April 11, 2013

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!

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