Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Breakthrough Learning from the Outside In: Four Policies to Accelerate Innovation in the Classroom

Victor V. Vuchic

Program Officer, Open Educational Resources
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

Often when we think about innovation, we focus on lots of low cost rapid prototypes and bottoms up design driven approaches. You don’t often hear much about how policy could stoke innovation. Usually, people think of policy as stifling innovation. I actually think there are opportunities to shift policies that could significantly promote innovation. Here are a few areas of opportunity on the near term horizon:

Textbook Adoption to Resource Adoption

Most states have incredibly archaic and restrictive textbook adoption policies. The sad irony is that these adoption cycles are being lengthened from seven to nine years in many states, when the rate of change and innovation in the world is dramatically increasing (imagine what an 8 year old textbook on science and technology looks like today). Shifting these processes to include digital resources is critical. This not only allows us to begin to move from paper based textbooks to new digital environments, but it can also serve as a distribution channel. Much of the feedback we get from teachers is that searching for educational materials online leads to a mediocre mixed bag of results. The state can play a role similar to what they do with textbooks in evaluating digital resources, aligning them to standards and providing at least a baseline for rich media materials for all teachers for all state standards. With the support of the CK-12 Foundation, Virginia and California adopted open-source digital textbooks over the last year.

Smarter Filters

One enormous problem that is stifling innovation and doesn’t get much attention is the internet filters that schools use. While there is a clear need to have some control over where kids go on the internet, the current filters are blocking a huge amount of the Internet and create a significant barrier for teachers to do anything innovative with the web. I recently did a classroom observation at a low income public school in the Bay Area, and the teacher complained that he couldn’t even get to UC Berkeley’s site to get his materials from his Masters degree program. Also, when I used to work with students and told them that they are doing a video project that would be on YouTube, their enthusiasm and engagement jumped 10 fold. On the other hand, when I later explained that YouTube was blocked and we’d use a different lesser known site, they lost interest. Brand is very important to kids and can be a huge motivator. We need to invest in better filtering tools and figure out how we can leverage the digital spaces kids love inside the classroom. The evidence is clear that using the Internet can act as a powerful tool for engaging students, especially the ones that are most at risk of dropping out. We need better school policies on internet filtering that don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Common Core Standards

States adopting a common core of higher level standards will help provide some coherence to the education system across the country. This will stoke innovation in two ways: first, it will immediately and dramatically increase the market size for entrepreneurs in the field of K-12 education and in turn help them attract more investment. Today, someone starting a company in education has to develop and worry about 50 different states, each with their own standards. This fragmentation puts a significant cost and burden for small innovative startups. Second, unifying under some common standards will make it more likely that innovations in one state will transfer more easily to other states. This should also stoke more collaboration between states, which again will increase the transfer of innovations.

Seat time to Learning time

Today most states focus funding on time spent in school (average daily attendance). Shifting the focus from seat time to learning time could open up an entire new space for innovative, and perhaps more effective, learning environments. The state of California recently decreased its minimum annual school days requirement by five days to help accommodate the recent budget cuts. (In practice, most school districts are choosing to make other cuts rather than cutting school days, but they are now allowed to cut days.) This is a particularly troubling policy change given the strong evidence that time in school is directly correlated with academic success. But, by shifting the focus from seat time to learning time, districts in California could choose to have five self-learn days spaced throughout the year where students would spend the days learning outside the school or in a lab on online courses or digital media learning environments that have proven learning outcomes. This could help deal with the budget cuts while not losing out on critical learning time. One could also imagine that teachers could leverage digital resources in new ways that help reach the kids where they are and when they want it rather than in just a specific 45 minute period in the classroom.

Overall, there is a lot of innovation going on in education, but unfortunately very little of it is making its way into the public education system. I believe with a handful of tweaks and shifts in policy, we can open up and create pockets of space to allow the system to begin to absorb and integrate these innovations. At a recent meeting of the National Association of State Boards of Education I was pleasantly surprised with how forward thinking the group was and to see that policies are starting to shift in states to become more digital friendly. Let’s hope that this continues and begins to open up the system and allow a lot of the great work happening outside to have impact on the inside.


  1. I couldn't agree more with Victor Vuchic's comments. If we have the capacity to build better mouse traps, then we can certainly build better internet filters for schools. I understand the need for filters, to a point, but think about it -- kids have been throwing spitballs since there was paper in schools, yet we haven't banned paper! It's a matter of teaching kids the appropriate behaviors in ANY context, whether it's behavior in the classroom or on the internet. If we are too afraid to open up more of the internet's capabilities for fear that kids will see something inappropriate, then shame on us. Because kids DO use the internet at home on their own computers and mobile phones, and they WILL encounter inappropriate content, yet when they do so, it's without any guidance from educators or other adults.

    The other thing that needs to be re-examined is school "Acceptable Use Policies ." These often ban cell phones and ipods -- the very tools that we could be using to engage kids and bridge the divide between digital natives (them) and digital immigrants (most of us)(see Marc Prensky). It's time educators and educational policy makers stop asking why and start saying, why not?

  2. This is a great post. As a CEO of a small company passionate about igniting a lifelong love of reading through REAL video games (Sabi, Inc.) I know first hand about the Internet filters stifle innovative efforts!

    While at Microsoft, the insight I gleaned after two years exploring public school and the potential for innovation: 1) the stakes are too high and the special interests are too embedded to allow innovations. 2) children spend 18.4% of their time in school. Innovation COULD come as supplemental - but I would rather see a "core curriculum" state - able to read Harry Potter without adult's help...

    Finally, while Policy is a good start - what REALLY needs to change is the business models. Check out how textbook companies make money. Let's start with a vision and a business model to lighten our kid's backpack by 40 lbs. by having all school content available on an eReader (besides a PC).

  3. This is a great post, thanks for sharing these thoughts Vic. One filter challenge we have here in Omaha is that the technology the district uses filters based on the domain, not on the user, and it is one filter used across the nearly 50,000 student K-12 district. The consequence is that the IT group must apply a standard with the youngest students in mind - if a site could any way be trouble for a 5-year old then it is blocked even for HS seniors. An alternative that I would like to see is a policy that trusts students and teachers to make good decisions with clear and meaningful penalties for abusing that trust.

    Again thanks for the post, I've really enjoyed getting caught up in this discussion over the last few days. - Dan Gilbert