Today’s disruptive changes in education – from the proliferation of digital devices to the availability of open educational resources, online universities, and badge-based certification – have the field abuzz like never before. Recently I had the opportunity to give a talk at WNET’s Celebration of Teaching and Learning on creating the conditions for innovation in education. When I began to prepare my talk, I wasn’t sure if it were just my perception that we are on the verge of something extraordinary, or if something really is afoot. In the search for a way to test my perceptions about education today, with its emergence from policy changes such as No Child Left Behind and sobering statistics such as increases in college costs and deeply disturbing high school drop-out rates, I began to play with the notion that we might be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel similar to what happened after the Dark Ages.
Perhaps what we are witnessing is the 21st century’s version of the Renaissance: the education renaissance. The education renaissance that took off at the beginning of the 21st century bears a close resemblance to its 16th century counterpart, during which a blossoming in arts and the sciences swept Europe for the next 300 years and led to scientific discoveries as well as significant developments in the arts. What we are experiencing today in education has been spurred by six forces, all remarkably similar to developments that led to the Renaissance. A look at these forces might give us insights into what lies ahead, if not in the next three centuries, then at least in the next three decades.
First, is the invention of new technology. In the 15th century, the invention of the printing press allowed access to books and greater literacy, which in turn led to the establishment of universities. In the same way, the creation of the Internet and its widespread adoption through inexpensive digital devices, including mobile phones and tablets, has empowered billions of people with the ability to achieve literacy and access information, including learning resources.
Second, is the infusion of large amounts of cash into the arts and sciences. During the Renaissance, patrons in Italy who profited from trading and banking sponsored artists and scientists, from Leonardo da Vinci to Galileo. During the past 25 years, billionaire philanthropists across the U.S. and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley who have profited from business have invested vast amounts of cash into high-tech businesses, which have in turned fueled the development of inexpensive digital devices and thousands of applications, including educational programs. In addition, foundations established through the funds of successful entrepreneurs have sponsored many for-profit and non-profit breakthrough initiatives in education and learning.
Third, is the emphasis on humanism, or the unique and extraordinary ability of the human mind. For the first time, during the Renaissance, ordinary people, rather than biblical figures or wealthy patrons, became the subjects of artists. Today, educators, parents, and students place a priority on the personalization of learning, and programs are being tailored with an emphasis on the individual learner’s style of acquiring knowledge. For example, Daniel Hillis, one of the pioneers of parallel computing, is developing a learning map from the vast database of human knowledge so that individuals can access knowledge in a way that best suits their needs.
Fourth, is the emergence of a vibrant artistic culture with a focus on realism and advances in architectural design. One of the hallmarks of today’s digital culture is the emergence of a vibrant, highly interactive environment, where everyone is given the chance to participate. Digital architecture includes blogs, videos, tweets, Facebook and other social networking platforms that encourage the exchange of information and opinion about virtually everything.
Fifth, is the democratization of learning. Through the invention of the printing press, which made books affordable, and the rediscovery of ancient texts on science and mathematics, knowledge became more accessible to people living in Europe during the Renaissance. In a similar fashion, the invention of the Internet and accessibility through the affordability of digital hardware and connectivity, has allowed more people to get on the Internet, and to participate in social learning. In addition, the emphasis on freely sharing knowledge, through OER Commons and programs like Udacity, CK-12 FlexBooks, and courses by universities like MIT, has created a dramatic cultural shift in the way learning is distributed, open, and collaborative.
Last, is the creation of a process for discovery. In the Renaissance, inventors and scientists developed a process for discovery, which eventually led to the scientific method. Today, new collaborative techniques, such as crowdsourcing, collective brainstorming, and the open publication of scientific discoveries, has led to such creations as Wikipedia, PLoS, and astronomy sites in which millions of people with only a connection to the Internet can contribute to the discovery of a new star, planet, or galaxy. From Galileo to the millions of potential new scientists on our planet today, the new education renaissance holds as great a promise for the future as did its counterpart.
While some are quick to dismiss the disruptive changes in education today, I think we should welcome the highly collaborative, personalized, and affordable opportunities new digital technologies offer learners throughout the world. Although these same technologies create problems, they offer more people the chance to learn, create, and share knowledge. And like the Renaissance, the education renaissance can also lead to a more humanistic and connected world.
This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post, June 16, 2009
Governor Schwarzenegger has a plan to make California the first state in the nation to provide its schools with free digital textbooks. The initiative would start this fall with online materials for high school math and science classes. The Governor explained his thinking in an op-ed in the San Jose Mercury:
California is home to software giants, bioscience research pioneers and first-class university systems known around the world. But our students still learn from instructional materials in formats made possible by Gutenberg’s printing press.
It’s nonsensical — and expensive — to look to traditional hard-bound books when information today is so readily available in electronic form. Especially now, when our school districts are strapped for cash and our state budget deficit is forcing further cuts to classrooms, we must do everything we can to untie educators’ hands and free up dollars so that schools can do more with fewer resources.
The Governor is right that this effort could easily turn out to have a significant long-term impact on public education.
For one thing — and much like a similar effort now underway in the state’s community colleges — it could save Californians money as well as leverage the investment already paid for with tax-payer dollars. The K-12 school system now spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year on traditional textbooks, even though free or lower-cost alternatives could be easily developed and distributed online. Additionally, most teachers in California already have access to computers, so it is not as if brand new technology is needed. And, it’s not as if most of our students aren’t already tech savvy.
School districts, educators, and individual authors across the country have put a wealth of resources on the Web (including lesson plans, teaching guides, and primary source materials in history, literature, math, science, and other subject areas). Many of these resources are well-designed and offer more dynamic and current material than conventional textbooks that students currently have access to.
Perhaps even more important is the potential impact on student learning when teachers become more actively engaged in the sharing and reuse of curriculum materials. What’s truly innovative about the Governor’s plan, and what could make it a national model to support effective use of educational technology, is its support for “open-source” textbooks–i.e., online resources that have alternative copyright licensing, meaning that teachers can freely share and adapt to meet their local needs.
For example, say that a history teacher is looking for material that would supplement the textbook on the American Revolution. In an open-source world, it’s easy for the teacher to go online, find additional materials or text, and modify what they are using. Or if a unit on photosynthesis turns out to be too simple for this year’s biology class. Why not just add a few extra pages of more advanced material? Additionally, imagine that the teacher can now offer that to other teachers, so that the wheel will not need to be reinvented the next time by yet another teacher.
No doubt, some teachers will stick to the textbook as is–for example, the novice teacher might be more likely to appreciate the page-by-page structure that a static textbook provides. However, many others will revel in the opportunity to share favorite materials online, update old ones, try out new ones, and talk with colleagues about what works, what doesn’t, and why.
That’s the sort of conversation that should occur among professionals in any field, and it’s the kind of collegial exchange and professional discretion that has been missing in schools for some time.
In the case of technology, it’s true that we need to be realistic. It does cost money to support the necessary technology infrastructure for an effort like this. But now is an opportunity to leverage what we have already spent, both in terms of technology as well as in what teachers already bring to the table. Classroom instruction is difficult and sometimes unpredictable work, and teachers cannot and should not be taken out of the equation. Rather than always trying to “teacher proof” the classroom, that is, telling educators which course content to focus on when, we can improve teaching and learning by allowing teachers to have access to high-quality materials and tools and the professional leeway to exercise their pedagogical judgment.
If the Governor’s initiative delivers on its promise to provide teachers with open-source digital textbooks, that’s not to say that all will be smooth sailing from then on. For the past years, I’ve been involved with providing free-to-use education resources at the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education. We’ve experienced some of the growing pains. We know that, inevitably, some schools will be challenged to strengthen the materials of their teachers that might be poorly designed, or that need to be aligned to curriculum standards as they evolve over time. This continuous improvement is, in fact, the beauty of open source education.
It’s not as if open-source textbooks will do away with oversight, though. Administrators and school boards will still provide input, direction, and–when necessary–veto power over instructional decision that does not meet their quality criteria, for example. And in any case, that’s a small price to pay for the chance to build a more independent and intellectually rewarding culture of collaboration and sharing in California’s schools.
Given the tremendous potential to leverage costs already spent and the efforts of teachers in curriculum development, what free digital textbooks can offer the state over time is huge. And, given the flexibility they provide teachers and students, this one’s a no-brainer. The Governor’s initiative deserves to be watched closely and supported without hesitation if we are really serious about not giving up on innovation in education.