12 March 2013

A Vision for 21st Century Learning: My Thoughts on SXSWedu 2013*

          This past week, I had the privilege of attending SXSWedu, South by Southwest’s education conference, in Austin, Texas. There, my studies at the University of Michigan converged, offering me a tangible glimpse of the work that was being done nationwide by educators, entrepreneurs, administrators, and academics to improve the learning experience. This was a conference rich in technology; there, one could acceptably tweet, post to Facebook, take photos with smartphones, record audio of the presentations, and take notes on iPads and laptops. This was accepted and encouraged. Presenters and attendees pushed towards a pedagogy rooted in 21st century skills that included critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity (Buck Institute for Education, 2012). I felt myself in the midst of a new movement in education that had new features but also shared similarities with past movements. Below, I will address the connection between past reform movements and some of the current trends in education as observed at the conference.

For teachers, the very notion of changing pedagogical practice can be daunting. Larry Cuban (1983) defined two areas of instruction: teacher-centered and student-centered. In the teacher-centered model, the emphasis is on factual recall, whole-group instruction controlled by the teacher, static rows of desks, and memorization, whereas student-centered instruction enables students to have a voice in decisions about learning activities, engage in small group discussion, and have more mobility in the classroom. History has leaned towards a more teacher-centered approach, but the leaders and practitioners of this new movement in education have made it clear that it is about the student. In one panel that I attended on gaming in education, a teacher asked about how she could encourage her district to support a curriculum that allowed for games as part of learning. Another presentation that I attended focused on flipped and blended learning, where several educators, including a science teacher, expressed skepticism over using the flipped classroom model to teach scientific inquiry. The use of video games and flipped and blended classrooms to support personalized and collaborative means of learning have grown in recent years. In my opinion, they both offer promising ways of engaging students’ 21st century skills but they both require some serious technological competence on the part of educators, as well as trust from the administration and access to the resources that make these interactions possible.

In his presentation of the "Curriculum of the Future," Jonathan Blank of Reading Kingdom in New York City cautioned against reproducing failed pedagogical methods in technology and said that technology should instead be used to support good pedagogy. This is especially relevant when considering the case of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which were all the rage at SXSWedu. Coursera’s co-founder, Andrew Ng, spoke about how he wanted to live in a world where everyone has access to a good education. Coursera’s course listing contains courses that reflect the late 19th and early 20th century pedagogy developed by the essentialists with liberal arts subjects ranging from science, math, and the humanities. Ng argued that online education would make the biggest impact on working professionals and those who cannot afford an elite university education. Anant Agarwal of edX made the controversial assertion that online learning courses would become certified in the next year. Whether or not this will happen remains to be seen. My biggest takeaway from Ng and Agarwal's keynote is that online learning cannot achieve success without engaging the most marginalized populations which include those who lack adequate access to broadband Internet (including those in developing nations and rural areas) and student-learners with disabilities. The new education reform needs to include their voices rather than further widen the achievement gap. 

There was a great deal of discussion about personalized education. A main argument in the drive for this was data analytics, which has been made possible by educational technologies that take user input to customize their learning experience. This type of personalization is indicative of the apprentice era where a master-apprentice relationship was standard. I had a conversation with a woman who works at a major educational technology company about her experience with developing a software in which teachers could view their students' work on math problems in real time to see where they needed the most help so that they could target that specific area. Roy Pea of Stanford University and Ken Koedinger of Carnegie Mellon University presented on a learning analytics panel about the importance of designing technologies for learners based on data collected from their learning experiences. Koedinger, Pea, and the other panelists stressed the need for data scientists to evaluate this data. Even the keynote of Bill Gates reiterated the importance of using data to collect information for personalized, customized learning. In theory, this brings the learner to the center of the process, but my concern is that the needs of the learner could become lost amongst a growing mound of data that researchers and teachers may struggle to sort through.  

One of the keynote speakers, Asenath Andrews of the Catherine Ferguson Academy in Detroit, which serves pregnant mothers, said that we should want for others’ children what we want for our own children. She didn't talk about technology in the evangelical way that most presenters did. She talked about how her charter school students were exposed to global opportunities in Africa with midwives and worked on a farm on the grounds of their school. She also openly acknowledged her successes and failures with the school. Her talk was necessary because she was willing to be vulnerable in a way that many of the presenters were not, and she reminded us of the human element that is at the core of pedagogy. This is not unlike the philosophy echoed by John Dewey in the earlier part of the 20th century. 

A notable area at SXSWedu was the Makerspace, in which attendees could come and make objects out of Legos and other small objects. This is a practice that is rooted in the Maker movement, which has begun to gain significant attention in education but has actually been around for many years (Wired, 2011). The personal computer revolution in the 1970s, the prevalence of hacker communities, and the recent “What schools don’t teach” video by code.org illustrate the importance of cultivating skills that have typically been outside of traditional educational settings. This type of culture echoes the influence of the progressives: it contains aspects of the child-centered movement guided by children’s interests, but it also resembles social reconstructionism with its emphasis on creating a better world through innovation. I was particularly thrilled to participate in #HackClass, a two hour session run by The Third Teacher+ and Edutopia. In their session, they emphasized the importance of process, community involvement, scrappiness, resourcefulness, and being open to learning from failure. After the session, I caught up with the Twitter conversation around STEAM education, an effort by John Maeda at the Rhode Island School of Design to bring art and design thinking into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. The various panels and discussions around the processes of design thinking provided tangible evidence that reinforced my belief that there is a legitimate place for creativity in education. This effort is a powerful assertion of the importance of 21st century learning skills.

Several educators offered hope for the possibilities of the Common Core by encouraging the use of project-based learning, which is multidisciplinary in nature. This allows for both formative (improving teaching and learning practices) and summative (answering for a grade, points, or reward) means of assessment in which peers and teachers are both part of the assessment process. My experience at SXSWedu reinforced my interests in project-based learning and design thinking, but it also brought to my attention the importance of working with learners to create physical spaces that allow them to flourish. We are at a point now where innovation is possible but it definitely requires one to think outside of their comfort zones and even accept the possibility of failure. How can we move towards a mindset that embraces failure as a learning opportunity?

Cuban, Larry. “How Did Teachers Teach, 1890-1980.” Theory Into Practice 22, no. 3 (1983): 159-65.              

*Paper originally written for a graduate class at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and modified with links and additional information for Internet publication.

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