3 Hottest Trends in Education Reform


Every week in New York, there’s an education-focused event within two very different circles: non-education innovators and education practitioners. In the past two weeks, the Council on Foreign Affairs held a discussion with former NYC Chancellor for Education Joel Klein and former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings; the inaugural New York Ideas Conference included a session with Klein and education heavyweights like Randi Weingarten and Gaston Caperton; and on Friday, the uber-sexy Skillshare held its first Penny Conference, a half-day session focused on learning and innovation.

Glancing at each of the agendas, though, something is awry: the traditional educators and the non-educators are rarely in the same room. The first group includes administrators, teachers, and policy makers like Weingarten, the president for the American Federation of Teachers, or Norman Atkins, the Founder of Uncommon Schools and the Relay Graduate School of Education. The other side is a list of younger, hipper types with an obvious talent for entrepreneurship. This includes several founders of edtech companies like Chegg or Grockit and runs the gamut to include innovative organizations like General Assembly.

Meaningful collaboration between the two groups is minimal for a variety of reasons. Some educators are suspicious of non-educator innovators for their focus on the market value of education; mobile education products and services alone could be worth $38 billion by 2020. Traditional educators also have reason to believe that entrepreneurs are divorced from classroom reality. While technology is helpful, teaching is a skillful human endeavor that cannot be automated. At a policy level, educators caution against using technology as a silver bullet solution and fear the hype of education technology could distract stakeholders from other critical issues facing education, including access, teacher evaluation, and school choice.

This is not to say that educators eschew technology; many of them embrace it when used strategically. Experts in the field, like Cami Anderson, the dynamite superintendent of Newark schools who just made Time’s 2012 Top 100 List, told the New York Ideas Conference audience that technology fulfills very specific needs in education: in providing real-time student data; in creating databases of curriculum; and in offering new ways to engage students who may reinforce.

For their part, edtech start-ups are bullish on the potential of their innovations, evangelizing the “disruptive” boost that digital learning and non-classroom based solutions can offer to education reform.

They have every reason to be excited. According to Chris Dede of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, technology is rapidly moving into school classrooms, which are already using 1.5 million iPads around the U.S. 

He says, “they’ve [school districts] eliminated policies restricting using mobile devices for learning and they’re interested in developing mobile learning programs as fast as possible. We’re going from districts fearing it and blocking it off to welcoming it and making it a major part of their technology plan.” Currently, 80% of teenagers have cell phone and 60% of schools at least permit them on school grounds, if not in the classroom.

The point where both groups can converge is over student achievement. Without improved learning outcomes, new resources are meaningless. Educators make this clear. Professor of Education Elliott Solloway says, “I’m petrified that we’ll apply new technology to old pedagogy.Right now, the iPad craze is using the same content on a different device. Schools must change the pedagogy.”

In light of this challenge – to prove that innovations in education are actually effective – here are the areas and products within education that live up to their “game-changing” hype:

1) Adaptive Learning: Imagine a GPS for education where content and instruction is adapted to your learning style and needs. This algorithm-intensive system provides invaluable student data to teachers (a la Anderson’s recommendation), in addition to customized student learning opportunities outside the classroom. Two outstanding examples include Jose Ferreira’s Knewton, and McGraw-Hill’s Digital Products Group under the leadership of the talented  Jay Chakrapani who offers multiple products to learners and teachers across the K-12 and university spectrum. According to a new McGraw-Hill report, college students using their AL technology increased their course performance by one letter grade and increased their pass rates by 12.5%.

2) Online Learning: Online learning is not new, but finding a legitimate, quality-assured program is difficult. Enter 2tor, Inc, an online learning platform harnessing the internet, social media, cloud computing, and mobile technology to offer students a new level of online learning that eschews the sketchy model of virtual degrees for a full educational experience akin to studying on-campus. It works with top-ranked universities, pioneering its first model with USC and then with UNC’s top ranked MBA program. The beauty of 2tor is that it improves how students learn online while helping the university do what it does best: create and share knowledge.

3) Continuous Learning: The emergence of Khan Academy, Skillshare, and General Assembly offer informal learners the chance to hone and refine skills in core areas like finance, entrepreneurship, and computer programming without having to “go back to school.” The current challenge is how to balance the democratization of teaching with accreditation so that learners who put the time and effort to enroll in classes like General Assembly’s 3-week intensive Web Development course demonstrate added value to employers. Given startup solutions like LearningJar or GA’s recent partnership with LaGuardia Community College, it won’t be long until new models of continuous education programs become major players in career advancement and the post-secondary scene.