I went to Newton North, and let me tell you, high school was a blast. Teachers were in control of their content. There were many support programs were setup to cater to specific learning needs. Classes were interesting. It was an easy environment to both express myself and ask big questions. It was great.
But the world after high school was a nightmare.
After high school I volunteered to spend a year in the Finnish Military. While I was posted, I also became an engineering student. Classes were good and closely related to the major, but the major itself was not something that I found interesting. So about two years after I left for Finland, I came home to try and get a computer science degree.
To my unpleasant surprise, the college credits I acquired from Finland didn’t count towards my basic classes. So, I shelled out the money needed to join some community college classes and my experience was drastically different. There was a wild variation in the quality of learning.
Where some classes were rushed, others seemed to drag and were not engaging in any way. Some professors were way too demanding. Others were too lenient. Others were so attached to the book itself it seemed like they knew very little about the subject being taught.
Some classes taught the same content I had already done a year before, and it was enough for me too really stop engaging. It felt like I was sinking into a hole where I would have to continuously take awful classes over and over again just to get told I can do something that I barely learned about in the first place. The subjects were largely unrelated to anything in the real world. Relearning the same grammar rules I’ve been told my entire life will not help me in a job interview. Memorizing 42+ math formulas will not help me understand their application in the real world. Going over the minutia of C++ syntax will not help me appropriately model a problem when I am actually writing code.
Learning is a completely natural process and its something I do every day.
I ask huge questions and think long and hard about their answers. I look for questions to ask and learn as much about them as possible. I work at a startup where often we're given tasks that seem monumentally difficult, but with a little visualization and research I often find surprising and simple solutions. As a fierce independent learner, I realize new things every day and it’s made me a wiser person.
If my school experience is dragging me away from engaging me in what I’m majoring in, then something really has to change about the way it works. Learning should not be something you have to dread. It should be something you want to do. It should be relevant to the subjects that you’re interested in. It should engage you and let you be your own teacher. It should feel rewarding and it should bring you into the real world with confidence and a sense of accomplishment.
The only thing that matters is what you experience. The only people who matter are the ones who take you along the way through that experience. The people who take you out of what you know, challenge you to find what you never knew you could, and who teach you something that makes a difference in your life, in your whole world. People make learning possible. People make learning happen. A machine can't do that. Technology can't do that. Only people can do that.
So people should not be spending their time trying to decipher the information that comes away from the machine or finding the technology of the magic pill. They should be spending their time using the analysis that comes away from the machine to teach people.
I used to spend my time creating living breathing learning experiences for people. I spent my time creating experiences that if I messed up they could die, if I didn't have the right information, at the right moment, combined with what I knew, they would drown.
And when I went into the traditional classroom, I applied the same logic: if I mess this up someone will die.
But, my access to information, my ability to make an informed analysis was restricted. Or the information that I did have was six months old. Who remembers what happened six months ago let alone makes decisions based on it today. That's irresponsible.
It's irresponsible to be just catching up, to be doing things just-in-time, to be without. We shouldn't have to be wasting our time learning and teaching things that are no longer relevant, that we have moved past. We're living in a culture that is devastatingly confused about what technology is, what data means, and what they can do when brought together.
Technology is not hardware, it's not software, it's not a tool we use to learn or teach with - it's the application of knowledge.
There is never a moment when humans should be doing what math can do better. What machines can do better. That's a waste of time, a waste of resources, a waste of life, a waste of humanity.
When you use hardware and software and tools to collect knowledge and then apply that knowledge to teaching and learning - that is the point at which we can change education. And more importantly when we can change what it means to learn, over time, in process, as it happens, as the experience is realized, to make teaching and learning something that we actually want to do again. Because the bullshit is gone. Because we are using, creating, living technology.
And it is going to change what it means to teach, what it means to learn. It is going to save our lives.
Take a moment, and think about all the computers you interact with in a day.
Think about the research you do in a day, the ways you use information, the ways your access to computers changes the way you interact with the physical world. Think about all the computers that you don't think of as computers - your car, your phone, your watch, your fitness tracker, your thermostat, your vacuum, the tollbooth, the parking meter, the door swipe, the checkout register.
How can we take all that data, that overwhelming flood of information about what we do and who we are, and process it smartly to help us know more about ourselves?
To help us learn more, to help us understand how we learn? This is our challenge, as we build the vast network of connected devices, the mesh that surrounds us, the internet of things. To figure out how to use this data not just to improve targeted advertising, but to better understand how people learn, and to build better learning systems for people.
A spectre is haunting education — the spectre of learning.
All the powers of the old educational infrastructure have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Superintendent and Principal, EdTech Entrepreneur and Venture Capitalist, Education Reformers and Teachers' Unions.
The history of all hitherto existing education is the history of class struggle.
Not only the Marxian struggle of class against class (although certainly this plays its part), but the struggle to get students into the classroom, to figure out what to do with them when they are there, and the fool's errand of concocting myriad unscientific and meaningless metrics in the hope of figuring out whether it was worth having them there in the first place.
And we've failed. But as in the past, where humans fall short we turn to technology.
The Mark I computer, Bletchley Park, the Manhattan Project.
The same scale of effort, the same scale of technological progress, needed to end World War II is now needed to save learning from the morass of of industrial-era education.
The good news is that we have all of the technological progress between now and then to stand upon as we build solutions to our self-imposed problems.
Yes, technology will provide a way forward, but it won't be in the form of iPads or Smartboards or Chromebooks or e-textbooks or Twitter or LMSs.
The Experience API (xAPI) is another matter, however.
Much like the Internet itself, xAPI emerged from Defense Department-funded research.
And xAPI has the potential to make every life experience documentable and measurable as a learning activity.
It's the end of the 'class struggle' why struggle to keep kids in a classroom when learning happens everywhere and anywhere? Why deal with degrees and accreditation and that whole poison pit of meaningless paperwork and human fallibility when we can have perfect and comprehensive metrics and documentation of lifetime learning?
The Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative, which sponsors the xAPI specification, will one day be viewed, I hope, as the Manhattan Project of 'education.' We will look back on the educational institutions of the past and say, with Oppenheimer, 'Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.'
What does a high school diploma mean? What knowledge does it point to students having received? What about it is remotely concrete?
For that matter, what does an "A" or "C" represent? What do they mean? It depends. Is the same A you get in an honors course the same as the A you get in remedial math? What if you work really hard and learn a ton of new skills that were not the direct focus of the course you took? How do you get credit for that? You don't.
The current model is info in/grade out. No link to actual work, skills learned or other real information about what an individual students can or can't do.
I give out tons of B+'s. They are not created equal.
We can tell ourselves that our current grading system is equitable, but there are way too many subjective aspects.
We are arguing so hard about standards that we have lost the outcome of what they are supposed to bring: meaningful learning outcomes. How do Common Core standards help an employer understand anything about what a job candidate actually knows?
Grades are not sufficient to represent skills. We can do better. I know we can.
We as educators have beat around this bush for too long.
Grades need to mean something, and if they can't we need to find a system of accreditation that does. The technology exists and we need to demand it be used for our students and ourselves. Look at our own struggles for accreditation. I sat in a workshop earlier this week with people who desperately needed a credit... any credit... to keep teaching. It didn't matter to them or their practice. They did what they needed to keep their job. They didn't feel pride in their new skills, though they did participate and seemingly learn new things.
It hurts to watch, it hurts our profession and it needs to stop. Learning should be personal, representative and a point of pride. Not a high-stakes dice roll connected to a single test, given on a single day or an arbitrary letter on a piece of paper.
Life has variables. Learning has variables. In a world of ever increasing customization, we need to adapt learning to show the value that an individual holds.
We hear over and over again that edtech solutions need to be interoperable, especially where data is concerned.
“Vendor lock-in” is a red flag for decision makers in educational IT, and rightfully so!
But if institutions don’t have the luxury of waiting for a perfect (some might say impossible) world where everything actively communicates with everything else and ‘just works’, how do they get educators and students the solutions they need right now?
Do we keep playing the same game that pits business against business against open-source projects against users trying to get stuff done against decision makers struggling to create coherent IT ecosystems? Anyone who says we don’t is a liar or, more likely, a salesman. If we must play the game then, let’s change it.
Demand a lingua franca for ed tech data that is open ended enough to accommodate information from disparate sources, but consistent enough to give you actionable data when the bell rings.
Stop building education tools.
Stop building edtech.
Stop dragging us up ladders and telling us that we're educated.
That we're better. That the bruises are rubies.
Start building experience tools.
Start meeting learning where it exists.
In the mind. In the heart. In the aether.
In the hesitation before a bare finger rubs the frozen white dew from a blade of wayward morning grass.