Learning, Innovation & Tech

Bombs & Breakthroughs

What Is "Hacking Education"?

CJW, August 16, 2010 7:30 PM


Previously Published by The Daily Riff 12/09 w/minor editing

Sir Ken Robinson Challenges Diverse Group Of Attendees

"About time we mixed it up: stirred, not shaken is too tame . . . Cheers!"  Dr. D. Rigour

By C.J. Westerberg

The Daily Riff found it curious that there was little mainstream media coverage of Hacking Education, the unique gathering of forty notable innovators, creators and thinkers who came together to discuss new opportunities in education and technology.   At The Daily Riff, we refer to the group as "The Disruptive Class in Education" (aligning with Clay Christensen's brilliant book, Disrupting Class).   We think the provocative conversation is well-worth revisiting and exploring via linked video and transcript, and included a dynamic group diverse in experience, credentials and talent.      
The conference was full of varied perspectives and personalities not always heard on the education mainline, and certainly not in one venue.  Hosted by Union Square Ventures in March 2009, the conference essentially "opened" with a challenge to the group by  Sir Ken Robinson,  an internationally recognized leader on innovation and creativity, "What is education?" :

"These technologies are transformative, not just economically, but culturally. 

So my take on this is that education has three main purposes:  one of them is economical...The problem is that the old economic model doesn't work and none of us can figure out how new economic models would fall out.  So, that, to me, put a premium on innovation and creativity. ...

The second big purpose of education is cultural.  Everybody expects education will enable kids to engage with the culture out of their own sense of identity, and be part of the culture in the global sense.  But how do you do that?

The third big part of education is personal.  Education has to focus also on personal capability and what makes us distinct, as well as what we have in common. 

...there's growing levels of disaffection, not only among students but among their teachers, because they find that whole creative process, as teachers, is being flattened out.  And the normal response in political circles is to demand control methods.  ...

And the whole point about these technologies is they are not...control.

The heart of education is what happens in the hearts and minds of individual learners.  you cannot make anybody learn anything that they're not interested in learning, if they don't see and feel the relevance of it. . . What we have here is, an opportunity to really engage kids' imaginations by giving them education, using these technologies not to get in the way but to enhance and properly develop collaboratively and creatively".

Rob Kalen, founder of Etsy and developer of a new education software, brought some comic relief into the discussion when he spoke of his D- grade upon graduating high school, yet later while attending art school in Boston, he made a phony ID to get into MIT.  Someone told him MIT was expensive, but Rob said, "No, it is free, you just won't get credit for it.".

Katie Salen, executive director, Quest to Learn, added:

". . . there's a fundamental tension between the ideas of education and the notion of learning. . . Because we see innovation in the space of learning all over the place today, in terms of how people are coming to learn things, how people are sharing information.  We are not seeing innovation in the space of education because of its institutionalization. . .

Learning is actually valued in very interesting ways by young people today; not so much in school, but in spaces outside of school where they're really learning how to do things."

Fred Wilson, principal of Union Square, wrote his quick summary of take-aways on the "subway ride home" after the event on his insightful blog, AVC:

1) The student (and his/her parents) is increasingly going to take control of his/her education including choice of schools, teachers, classes, and even curriculum. That's what the web does. It transfers control from institutions to individuals and its going to do that to education too.

2) Alternative forms of education (home schooling, charter schools, online learning, adult education/lifelong learning) are on the rise and we are just at the start of that trend.

3) Students will increasingly find themselves teaching as well. Peer production will move from just producing content to producing learning as well.

4) Look for technologies and approaches that reduce the marginal cost of an incremental student. Imagine that it will go to zero at some point and get on that curve.

5) The education system we currently have was built to train the industrial worker. As we move to an information driven society it is high time to question everything about the process by which we educate our society. That process and the systems that underlie it will look very different by the time our children's children are in school.

6) Investment opportunities that work around our current institutions will be more attractive but we cannot ignore disruptive approaches that will work inside the existing system. Open courseware, lesson sharing, social networks, and lightweight/public publishing tools are examples of disruptive approaches that will work inside the existing system.

7) Teachers are more important than ever but they will have to adapt and many will have to learn to work outside the system. It was suggested at hacking education that teachers are like bank tellers in the 1970s. I don't agree but I do think they are like newspaper reporters in the 1990s.

8) Credentialing and accreditation in the traditional sense (diplomas) will become less important as the student's work product becomes more available to be sampled and measured online.

9) Testing and assessment will play more of a role in adapting the teaching process. A good example of this is how video games constantly adapt to the skill level of the player to create the perfect amount of creative tension. Adaptive learning systems will soon be able to do the same for students.

10) Spaces for learning (schools and libraries) will be re-evaluated. It was suggested that Starbucks is the new library. I don't think that will be the case but the value of dedicated physical spaces for learning will decline. It has already happened in the world of professional education.

11) Learning is bottom up and education is top down. We'll have more learning and less education in the future.

Brad Burnham, principal of Union Square, later posted a more formal summary of the event here.

More links to Sir Ken Robinson here, "So Many Are Prevented From Finding Their True Talents", and here, with Mike Huckabee, "Kids Leave School Not Because They Are Dumb, But Because They Are Bored", and here, "A New Conversation With Sir Ken". 

*(Interesting to note how this  range of expertise was not apparent by comparison at the most recent Brookings Institute think-tank conference discussing education reporting and new media.   Also, Time magazine did do a story mentioning Hacking Education but it was more as a side-line illustration for the main story revolving around Twitter when it was rapidly moving beyond its nascent stage into the media-sphere.


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