Khan Academy, Khan Lab School, and the Future of Education

Last fall, I spoke with one of my former English teachers about her work with Khan Lab School, the experimental Bay Area campus founded using the philosophy of Salman Khan. I have finally read Khan’s book The One World Schoolhouse, which describes the main problems with the American education system, the potential solutions Khan himself has drawn from the success of Khan Academy, and his vision for the future of K-12 and higher education. While I have some reservations about the proposals from the book and hope I can eventually tour Khan Lab School itself, I respect how clearly Khan explains the drawbacks of the traditional assembly-line model of education and the logic behind his proposed alternatives. Whether or not his One World Schoolhouse will become reality over the next few decades seems beside the point: Khan helps us articulate which parts of our education system cause so much frustration among students and educators alike and challenges our fundamental assumptions about the structure, methods, and objectives of the classroom.

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Should Graduate Students Unionize?

Last month, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students from private universities could legally form unions (see this short article from the New York Times), and commentators have subsequently asked whether graduate students actually need protection from their institutions. Graduate students already receive fee and tuition waivers, stipends, and healthcare from their universities whereas medical and law students pay for their entire educations. Why, then, should graduate students complain about their labor conditions when many other students and employees at the university level potentially suffer from even more clear-cut exploitation?

Image result for graduate student union

The case for graduate student unionization follows two central principles: 1) Graduate students do not receive adequate compensation for their skilled academic labor. 2) The use of underpaid graduate students for college courses not only prevents universities from hiring tenured faculty but also lowers the wages of adjuncts and other nontenured instructors. Based upon personal experience, graduate students typically work over fifty hours per week and must divide their time between their own research (which will determine their long-term success) and their instructional responsibilities. Graduate students must therefore prioritize between their careers and their students whenever they manage their schedules, which inevitably weakens either their research programs or the curriculum and administration of their courses. While these trade-offs certainly apply for tenured professors, graduate students experience similar pressure from their departments for original research but generally receive less protection from campus administrators who expect well-designed classes from their instructors.

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Sabbaticals for K-12 Teachers

This editorial from Jessica Anderson, the 2016 Montana Teacher of the Year, claims K-12 teachers should request sabbaticals so they can learn new technologies and instructional methods for their classrooms. Unlike professors, who often arrange sabbaticals for their academic research, K-12 teachers usually seek professional development over the summer and during the school-year. K-12 teachers must accordingly balance between their daily classroom administration and curriculum design responsibilities and their experiments with virtual reality software (Google Expeditions), online flashcards (Study Blue), content management systems (D2L, Moodle, etc.), and practice-problem applications (NoRedInk, IXL, etc.). The limited time and resources teachers can allocate for these “side-projects” necessarily reduces their usefulness, and Anderson states teachers cannot draw their classes into the twenty-first century until K-12 educators and districts properly facilitate the long-term improvement of their employees.

Anderson also addresses the reservations many teachers have about leaving their classrooms for a year. Anderson believes teachers underestimate how much sabbaticals may improve their skill-sets and insists teachers should not feel guilty about temporarily leaving their schools with the long-term objective of returning with applications and techniques that they can share with their coworkers. Many public-school contracts already have options for sabbaticals, and Anderson feels these opportunities are underutilized because teachers cannot see themselves outside the classroom. Those who assume expert teachers always belong inside the classroom may disagree, but I side with Anderson: if one year of research, conferences, and trying new applications yields three-five years of meaningful returns for students, then the K-12 education system should not merely allow but promote sabbaticals for its instructors. I also wonder whether colleges should more-actively support the use of sabbaticals for instructional purposes instead of focusing so intently upon articles and book projects. Click the link below for more details.

Anderson K-12 Sabbaticals Editorial

Online Adaptive Learning Technology

When educators consider the future of online and hybrid education, they frequently stress how digital platforms might personalize the content and activities provided for individual students. With sophisticated algorithms capable of determining what information students need and how they learn using past results, computer-mediated education programs could design assignments and lectures for each member of the classroom without overburdening teachers who already have nearly-unmanageable workloads. This article discusses the Habitable Worlds course from Arizona State University, which has students explore the historical development of biological organisms and the viability of extraterrestrial life using “digital courseware.” This courseware monitors student progress, presents feedback, and adjusts how its students learn and practice the content of the HabWorlds curriculum. Digital courseware may someday increase the pass-rates for general education classes and improve the quality of mainstream courses, but I question whether software, monitored or otherwise, should make automated decisions about student capabilities and classroom objectives. Click the link below for more information:

Digital Learning’s Pioneers Are Cautiously Optimistic

EdSurge Online Education and Adaptive Learning Article

How Should We Conduct Student Evaluations?

After every class students attend during college, they spend the last day of the semester writing evaluations for their instructors and the campus administration. These evaluations serve three main purposes: they let students express their opinions about courses that consume significant amounts of time and money, help academic institutions reward and penalize instructors for the quality of their work, and show teachers how they can improve their curricula for future classes. Without student evaluations, universities must rely heavily upon standardized test scores and classroom observations for the assessment of their teachers. Student evaluations not only counteract the limited sample sizes of classroom observations, which usually happen once or twice per year, but also avoid the biases of standardized test scores, which vary dramatically between classes and devalue any knowledge beyond the scope of the tests themselves. We clearly need student evaluations, but we should ask ourselves what these evaluations should cover and how we should balance their results with other assessment methods for our professors.

Course Evaluation

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Are College Students Customers?

Over the past few decades, the increased cost of higher education and the decreased opportunities for recent graduates have left students uncertain whether their degrees provide acceptable returns for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Public and private colleges have recognized these anxieties and responded with fewer distribution requirements, student evaluations of university programs and resources, grade inflation, pre-professional courses, and other means of attracting and retaining customers who hope their educations will help them transition directly into the workforce. While I agree that universities should hold themselves accountable for the success of their students and applaud the recent shift away from conventional exams and towards applied research projects, we should ask ourselves whether the supplier-client model of modern universities actually fulfills their stated objectives.

I submit that the university has four purposes:

  1. Prepare students for their careers.
  2. Teach students how they can solve complex problems.
  3. Inform students about the world around them.
  4. Help students interact with people from different backgrounds.

The corporate university, where the student becomes the client of the higher education system, addresses only the first of these objectives. If we reduce or remove distribution requirements so students can focus entirely upon their expected careers, for example, they may lose their connections with other disciplines and become detached from their broader social and political responsibilities. Similarly, if colleges use their resources exclusively for professional development, then students may learn the field-specific facts and skills necessary for their work but never hone the analytical and communication skills associated with long-term advancement.

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What Pokemon Go Means for EdTech

The success of Pokemon Go has shown the untapped potential of Augmented Reality (AR) applications, where software developers layer digital components over the real world instead of constructing self-contained virtual environments. Users worldwide have posted pictures of their Pokemon and the physical locations where they were captured, and the principles of augmented reality could support the recent transition away from passive instruction towards interactive education and civic participation within modern education research.

EdTech developers should consider how augmented reality might help students learn more from natural ecosystems, museum exhibits, and even classroom lectures. What if students could directly scan artifacts with their phones so they could learn more about the history and significance of Greek pottery and Native American textiles? What if this same technology could help chemistry students identify compounds inside the laboratory and determine their physical properties?

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