. And I’m optimistic about what we’re seeing in the field. So that’s a place to keep an eye on, because to think real disruptive innovation, they’re from places that are addressing true non-consumption in these parts of the world.

Any sneak peek into what you’re working on, or would you prefer a bit of space to keep creating it, before you talk about it?

Michael: No! No, I’m thrilled to answer it. Yes, the new book I’m working on, titled “Choosing College”—we interviewed and created mini-documentaries of well over 200 stories of students making the decision to choose college or any form of post-secondary education.

What we call the ‘jobs-to-be-done’ methodology to understand why were they really, what was their real motivation and circumstance which they were enrolling into these institutions?

From that came up with five key jobs to be done, if you will, that people hire post-secondary education for, and some very clear recommendations and insight for how people can make better decisions if they chart their educational future through life-long learning.

Then some pretty key recommendations for post-secondary institutions and start-ups and so forth as they design the programs to make people these very different jobs.

It’s much more of a self help book than anything I’ve ever written; I’m pretty excited about it!

You mentioned the factory model. You work in learning design. How long before what we see—the future of education—takes a dramatic turn? Or will it be a slow trickle? Will it take 50 years?

Michael: I think that’s a good prediction. What I would say is, I think this is a generational shift. We’ve made the prediction in Disrupting Class by 2019, 50% of all high school courses would be delivered online in some former fashion.

We’re reasonably actually close to that, but we’re still on a factory-model system.

And that’s just how rooted I think a lot of these structures and traditions so forth are in the system and the prophecies, so it’s really a generation plus change to move, to take advantage of all these opportunities and tools we now have.

So it’s sort of like in the same way the first movies were played as films in the back of theaters, before people realized they could do really different things with the medium: we’re in the same place right now in this education revolution.

And so I think 50 years from now is probably a pretty safe prediction about when things will look vastly different.

Want to attempt to plant some seeds on exactly what it’ll look like?

Michael: We’ll stop building schools that have age-graded classrooms, I think students will still be able to be with their peers and friends, and there will be that social component to school.

But I think the learning will be much more flexible and adaptive to individual needs.

And groups will certainly be a big part of, the bigger part of learning that it is today. But they’ll be much more dynamic and changing in response to different needs and across geographies and the like.

We’ll move beyond our current testing regime of testing students at the end of the year and then figuring out which percentage were rejects and which percentage got it, enough, to a much more robust assessment system that’s literally interwoven with the learning on a day-to-day basis so we constantly know where every child is and what they need to work on.

Will there be learning “holodecks” a la Star Trek standard in every school building? Or will there be buildings? How about VR, AR, and other emerging technologies?

Michael: I think that the hype around VR and AR is a little overwrought, personally, but those tools will be a huge part of it, such that you want to dive into any lab possible, that’ll be at your disposal, virtual reality. You will not be limited by your geography to the opportunities in front of you.

You will not be limited by time or by your age to go to the opportunities presumed to be appropriate for you.

You’re going to be able to leverage VR, AR, online learning tutors and mentors, experts from around the world.

This new book that just came out actually, called Who You Know, by Julia Freeland Fisher, my replacement, at the Christensen Institute captures another set of changes. I’m pretty sure amazing technology tools will exist to help people build social capital and build robust relationships and networks and spread opportunity more evenly across the school system.

We’re going to be able to do that across a whole range of dimensions.

We’re going to have a system that is able to build the supports from a whole-child perspective regardless of what your starting point is—and that’s what’s so exciting, in 50 years from now.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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