A Discussion About Technology in Education in my Home Town

I was lucky to attend a discussion last night on technology education in Arlington schools.  It was graciously organized by Larry Bohn from General Catalyst, who sent multiple kids through the Arlington school district.  There was a great group of investors, entrepreneurs, and educators who all live in Arlington.  As the parent with the youngest kids in the group (4 and 1.5) I was mainly learning, although I really hope to contribute in the months and years to come.

It’s not entirely clear what will come from this meeting, but I’m pretty optimistic.  A couple broad observations and thoughts.

1. Do something, fast. Paul English, the founder and CTO of Kayak very quickly noted that there was a lot that could be done to bring technology to the Arlington schools fast, and with litte/no cost. There are terrific resources out there that are free, like Codeacademy that can get high school students engaged tomorrow.  As a group, we pushed our town’s assistant superintendant to think through what it would take to get some meaningful new programs in place by the 2014 school year.  There are a lot of practical reasons why this isn’t possible, but I think this is something that the startup culture is really good at – circumventing beaurocratic timelines and driving for things to be done quickly, and utilizing terrific free resources even if it won’t be used perfectly early on.  This ethos of cheap experimentation with openly available resources is something that needs to penetrate our education system to drive faster change and adoption of effective (and cheap) tools in the classroom.

2. Human Capital Limitations. There were a number of discussions tonight that revolved around human capital. We talked about the difficulty of recruiting teachers with technical skills because of opportunity cost, and the expense of training teachers in skills that we want our kids to be able to learn. It’s a real issue that has no easy solutions.  For a long time though, I’ve been thinking about how the race towards smaller class sizes actually goes against the economic reality of teaching.  Rather than have smaller class sizes, is there a way to leverage great teachers and allow them to impact twice as many kids (or three times as many, or many more times over)?  I think technology allows us to do this – both multiply the presence of great teachers, and replicate the impact of their know-how through software.  I’m excited about companies that are starting to do this, and think it would be wonderful if we could couple this sorts of technologies with a delivery model for education that would allow great teachers to make 2x+ what they make today, and still have the math work economically for schools and districts.

3. Start Early.  My friend Adam Medros from Tripadvisor also made a good point early on inspired by Sheryl Sandberg’s talk earlier this week. His point was that a big issue is not just around the availability of technical education, but in the attractiveness of it to kids.  And especially, to girls.  He argued that in order for both girls and boys to get engaged in technology and programming, it’s important to integrate it into the curriculum (as opposed to providing it as an after-school program) and to start really early, before strong social gender norms start to form.  As the father of two girls (and with a wife who also attended Sheryl’s talk), I’m totally a believer and am starting to think that I might want to be more aggressive about encouraging my daughter to play with my ipad, rather than rationing her time with it each week.

These are just some quick thoughts, but I’m ruminating on a lot more.  Hopefully, I’ll have some more insightful conclusions to share in future posts.  Oh, by the way, I also learned about a terrific programming language for kids developed by the Media Lab called Scratch. I’m looking forward to checking it out!

Rob Go

Thanks for reading! Here’s a quick background on who I am: 1. My name is Rob, I live in Lexington, MA 2. I’m married and have two young daughters. My wife and I met in college at Duke University - Go Blue Devils! 3. We really love our church in Arlington, MA. It’s called Highrock and it’s a wonderful and vibrant community.  Email me if you want to visit! 4. I grew up in the Philippines (ages 0-9) and Hong Kong (ages 9-17). 5. I am a cofounder of NextView Ventures, a seed stage investment firm focused on internet enabled innovation. I try to spend as much time as possible working with entrepreneurs and investing in businesses that are trying to solve important problems for everyday people.   6. The best way to reach me is by email: rob at nextviewventures dot com

    • Joshua Rung

      Technologies Roll in Education
      Just a few generations ago the personal computer didn’t even exist. Communication was very limited, essentially phone calls, faxes, and letters were the only options. Our whole society moved at a snail’s pace when compared to today’s world. Education – being a large part of our society and culture – worked much differently as well. Students in need of information for research or simply inspiration would have to scour shelf after shelf of often outdated and expensive books. Students would often have to search more than one location to find the book they needed. They would have to rely on the face-to-face interactions between them and their teachers for guidance and instruction, and could only collaborate with their immediate peers. Our technology has advanced so quickly the way people are educated is much more efficient and effective. Students today have access to limitless amounts of information and reference sources just with the devices in their pockets. Today’s schools and universities offer access to databases with oceans of credible sources of information. Students can reach out to their teachers and peers instantly from across the world. Today’s technology has augmented our educational system to much greater level, producing skilled workers and critical thinkers faster than ever.

      In all levels of education technology has enhanced the proces. The technological advancements are brought to bear on early education as well to prepare students for their educational career. “In younger grades, teachers expose children to computers through educational games…. students can learn the basics of spelling, counting and other early educational lessons through computer games that make learning fun”. (Chron) With at least one -if not a class set- of computers in nearly every classroom today, teachers can teach not only the required materials in a fun way, but computer and tech skills, that they will carry throughout their career. Educational games along with other early reading programs have lead to increased ease when it comes to teaching literacy at younger ages (University of Cambridge).
      The way in which students and professionals alike communicate today is so advanced compared to previous decades. “Traditionally, classrooms have been relatively isolated, and collaboration has been limited to other students in the same classroom or building” (Perdue). We can instantly and with ease, this is especially beneficial to students for they can be in contact with peers and teachers from across the country or world. The primary way of communication between instructors and their students is email, it is quick and convenient while still retaining an amount of formality. Online assignments and practice gives students convenient and effective means to work on their course work. In a world of ever growing competition the need for skilled workers and innovative minds, this requires fast paced and collaborative education. The technology of today is what allows this type of learning to exist. Globalization and collaboration between students and teachers with services such as video conference calls, and word documents that can be worked on by many people simultaneously provide many points of view, and opportunities for efficient communication in this competitive world.

      Research is where the effects of technology is most apparent, is dramatically enhanced by the advancements we have today. We can access information far faster and more conveniently than in the past. Many people today -students especially- have access to nearly limitless amounts of information using only the devices in their pockets. Schools and Universities have entire buildings and programs dedicated to online research and computer work. Nearly every classroom in elementary and intermediate schools have several computers. Students are learning how to find information quickly and effectively at young ages and are capable of competing advanced research projects even in middle school. Searches can be narrowed to a very specific topic avoiding irrelevant information, while in the past time could be wasted while trying to find the right source. These advancements have lead to quicker educations with the same results. Students today are graduating with masters degrees in only five years.
      While our information and opportunity rich society offers great advancements in education, it of course comes with negative effects. The overuse of technology can cause several negative results, such as less of a connection with the world around us, and even a lack of physicality. “A study on two groups of sixth graders found that kids who had no access to electronic devices for five days were better at picking up on emotions and nonverbal cues of photos of faces than the group that used their devices during that time” (Edudemic). This makes sense due to the tendency for technology to disconnect use from our environment, this is especially apparent in younger students. However with age and maturity students learn to create a balance using technology to its highest potential. Another concern according to Psychology Today (an online health magazine) Students with extended use of search engines may be good at finding information but may struggle to remember most of it. With so much information available now it surely could become overwhelming, however students today are becoming better and better at finding the most important / relevant information from the masses of data they are exposed to. With all new advancements there are things that society must adjust to, we have done well so far and are taking advantage of the many opportunities that are being presented. The benefits of technology on education far outweighs the few negative effects.