Educational ARPA, Innovation from Within

A couple of weeks ago I saw an article about Obama's desire to create an ARPA for Education. For those of you not familiar with what an ARPA is, it stands for Advanced Research Projects Agency. This refers to a way of organizing research and directing funds towards certain projects. We have all benefited from ARPA projects, for example, a few Defense ARPA projects led to the Internet (ARPANET) and GPS to name a few.

ARPAs have a philosophy and structure that has made it highly successful and make it a perfect structure to help recreate education for the 21st century. Spurred on by this hope, I contacted the Department of Education about participating as a member of the ARPA-ED Network. There is some preliminary research and data collecting going on right now but awaits funding for FY2012. As this could take a while, I want to share my responses to some of the initial research questions. Feel free to leave your comments below.

How can we implement technology in the classroom effectively?


Over the last 30 years there has been a great push for technology to enter the classroom. It was believe that it would transform education as it was transforming society. Yet, the expected gains did not show up and we have not seen the increased learning and engagement that was hoped for.

It is easy to say that not enough was done, that we had too few computers/technology in the classroom and that the problem was simply funding. This has been the mentality for years but even as the market has caused a considerable drop in the cost of technology the issues stay the same. I have had the pleasure of teaching at some of the finest schools in the country with 2:1 computer ratios, the newest in interactive software/hardware, and yet many classrooms looked exactly as they did before the technology.

The reason technology has not had a transformative effect in our classrooms is because there has not been a shift of the paradigm for education. Technology has made it possible for us to look up any fact, equation, article, or video in seconds and yet we spend the majority of our time teaching students to calculate and remember content.

If that time was spent applying and using that time to apply and deepen their understanding then there would be dramatic gains in our schools. One technology that has helped to transform my math classroom has been ALEKS and the Khan Academy. These resources provide students the opportunity to learn math at their own pace. They can use the explanations, video tutorials, and the Internet to help them understand and I step in to provide one-on-one tutoring when necessary.

The reason this has made such a dramatic impact in my class is for multiple reasons. Students’ anxiety is reduced as the curriculum moves at a pace and level that is appropriate for them. If they are confused there are numerous resources at their disposal and they sit themselves in groups to support one another. This teaches them the valuable skill of learning how to learn. It also requires that they take charge of their own learning and empowers them to go as fast as they want. Over ⅓ of my students have completed the California Algebra standards and have graduated to the Geometry curriculum with some preparing to move into third year Algebra before completing their Freshman year.

This has required that I make the shift from being the one in charge of disseminating knowledge. There are books, videos, resources that have already explained this well and I am wasting my students time to lecture on one single topic when they could learn multiple topics in the same amount of time. I am more than happy to shift roles as it has allowed me to work one-on-one with my students and get to know them and their strengths in math. This would have been extremely difficult if not impossible in a traditional math class.

Another technology that I and my colleagues have found useful is the use of teacher created video tutorials. Sometimes the resources out there are not relevant or high enough quality to what you are trying to teach. Through the use of free software like Camstudio and ingenuity, we have created video tutorials on art, computer software, programming, robotics, math, physics, and more. These videos allow us to create the lesson once and then share it with students to watch at home or in class while we can help others work on projects that apply and deepen their understanding without having to waste time repeating ourselves.

It is important that students be able to connect to the world of information and diverse learners in order to succeed in a 21st century curriculum. We have found Google Apps for Education to be a powerful force for leveling the playing field. It has provided our students a way to communicate in real-time as well as asynchronously, gather data, collaborate and refine each other’s work, and so many other features that make it feasible for all learners to participate in the wealth of resources in our age. As for the teachers, it has dramatically decreased the amount of paper we need to use, increased parent-teacher communication and other time saving features that allow us to focus on students.

The most important factor in implementing technology is using it to accomplish what was not possible before instead of doing the same thing in an new way. It is silly to think of using a cell phone while standing right next to the person and it is similarly non-sequitur to use the amazing software/hardware at our disposal to teach the same way we did for the last hundred years. My colleague and my classrooms look very different from other classrooms, technology is used to allow students to learn at their own pace and teachers assist them one-on-one to achieve full differentiation. Students are guided by their passions and use their skills the achieve personal and common goals.

According to Thomas Kuhn’s study of paradigm shifts we are at the tipping point where there are a critical mass of people who are ready to leave the antiquated mode of teacher/learner into a new way of doing things but they are unaware of how they can do so. There is not necessarily a need for more technology but support and training in how to do new things. Educators have made amazing innovations and advanced in student learning for the last 30 years with technology but society was not ready for it nor was it cost effective. With the amount of free and open source technology, there has never been a better time to implement technology in the classroom. The question is what would the 21st classroom look like?

What are barriers to differentiated learning?

  • Phase out grade levels based upon student age. Older students can train the younger students while still challenging themselves.
  • Have learning be not only relevant but efficacious. Participating in research, projects, apprenticeships, programs that result in an actual outcome.
  • Have classrooms become global connection points to the world wide learning community. Using information freely available and social networking, work together to study and accomplish more than possible in one classroom with one teacher.
  • Modify universal curriculum provided to all students and retool it towards mastery. The idea of the liberal arts degree where all students learn everything in order to become cultured and cosmopolitan has become too far removed from applicable skills towards innovation and job skills.

When I spoke to a colleague about this issue I likened it to the cars at Disneyland’s Autopia, there is a control of how fast or slow you can go but there is very little control over what direction you can go, there is only one track. For much of our classrooms, we are only empowered to modify the pace of the curriculum. All have encountered the student who simply does not seem to care. They never speak in class, nor turn in work, we fear the worst for their future and some of us even give a chance to make up work for credit or modify the amount of work. Anything to keep this student from missing out on life.

If we were to follow that student outside of the classroom we would see a very different person. We would likely be amazed at how his demeanor changes when he is not in a classroom. Lets move into this student’s future. He/she has found a niche for themselves and perhaps even enjoys what they do. They are good at what they do, otherwise they would not have applied for the job nor would they likely keep it. The question is why could the education not support and help this student?

In biological evolution, diversity equals strength. The more species our planet sustains, the more healthy our ecosystem is. It can continue through any cataclysmic disaster or even slight changes in climate. Our educational system however does not support a diversity of learning. I appreciate what Rick Lavoie tells teachers concerned about their struggling students, “High school is the only place in life where you need to succeed in everything.”

Imagine if a student’s passions/abilities were able to guide their path of learning. What kind of students would graduate from a place where they had spent 10-20 years mastering skills that they were motivated and successful at. What kind of innovation and creative society would it be? This is not just an issue of the human but an economic and societal one as well.

If we look at our education system it is highly redundant and inefficient. Teachers teach everyone the same thing multiple times a day and then repeat themselves all over again next year with a new group of students. This is not how any major company or research facility operates.

  • Differentiated learning is more than just modifying the speed or amount of work a student does. It is a curriculum that works for the student and is aligned with their interests and goals.
  • Differentiated learning is difficult when all students are required to take the same standardized test. Any attempt for students to pursue other valid interests will hurt the school’s report card/test scores.
  • Removing grades determined by age range will allow students to teach new students while deepening their own understanding. This mirrors the role that many graduate students take with undergraduate classes. The teachers role is then freed from that of content dissemination into mentoring and 1-1 support.
I realize this is an seemingly overwhelming task, but it can actually be implemented tomorrow with little cost. Much of these concepts can be found in other countries with higher rates of education for less cost per student. I know this can work in the United States because it is already happening around the country with after school programs. For example in my robotics team it is student run/driven with a teacher acting as a mentor and guide. The team has been very successful and in addition to success within the robotics competitions, they have:

  • Created a Virtual Bike Tour for the National Science Festival in Washington D.C.
  • Developed Android Applications
  • Learned how to program in C, Python, and Java
  • Implemented a marketing and business plan generating $30,000/year.
All of which could not have occurred in a traditional class. Nor would we have been able to because it required students highly motivated towards STEM and Business. However, I have witnessed my colleague in his Graphic Novel Project do similarly amazing things with art, graphic design, and business. I believe that if there was enough diversity, everyone would find a niche in which they could be highly successful and learning towards mastery.

Students could pursue their passions in a way that fosters innovation and works with their natural motivation and interests. Organized in this fashion, classes could go even more in depth into the content because everyone there is interested and pursuing that field.

Colleges would be able to accept students that are more highly trained and have actual experience. My robotics students speak with engineers as peers, explaining their design and understanding the feedback they receive. They are accepted to engineering programs  that understand that these students have already traveled around the country and had experience in their field.

Students are not expected to have a job or financial constraints until much later in life. This allows them the freedom to try new things, travel, take risks and fail where they might not be able to later in life. This would raise the bar of what is possible from a citizen entering the workforce.

It would empower students and take students from being receivers of information to creators. Teachers’ roles would change and instead of spending all of their time creating motivating ways of delivering content (e.g. lectures, worksheets, labs, projects) and then assessing the short term retention of it, they could move into mentorship and support roles. This I believe is the true reason why teachers joined this profession.

If more real world justification is needed, consider that professionals (e.g. doctors, engineers, architects, mathematicians) are not expected to remember everything or even to know everything. As Seymour Papert said, “Those who succeed in their field, will not be those who know everything, but know where to find everything.” Think of what could happen if as Conrad Wolfram suggested, we spend our time applying and creating instead of just learning how to calculate. If we shift our efforts towards application and mastery instead of memorization and recal, we can powerfully shift how our students time is used and what they are able to do.

What are undiscovered networks where innovation in learning is occuring?

  • There are huge communities of people learning organically that could be quickly adopted by the larger education system.
  • The largest manifestation of this is in the Maker/Hacker community as they use the Internet as their classroom and connect on a constant basis to support, share, and inspire.
I believe the best way for us to learn how to innovate in education is to watch successful learning communities where people voluntarily learn and support each other in creating. One huge community that grows larger everyday are the Maker/Hacker community. These groups of people teach one another both online and in person.

Whether it is programming, welding, sewing, painting, robotics, or anything else, makers will find no shortage of resources, videos, instructions, and more keep everyone learning all of the time. This is seen most vividly at the yearly events Maker Faire and pwn2own. Communities like these participate in what are called infinite games where “everyone wins” by helping each other and it never ends.

These communities are driven by a strong view on the openness of information. Usually what is created has an open source licence from the creative commons or GNU. The goal is to share in order that others may improve it. This mentality would be helpful for education. Those who have blogs and twitter are sharing as much as they can, but there might be more out there that is even better.

There are clusters of communites and groups who are contributing to this goal. Open Education Resources is one example, and there are a vast number of Personal Learning Networks via Twitter, Ning, Facebook, and Google Groups. The problem is helping them to talk to each other. It is my opinion that the resources are out there the people just haven’t connected yet.

Are there opportunities for students to participate in opportunities to crowdsource and learn and be a part of projects bigger than themselves?

Absolutely, and if there are not any that specifically interest them, the tools are more available than ever for them to create new ones.

Some examples are listed here. But there is no reason why learning opportunities have to occur online. There may be all of the resources necessary but the necessary people are not connected. In fact there are numerous reasons why it would be best to encourage students if possible to connect with others in their community to participate in learning. Strengthening the communal bonds and sharing resources has always proven to be a powerful force for good. Meetup and Kickstarter are excellent resources for connecting communities for learning opportunities.

What steps could be taken immediately that would have a great impact for education?
  • Create a culture of cyclical relationships between businesses and school.
    • Internships and apprenticeships inspire and improve the future workforce.
    • Mentoring of school programs.
    • Examples include Google summer events, Connect a Million Minds
  • Encouraging the adoption of Open Source software to reduce cost and allow students to have the ability to work from home.
  • Implement differentiated programs like Khan Academy, ALEKS, etc. Not to eliminate the need for a teacher (which these software could not do anyway) but change their role into one of support and mentor.
  • Create a socially connected repository of high quality projects, labs, lessons, and assignments where educators could share and provide feedback to other teachers.
    • Educators share ideas for feedback, to inspire others, and share quality concrete curriculum which other teachers could use immediately.
    • Other educators can provide feedback and have a rating system to help the best ideas rise to the top.
    • Students, parents, and others can learn independently as well.
    • Some of the best implementations of this can be found at Instructables, All Recipes, YouTube, CK-12.
  • Create a show that inspires students to pursue STEM. Don Herbert was Mr. Wizard, then there was Bill Nye and Paul Zaloon as Professor Beakman.The current generation has more tools and resources at their disposal than ever yet no hero or guide to follow.
    • Make TV shows a lot of promise in inspiring others but is missing that hook to bring in a larger audience.
    • Adam and Jamie of the Mythbusters are highly motivating but for safety reasons do not teach how to do what they do.
    • There are many videos online that people can learn from. A show that brought in the best teachers from around the country and gave them the resources and platform to teach many would be inexpensive and inspiring as it would create local celebrities as well as organically kickstart local movements.

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ARPA-ED Response by Phil Wagner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.