What Matters Now: Education.

The top digital trends transforming education.

Alyson Navarro
September 6, 2013

Education is an area ripe for digital innovation. Digital technologies are already remaking the classroom with assessment tools and personalized curricula. And investors have noticed. According to venture capital database CB Insights, education technology companies received $1.1 billion in both 2011 and 2012 from investors. Here are eight trends transforming the education ecosystem in the United States:

Demographic and economic shifts will force a new model for higher education.

In the U.S., higher education is facing a crisis. The price of a college degree in the past decade has outpaced the cost of living, increased twice as fast as medical care, and grown three times faster than the consumer price index (Bureau of Labor Statistics). Students and their families have assumed historic amounts of debt in order to meet the rising costs of higher education. The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau estimates that student loan debt exceeds $1 trillion, now the largest category of consumer debt other than mortgages. 

As young graduates enter the job market, they are finding that a college degree, long considered a path to the “American Dream” no longer guarantees a job in an economy still recovering from recession. Nearly 30 percent of 20- to 24-year-olds aren’t in school or employed. A recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reveals that the combination of debt and unemployment is increasing the risk of default. Eleven percent of student loans were delinquent in the third quarter of 2012, or more than 90 days overdue, compared to just six percent in 2003.  Prominent academics, political scientists, economists and activists warn that this looming crisis could be an economic bubble larger than the housing bubble that triggered the 2008 recession.   

Demographics are also changing rapidly. According to The College Board, by 2019 the number of white college students will increase five percent, while the number of Hispanic students will increase 27 percent. Older students are also becoming increasingly common. At private non-profit institutions last fall, students aged 25 and older made up 38 percent of enrollment (National Student Clearinghouse). Likewise, 56 percent of certificate degrees are earned by students over 23 years old (Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce). With an older, more diverse student population, the one-size-fits-all pedagogical approaches of many colleges no longer make sense. 

Unsustainable economics and a shifting demographic landscape mean that education is ready for reform. These conditions offer big opportunities to introduce an alternative that is less expensive and easier without sacrificing quality. 

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) hint at that future. Massive open online courses are large-scale interactive learning programs that not only feature the traditional elements of classroom learning and homework—readings, problem sets and lectures—but also user forums to build a community of students and teachers.

The New York Times declared 2012 the year of the MOOC. In the past few years several well-financed startups (some associated with top universities such as Harvard University, Stanford University and MIT) have emerged, such as Udacity, Coursera and edX

Today, most MOOCs offer certificates of completion rather than course credit, even as they claim the academic quality of their digital courses is comparable.  Some of this is due to a longstanding academic bias against online learning, some of it due to the economics of elite universities. 

Still, a very small number of institutions are experimenting with offering credit to MOOC students, and that number will grow. San Jose State University in California has partnered with Udacity to offer credentialed MOOC classes to its students. California state legislators introduced a recent bill (then shelved it until next year) aimed at getting state-funded colleges to give credit for MOOC classes. One of the reasons the bill was put on hold is because three public systems in the state have already expanded their online offerings to award credit for online courses.

State educational systems are also incorporating elements of online learning to lower costs for existing students.  In September 2012 California passed two bills that provide funding for the state university system to develop 50 open-source digital textbooks to be hosted by an online library.  The legislation aims to narrow the capital and quality gap that exists in the development of open educational resources such as free textbooks and course readers, which are primarily funded via non-profits. Freely downloadable textbooks stand to save college students hundreds if not thousands of dollars each semester.

Key Takeaway: Shifting demographics and untenable economics will propel a movement to offer course credit from MOOCs and an increase in the availability and quality of open educational resources. 

MOOCs can aid the “flipped” classroom.

While MOOCs have mostly been aimed at the university level, they could also play a role in the new “flipped classroom” emerging at the K-12 levels. In the traditional classroom model, a teacher’s time is spent covering the material while individual study time is supported at home by parents, ideally, who even if they are available, most likely don’t know or remember the material and have to (re)educate themselves to support their child. 

The “flipped classroom” inverts that model. Students consume lecture material outside of school at their own pace, and teachers spend classroom time clarifying problem areas. Valuable instructional time can be spent reviewing and mastering concepts in small groups or one-on-one with students. The flipped classroom model is not a cure-all, but there is evidence that non-traditional approaches to education have some success, fueling a move towards a blended model.

Key Takeaway: MOOCs are not just for higher learning: They have the potential to be instrumental in alternative approaches to K-12 education as the concept of the “flipped” classroom gains traction.

Education needs to take better advantage of digital media’s native strengths.

To date, most digital education products have adapted digital tools to merely enhance courses. While MOOCs such as Coursera and Udacity are promising and will evolve, they are essentially duplicating the existing lecture model for learning in digital form. There is a big opportunity to create new, digital-first models from scratch. 

There is precedent for creating new models that exploit the best qualities of new platforms. Take, for example, Sesame Street. Prior to the launch of that show, most educational TV programs copied the existing classroom model (including even some of the more creative programs like Romper Room). Sesame Street eschewed the traditional classroom approach to develop a model that used television’s innate strengths. Drawing from sketch and variety shows, as well as episodic dramas and comedies, Sesame Street applied innovations in TV entertainment to education, paving the way for a generation of new programs like The Electric Company, Zoom, and commercial shorts like Schoolhouse Rock and Big Blue Marble.

Children’s Television Workshop founder Joan Cooney said the goal was to “master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them.” Today’s education innovators need to master the addictive qualities of digital and do something good with them.

Personalization is a major feature of digital products that could help transform online education. Personalized or “adaptive” learning works by tailoring a student’s progress through material to their real-time progress. Like in games, where the gameplay may become more difficult if the player performs well or easier if she doesn’t, adaptive learning programs can accelerate the lesson or slow it down to re-emphasize points where the student’s responses indicate more review may be needed. Many of the MOOCs are already incorporating adaptive learning into their offerings. Coursera and others also use peer and self-grading to reinforce learning.

Adaptive learning platform Knewton began with a test prep product, later striking a deal to deliver remedial education with educational publisher Pearson to Arizona State University students. Now partnered with textbook publishers MacMillan and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in addition to Pearson, the company has expanded its reach and can refine its adaptive algorithm to deliver personalized learning. Knewton’s recommendations are based on multiple factors, including a student’s knowledge base determined by performance, the goals of the course, the content structure and which learning activities have been most effective for similar students. To date, the company has also raised $54 million in funding, making it one of the best-capitalized educational startups in history.

Key Takeaway: Just as Sesame Street uses television’s best qualities to teach, online education products need to capitalize on the intrinsic strengths of digital media. Tailoring a more personalized student experience is an appealing feature of digital platforms that could work well for online learning.  

Games propel motivation and learning.

In some ways, the traditional classroom suppresses certain fundamental aspects of learning: collaboration, critical thinking and calculating risk. Adding gaming mechanics to learning re-introduces these concepts to the classroom.  It is another example of leveraging the addictive qualities of digital technologies to build a truly digital-first learning experience. 

Bringing games into education does not require a dumbing down of curricula. Rather, adding gaming elements such as points, badges, rewards and leaderboards, already familiar to anyone who plays massively multiplayer online (MMO) games, can be a compelling motivational tool in an educational context. Already, researchers at universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Wisconsin have been exploring the use of games that encourage learning through play via multiple initiatives including augmented reality on mobile devices, multiplayer online games and simulation software. 

Additionally, companies such as Fidelis have seen success adding gamification elements to its online coaching platform aimed at preparing military veterans for college and the workforce. Adding badges and rewards has helped the company tackle retention for a demographic that notoriously struggles with transitioning back into school and work. And the MacArthur Foundation has supported The GlassLab project at the Institute of Play, a non-profit focused on changing learning and assessment through digital games. The MacArthur Foundation, with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Electronic Arts, and the Entertainment Software Association have funded GlassLab with the goal of “integrat[ing]state-led content standards and measure[ing] student learning by modifying popular video game titles and creating original video games.” 

Key Takeaway: Gaming is one of the most promising ways to enhance online education. Introducing key elements of games can help introduce greater critical thinking and collaboration to the learning process. 

Collaborative consumption is emerging in education.

As in the travel industry, peer-to-peer sharing potentially disrupts the existing educational model predicated on transmission of learning from geography-based middleman (teacher) to student. Just as Airbnb established the idea that regular people opening their homes to strangers to rent as an alternative to hotels was not just feasible but widely appealing, startups such as Skillshare, Dabble, P2PU and The Amazings are proving that people will turn to non-traditional teachers, or teachers far outside their normal circles, for knowledge. 

The web’s ability to connect strangers, share resources, and transfer knowledge makes it fertile ground for the education industry. These companies have built an online marketplace that matches students with teachers, some for digital courses and others in the real world. 

Skillshare’s philosophy emphasizes the idea that anyone with a unique skill can be a teacher and learning can happen anywhere. Classes range from Rock Poster Design to Interior Design to iPhone Development. Similarly, UK-based The Amazings offers classes that draw on the wisdom and experience of older people to bridge the knowledge gap between generations. The community offers classes on baking, knitting, quilting and other traditional crafts and skills. 

One of the key aspects driving success of these models is the self-governance of the communities. The site relies on volunteers who are involved in multiple aspects of running it. Reviews, feedback, and course revisions are guided by the community, and the openness of these models encourages accountability. 

Key Takeaway: While these ventures still occupy a niche, the attributes of the sharing economy–transparency, reciprocity and trust–can reform key pieces of the education ecosystem. 

Educators are finally embracing mobile learning in and out of the classroom.

Educators and administrators are slowly embracing the potential of mobile, which was once considered a distraction in the classroom. The benefits of incorporating smartphones into the classroom are myriad: they‘re cheaper and more portable than laptops or desktops, and with multimedia capabilities including video, cameras, GPS and text, can be extremely powerful learning tools. Some school districts have adopted a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy as a way to meet cost-cutting measures and work with technology that already has a high penetration among student populations

Mobile is not without challenges in the classroom. Issues often cited include equity of access for students, developing network security policies, overcoming student distraction, and teacher training. Yet classrooms that have embraced mobile technologies are already seeing dividends. Students are already using their smartphones to record lessons, look up information instantaneously, and practice spelling skills. 

Even augmented reality technologies have begun to find a place in mobile technology education, providing students with a way to overlay information in the real world on field trips. For example, in Virginia, the Radford Outdoor Augmented Reality (ROAR) project is a narrative, participatory game played on smartphones that correlates students’ physical location with their digital presence. Students play collaboratively, exploring nearby locations, and when they come within 30 feet of the digital artifacts embedded into the game, it triggers video, audio and text. 

Outside of the classroom, mobile apps that provide educational content have exploded in popularity. In a recent study by The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, one-third of game apps make an educational claim, and education apps are the second most popular category in the Apple App Store according to 148apps. One of the most compelling characteristics of mobile devices is that they inspire exploration of content, of the physical environment, and with other users. 

Key Takeaway: The advantages of incorporating mobile learning into education are manifold. Mobile devices have become more and more ubiquitous, they provide access to potentially unlimited knowledge, and can even encourage better communication between students and teachers. Most excitingly, learning isn’t confined to a time and place, but can take place anywhere at anytime. 

Big data has multiple education applications.

Like other industries, education is beginning to discover the power of data analytics. However, unlike commercial applications using big data to identify new consumer targets or predict behavior, analytics in education are focused on providing more personalized experiences for students, improving retention, and providing insight for educators, administrators and policymakers. 

Collecting data throughout the learning process allows institutions to customize curricula for individuals. Unlike MOOCs, which are a relatively inexpensive innovation within the education ecosystem, applying data analytics will be costly and difficult. It requires not only financial investment but also resources across an organization including teacher input, technical skill, and curriculum experts. 

One of the leaders in the field of education analytics is inBloom, funded by the Carnegie Corporation and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The non-profit is building solutions that attempt to overcome the one-size-fits-all mentality of most school districts. To do this, the organization is developing non-proprietary, open source technology products to help educators and parents get a cohesive view of a student’s progress. The goal is to simplify the data that results from multiple sources, analyze performance, and support personalized learning. 

The personalized learning sector is also a hot one for investors. According to NewSchools Venture Fund, a nonprofit venture philanthropy fund focused on public education for low-income children, the sector attracted $425 million in venture capital in 2012. The Gates Foundation, in addition to the $100 million it’s pledged to inBloom, has also distributed $70 million in grants to schools and private companies to develop personalized learning tools. 

Key Takeaway: While MOOCs are inexpensive and easy to scale, the application of Big Data to the education ecosystem is where true innovation lies. While expensive and time-consuming, the benefits include customized learning, better retention and improved outcomes for students and teachers.

The rise of the Rockstar Teacher is coming.

The convergence of two trends mentioned above–the emergence of MOOCs and the “flipped” classroom–are driving another development: the rise of the Rockstar Teacher. Teachers who embrace technology platforms for education can scale their influence far beyond their physical classroom. 

Duke University Fuqua School of Business Professor Dan Ariely, for example, who has taught classes on behavioral economics with Coursera, has shared some recent statistics on his experience with online education. His Coursera class has 140,000 registrations, with 67,000 who watched at least one video, and 33,000 students who took at least one quiz. Additionally, 6,000 students submitted the mandatory peer-reviewed essay. His TED talks now have over two million views. Peter Norvig, Google’s Director of Research, has also taught an online course on artificial intelligence that had more than 160,000 students enrolled. And these numbers pale in comparison to educators and entrepreneurs like Salman Khan. Khan Academy videos have been viewed more than 283 million times in just a few years. 

With this kind of scale, educators like Ariely, Norvig and others have the potential to reach hundreds of thousands, if not millions of students globally. The potential consequences of the rise of the Rockstar Teacher are still unknown. Could scale and ratings one day usurp the traditional tenure path of publishing? Possibly. While the impact on the professional path of teachers is debatable, it’s hard to see a downside for students, who will have access to previously inaccessible but talented teachers. 

Key Takeaway: The rise of the Rockstar Teacher is still nascent but potentially exposes talented teachers to a much broader public. In the future, institutions may value scale, ratings, and accessibility as much as they value publishing research.

*With Marissa Gluck, Director, Huge Ideas, and Tom O'Reilly, Director, Huge Content. 

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