Who are your teachers? New technology for humanity

August 19, 2014

For those adults working on, writing about, or generally pondering the fate of our education system, “teachers” are thought of as a stakeholder group, a fulcrum for change. But most of us are likewise bought into the idea of lifelong learning—that is, formal schooling may end, but we continue to be students of life. As such, who are your teachers? When you encounter a thorny problem, where do you turn?

For many of us, roaming the Internet for answers may be a first instinct; but many of us will also choose the “call a friend” lifeline. We will reach out to those we know—family, friends, colleagues—for information, guidance, or advice. We rely on a range of expertise across our social, emotional, and professional networks. Or in the words of famous Paris bookseller George Whitman, “All the world is my school and all humanity is my teacher.”

A relatively new breed of edtech platform is taking this basic truth of adulthood—our ongoing reliance on other humans as our teachers—into account for children. Platforms like Educurious, Nepris, and CrowdWorks’ newly minted UnitedTeach connect classrooms and experts from the real world using video technology to teach lessons, share their stories, or to answer students’ questions. There is some variation among the three: Nepris is exclusively STEM-focused, built on the DNA of its founder, Sabari Raja, formerly of Texas Instruments. Educurious looks a bit more like a curriculum company than the other two, with a focus on building project-based assignments with experts from a range of professions at the center. But importantly, all three of these are leveraging technology not merely to deliver academic content, as the majority of the academic software market aims to do. Rather they expose students (and their teachers) to adults in the working world. They are, although still in their early stages, an encouraging harbinger for how our schools could become hubs around which a whole host of human beings converge.

This model offers a compelling and potentially disruptive play, relative to existing mentoring models in which face-to-face, one-on-one interaction is challenging to scale and sustain over time. These platforms are a lower cost alternative to carting experts into classrooms, or alternatively carting students out on field trips. Although those face-to-face live activities may offer compelling enrichment, video technologies’ disruptive potential can also have a democratizing effect on students’ access to expertise. Skyping with an engineer or a playwright defies geographic and socioeconomic limitations that often make access to professional expertise the exclusive province of children raised by industry experts.

How these platforms themselves establish revenue streams and scale will be interesting to watch. Some, like the three mentioned above, may continue to rely on volunteerism and good will among experts and the companies they work for to ‘donate’ their time. Other companies may eventually function more like a marketplace, as Google Helpouts now does, whereby experts sell their services directly to schools. There’s still no “winning” business model that’s proven at scale. Rather, these early models are providing a compelling supply and testing the pockets of the education market with latent demand for expanding students’ networks beyond their classrooms and schools.

We of course mustn’t be Pollyannaish about the potential of these or any other technology platforms. This weekend U.C. Berkeley Professor David Kirp published an op-ed in the New York Times called “Teaching is not a business,” indicting the use of market-base policies and rhetoric to try to bring about change in education. “Every successful educational initiative of which I’m aware aims at strengthening personal bonds by building strong systems of support in the schools,” he wrote. “The best preschools create intimate worlds where students become explorers and attentive adults are close at hand.” Kirp ends his critique with a caution about schools’ soaring technology spending, as part of a trend that ignores teaching and learning and instead draws reformers to “hyped claims.”

I agree with Kirp: technology is not a silver bullet. Or as my colleague Tom Arnett has explained, it should and need not replace teachers. But Kirp’s piece draws an unfortunate false dichotomy between factors that need not be at odds: markets versus schools, businesses versus human beings. Schools themselves indeed do have economic models, revenue streams, and budgets. Like businesses, they serve customers in society at large, and are accountable to stakeholders in the government that oversee them. Businesses, likewise, are made up of human beings and have rich emotional and social fabric embedded in their day-to-day. They are not only monolithic creatures of capitalism, but as Educurious , Nepris, and UnitedTeach have tapped into, businesses house deep expertise that schools stand to benefit from.

With new platforms like these, we are witnessing a particularly exciting breed of edtech that focuses on relationships and networks, as much as academic content and assessment. These platforms are a promising byproduct of a burgeoning edtech market from which schools can benefit. And we in fact do need to understand market-based principles—competition, innovation, and patient capital—to ensure that platforms like these can continue to grow so that children throughout the country can be successful students of humanity.

Julia Freeland Fisher

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Her work aims to educate policymakers and community leaders on the power of Disruptive Innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks" https://amzn.to/2RIqwOk.

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