Edmodo CEO: education in the age of openly accessible information

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Sigfrid Lundberg

One size fits all education is out. It’s being replaced by the smartphone in your pocket; bring on tangible learning outcomes.

In the last 20 years, few devices have improved as dramatically as smartphones; in processing power, in speed, in terms of user interfaces, and in their ability to bring the infinite resources of the Internet to our fingertips.

This always-on, always-connected computer in the palm of our hand has transformed how we communicate, stay in touch, and document and share our lives. Perhaps the most important shift will be in education – learning outcomes will be markedly improved in an area that has changed minimally in the last five hundred years.

Education helps us train successive generations for skills and abilities that will be necessary when they come of age; given the pace of technology development and scientific advances, it boggles the mind to try and predict where we will need our graduates to be in 2035. Some refer to this task as reforming education; it might be easier to think of it as, simply, necessary evolution.

When we think of where education stands now in preparing today’s youth for the workforce, three of the main sources of information and content are textbooks, teachers, and peers. Let’s discuss textbooks first.

Learning outcomes will be markedly improved in an area that has changed minimally in the last five hundred years

The average textbook refresh cycle is often 6-8 years; sometimes as long as 8-10 years. We can still find textbooks in use in our schools that still say, for instance, that “Pluto is a planet” and “George W. Bush is president.” How can we expect our students to excel and move forward when they are learning concepts that are woefully out-of-date?

Another problem with most textbooks today is that they’re written for either Texas or California school boards and standards. A textbook that caters to all the students in one of these great states might meet the acceptable bar for minimal standards, but is unlikely to provide learning outcomes for all students. And for those students outside the state targeted by the textbooks? Good luck!

Finally, most traditional textbooks don’t allow for diverse teaching styles, neither in shuffling the order of topics, nor in terms of how our teachers might use alternative format resources, be it a worksheet, lesson plan, quiz template, etc. Empowering them with different content types could make a difference in how effectively they are able to help students understand the material.

How should we fix this? What can we, the first generation to have a handheld computer connected to every resource we can think of, do about this time-honored, but inflexible and often expensive, textbook problem? We may now have an opportunity to rethink the way content is created, distributed, and experienced.

Open Educational Resources (OER) is one example of an effort to provide high-quality resources that teachers can access, revise, and reuse. However, OER resources are still limited in terms of the number of people contributing to them.

Teachers and students generate tens of millions of resources every year, some which they might be willing to share with other students and teachers in their schools, districts, and/or the entire world. Some of these are likely to be the ideal resource for others; the rest may be an interesting starting point for a mix-and-match, reuse model for others. The question is how do teachers and students find these resources?

Sites such as the Learning Registry, Teachers Pay Teachers, TES, and (our own) Edmodo Spotlight, are attempting to solve the problem of discoverability by gathering, tagging, rating, and indexing these resources.

One of the interesting side-effects of these sites is that they often turn some of these contributors into superstars as their content is discovered by thousands and used over and over again.

If these resources can be used in a digital classroom environment, their impact on learning outcomes can be inferred by comparison with other similar user populations, allowing us to ascribe very fine-grained models of use and effectiveness to each resource for each user type.

Learning is better when the student is engaged, the teacher is inspiring, and peers are collaborative; perhaps everything is better in that case!

Technology often allows us to scale some resources and not others. OER allows us to take a great stride forward to further both the accessibility and quality of resources that can be used in the classroom.

It was Phil Collins who memorably said: “In learning you will teach. In teaching you will learn.” We might perhaps add to that statement: “In sharing, you will grow.” Just as re-tweets can often be a signal of interestingness, the number of times a resource was shared, accessed, and stored can be a great signal for the effectiveness of a resource.

Perhaps, one of these days, we will be able to have different metrics for grading than answering questions in a quiz.

There is so much more change to come in education; some may call it disruption; we call it inevitable. This is just the tip of the iceberg — and teachers are at the heart of it.

The enormous growth potential that has already begun in the area of content discovery makes me very optimistic for the future of pattern recognition and teaching/learning cycles. If we can start tying resource consumption to learning outcomes, we can take learning in entirely new directions.

The promise of ubiquitous learning lies in our ability to connect the dots between accessibility, quality content, and meaningful connections to the people that make the experience a fulfilling one. And thanks to technology, we can get there.