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As edtech booms, are failing Vegas schools the perfect guinea pig?

When more than half of a Vegas conference’s attendees are virtual, you know tech is somewhere in the title. The Sloan Consortium’s Emerging Technologies for Online Learning symposium brought together the “needles,” as one attendee reportedly put it, in the ever-expanding haystack of edtech. Educators and entrepreneurs mulled the latest methods and products, from MOOCs (massive open online courses) to Ginkgotree, an interface that replaces textbooks with bundled modules of custom digital content in navigable grids. (Phew!)

It’s ironic and totally appropriate that a conference about the cutting edge of education happened in Clark County, which has the fifth-largest school district and some of the worst stats in the nation. Graduation rates to academic proficiency, funding to class size, it’s all “a little dismal,” Tony Wan admits.

Wan is associate editor at EdSurge, an indie site that covers news, reviews products and promotes dialogue in the edtech space. He was at the Sloan conference to moderate a panel on innovation and to soak up industry buzz, and I called him afterward for his thoughts on whether Clark County’s failing schools might make the perfect guinea pig for edtech. We also covered some of the hottest products, the barriers public schools face in adopting new technology and his willingness to violently defend his degrees in the humanities.

What’s one edtech product getting some traction right now? There’s a company called Pathbrite that allows students or anyone to create a digital portfolio … and it’s supposed to communicate your life story and the projects you’ve done in a much more comprehensive way than the traditional paper résumé. I think the idea of that is to help people start thinking about being a collector of their own projects and their passions and what they’ve done, even starting in middle school or high school, as a better way to show employers or show other people that you’re really more than your school and your grade.

It seems a bit crazy for middle schoolers to be putting together résumés or even thinking about college. I think what companies like Pathbrite are trying to get at—they’re part of this larger push to bring vocational education back to high school.

I’ve definitely heard a lot of grumbling about comprehensive education in the wake of the recession. Let’s face it—not everyone really wants or will appreciate general ed courses enough to appreciate the efforts by the school to provide a broad but low-level understanding of 10 different subjects, eight of which you probably don’t care about. Sometimes you just want to find and practice a skill that’s useful, that’s going to be more relevant and applicable to you in the job market. So I think that’s one of the bigger pushes that we’re starting to see that kind of involves both the higher ed space and the K-12 space.

Personally, I got a lot of useful skills out of my liberal arts education. One keynote speaker [at the Sloan conference] brought up the question: Should we be teaching children how to think critically, or should we be teaching them how to get a job? I don’t necessarily see these things as belonging in different buckets. As a humanities major, I will fight to the death to defend my degree and to defend the value of history. But I think, realistically, that it does put me at a certain disadvantage in the job market, not just today but maybe 10 years from now. Not necessarily at a disadvantage, but it’s just not the kind of skill that people are going to be looking first and foremost for. I think it takes certain kinds of expectations and compassion on the part of employers to realize that people like me can do other things than just write long papers.

Curriculum is one thing, but are large-scale efforts to change the functionality of public education happening, too? The New York City Department of Education has devoted a lot of money and human resources to this thing called Innovation Zone. What they’re doing is they’re selecting a pilot group of schools in their district and trying to see ways in which they can reform some of the legal structures behind companies working directly with students and teachers in classrooms and trying to reform the RFP process and the purchasing process so that a lot of the tools that companies are building can be much more easily adopted by public school teachers. I think this experiment will go a long way in seeing how the legal bureaucracy of other districts can be reformed … trying to bridge the school administration culture, which is often a lot of paper pushing and a lot of bureaucratic red tape, and how to negotiate that with startup culture, which is all about trying out new things, even with incomplete information, and just constantly prototyping and building new iterations of good products. It’s trying to find this middle ground between the big, slow-moving beast and the sprinter.

Isn’t the slow-moving beast a product of reasonable fear? A lot of the overriding fear … is somewhat justified by the really crappy job situation. I think one of the recent articles that ran in the Wall Street Journal said that only about half of recent graduates are fully employed, maybe even less than half. I think when you have this ballooning population of disillusioned recent graduates coming out and not able to find jobs, I think it does raise a lot of questions about what your education system is tailored toward.

Right now, the tailoring is to statistical measures of comprehension. It’s a polarizing issue, especially as a means of comparing the performance of U.S. students to their foreign counterparts. People will often point to standardized testing scores, like the PISA rankings, and say, why are we in the middle? Why do we rank so low despite the fact that we’re an economic powerhouse? Why are China and Thailand and Singapore ranking so high? And that’s the kind of argument that I think is a little bit misguided. When you start bringing test scores into the equation, I think that it’s kind of silly, or I think it’s interesting, that we look at places like China and South Korea and we feel like we want to reach up to their level of performance on standardized tests. But if you ask a lot of people in China or in Asia, they look to America as the great inspirational source of what education should be like.

That’s surprising. From most Chinese education researchers’ perspectives, Chinese students are raised in a culture that’s really strict on just getting your facts together and performing well on standardized tests. But they don’t really stress any entrepreneurial or creative spirit. There’s a researcher at the University of Oregon, Yong Zhao, who did a comparative study about Chinese education and asked: Why do these two countries, these two global powerhouses, want to be like each other when it comes to educational attainment? The reason he finds is, if you look at the longer trends, if you look at decades of data over the performance of U.S. students on standardized tests, the U.S. has always performed fairly mediocre in comparison to other countries, but that hasn’t really stopped us from being innovative, building great tech companies—these international companies that have influenced and shaped how the world has evolved over time. And so, all of this obsession over test scores is being presented as a new fear and phenomenon, but it’s not, really. It’s kind of how it’s always been.

Based on the list of seminars for the Sloan consortium, social media is huge in edtech right now. I think the startup that’s probably shown the most promise in this space is Edmodo. It’s kind of like a Facebook for teachers with its own app store, the app store being a lot of educational content. It’s a way for them to create class groups and be able to communicate with parents and students there, anything from assigning homework to assigning readings to alerting parents if their kid is going off the track. … I think what’s tricky about bringing social media into K-12, at least, is the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act rules, where they set very strict limits on what kinds of communications you can have with children under the age of 13. That’s a federal mandate that’s kind of a tripwire for a lot of startups thinking about this space.

Speaking of tripwires, attempting to infuse progressive or even “radical” new methods and tools into a school system is not so easy. Here in Clark County, might it be easier and make more sense to take risks considering how many schools are struggling? The counterargument to that is that people say, hey, it’s fine to experiment in education, but don’t do it to my kids. Because I do think there can be significant consequences and negative impacts if you try something out on a classroom of children for a year and it turns out that it was a complete flop. That’s a year of their traditional education career that’s lost, so that is a big thing that I’m sure people will worry about if you try something that’s kind of radical and really creative.

Your story on the Downtown Project plan for K-12 showed how Tony Hsieh is willing to try exactly that. When I had spoken to Tony Hsieh, they were toying with the idea of having some of the schools that they’re building actually incubate edtech startups within those schools, basically have startups sharing the same physical space within the schools but maybe in their own office, to basically build a better bridge and connection between education startups and the people that they are trying to work with and sell to. That would be a pretty crazy thing, and I don’t think anyone else has really done that yet.

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Erin got her first newspaper job in 2002 thanks to a campfire story about Bigfoot. In her award-winning work for ...

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