What Makes Advanced Education Hard?
Dev published on 2015-12-23T18:06:40Z

Advanced education is hampered by an inability to deploy the most effective communication methods and most useful tools to local populations of students and teachers in a productive manner. Technology promises to overcome this set of problems, and yet rarely lives up to the hype. Why?

A key consideration in the delivery of educational value hinges on the word "local". What matters is the Individual participant, whether teacher or student, not the means of connection. Tools that erase geographical or time-based constraints are wonderful, but local leadership remains a critical resource in the actual delivery of educational value.

If you ever find yourself gathered in a room with "educational technology innovators", you may be struck by the overwhelming sense that there are so many people that put their carts in front of their horses. If you engage discussions around the use of technology in educational settings, you may also be struck by how disconnected use of some tools will be to outcomes of real world value.

Business models and education form very complex relationships. Depending on how priorities are operationalized, the entire process can be affected, and local experiences can be incredibly variable. These days, we find ourselves at a nexus between old models and new ideas trying to overcome the limitations that old restrictions set in place, and new capabilities have a hard time displacing due to simple momentum and embedded commitments.

For example, I deliver live education events. In these events, I teach people how to use technology that is fundamentally valuable in real world settings. I teach both kids and adults the same information, and I show them by using real world outcomes as the challenges they engage. I teach them about web development with html, css, javascript and database technologies like mysql. I use these technologies in my own professional life, and it is not uncommon these days for students to hear about concepts like nodeJS or Docker as well.

I don't teach them how to create template-driven websites or drag and drop tools. I don't teach them wordpress, wix, or dreamweaver, despite their utility in some circumstances. Instead I teach the underlying knowledge they can use in any of those tools. This is a hard distinction to make to the uninitiated yet aspiring student. Parents, more often than not, have a hard time following all the nuance of such conversations when they simply ask "what will my child be learning?"

Before we ever get to the comparison of an iPad versus a laptop in education, it can be an overwhelming conversation for people to partake in as to what constitutes an advanced education. We see today so many people flocking to educational efforts such as Code.org without having the slightest inkling what the deliverable value of participation in such efforts actually is. Simply directing a student to a website and saying "go learn" is one method, and justified by a bit of "professional development", teachers have flocked to this effort despite not really knowing what outcomes are possible with the methods being promulgated.

To make matters worse, educators are no better off than random citizens. Most teachers today are somewhat illiterate in a technology-driven educational classroom. They can tell you how Twitter helps with connected sharing and learning, and how Edmodo makes their classes function, or how iPads are powerful tools of student-work and aid in digesting and sharing units of study... but connect these observations to real world outcomes, and they are no more knowledgeable than a grandparent looking to buy a modern gift for their grandchild during the holidays.

Meanwhile, with the click of a button, some truly advanced learning tools can be issued to teachers, and students can receive access to their own tools that bring the real world directly into their classrooms, even connecting them while at home, to lessons and resources that exist in professional environments. But who can evaluate these things? What teacher is ready to work in such a productive and future-ready environment? What administrative bureaucrat is capable of comparing pro-tools to other toy-tools that are dressed up in the blinking lights of candy crush possibilities?

Steve jobs said "computers are like bicycles for the brain". Well, some are tricycles, others are BMX, others are 10 speeds, and still others are Specialized mountain bikes. What bike are you looking for kid? How about you professor? Can you differentiate an iPad from a Chromebook? A watch from a cattle bracelet? Do you have any sense of how these technologies interact with the data you load into them everyday? Can you get your data out, control its use, and make sure you are capturing its value personally? What device do you use?

It is with this as a backdrop that I, a normal parent, decided to build kidOYO, an effort to teach kids 5+ about coding, making and entrepreneurship specifically... but so much more, for I was forced to take my own child out of public school in order to give him access to the type of education I know is possible today, and which the future will be based upon. Unwilling to watch my own child be regarded as a disciplinary problem simply because he was bored in a standard classroom experience, I set out to construct a one-of-a-kind educational plan.

First, we ran free live events. Here we worked with growing numbers of kids using professional tools, helping steer hardware purchases, and delivering incremental lessons aimed at real world project-based outcomes. We have thrived for years, been invited to popular conferences to conduct panels, and accepted a few offers along the way... but primarily, we remain a local education effort built by volunteers and community mentors interested in the effort.

Next we built semester-long and summer-week programs. Young people and teachers wishing to engage deeper in lessons signed up in droves to attend, and we started running multiple weeks to meet the interest. Kids 8+ would build companies during week-long programs, and develop skills using programming languages like Java, Python, Javascript, html, CSS, and learn to manage version-control of their productions in professional tools like Github. Some students started making real money with their skills, others started building games for play-based clout among their peers. And at the end of these programs, "Demo Days" would allow parents the opportunity to see what their kids were doing, despite not always understanding how it was accomplished.

Now we have independent learning communities across multiple states, in-schools within multiple grades, and in homeschool and University settings. The key is local leadership. We can innovate the tools, and make them easy to use and deploy, but we can not control the pace of local leaders who understand the difference between a kid that does a code.org routine, and one that programs their own creative idea using JavaFx. Local leaders make all the difference.

As a result, a mammoth differentiation is taking place in education. Ed-Tech entrepreneurs spawn daily chasing the opportunity to get some venture capital funding and be the next thing to revolutionize education. But in small local efforts like kidOYO, VC funding has never been the goal, and revolution is not the outcome being pursued.

I tell my students that I will be leading kidOYO programs and development projects for at least the next 7 years...until my own kid turns 18 and is ready for the next stage of his life. They may not always be part of our programs, but they know where they can find me. If they want to learn, or to give back, or work during the summer, or build technology-driven outcomes...they know where I am, they have my email, and they are connected personally.

What do you call that?

I am not a professional educator. I make unionized labor a bit uneasy, and tend to provoke confrontational responses more often than I would like.

I am an entrepreneur, but my mission is primarily social in nature, organized as a 501(c)(3) non-profit venture for public benefit rather than commercial gain. And yet, no corporations are reaching out to give me funding, no foundations are calling on me to solve the diversity in the marketplace problem, despite the fact that I put effort and personal resources towards this very outcome. I have received less than $30,000 in the 15 years I have been doing this work. Why?

Independence - the skills I give to young people, as students or mentors, are aimed at creating independent thinkers, doers and workers. Many of the mentors I work with do not want to work for corporations, they do not want to be employees...they want to own their own choices and outcomes, schedules and value in this world. I show them how.

As a result, I serve alone, and I build an indie-style venture that practices what it preaches. Our tools are required to serve their namesake... OYO (own your own), or we have no interest in their development long-range.

That matters to us, and we know it matters to others in the real world.


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