Elliott Levine is Chief Academic Officer for STS Education, a national educational technology services firm, and Chief Product Officer for Healthy Player ONE, software to combat harassment and injuries in esports. Formerly the first Distinguished Technologist in Education in Silicon Valley, Elliott is a past school district official, adjunct professor, columnist and sought-after keynote speaker in the edtech vertical. He advises institutions and companies privately, and his opinions expressed in this piece are entirely his own. To contact Elliott, visit www.edtech-elliott.com.
There is a growing debate over the “new normal.” Many education experts refer to teaching in the current pandemic as that new normal and other educators have responded by saying “No, this is not the new normal”, suggesting that the “old normal will be back, and in some places sooner than we think.”
As someone who has spent my career looking to know what’s waiting over the horizon, my job was always to – using a game of hockey as reference – anticipate where the puck was going to end up, analyze the fads and trends and suggest models to proactively overcome in.
From 2017 to 2019, I led the charge at HP to develop and pilot a low-cost telepresence classroom solution. It provided the faculty member with a way to see every student in their class across multiple screens and embed a document camera and personal interactive whiteboard all in one device. It was an idea first developed in response to a challenge from a university president, and several major schools were testing the solution. At the time, I believed that colleges would be pressed to find an alternate remote teaching method versus online program managers which demand 60-70% of tuition revenue.
I was very proud of the technology, our partners and the passion conveyed by select advocates at certain universities. The faculty and administrative culture, however, supportive of brick-and-mortar based institutions were quick to reject remote teaching methods. While there were some forward-thinking advocates I would come across in this research, they would remain unable to persuade their institutions resistant to change. The project would ultimately fold this past summer.
I moved on from HP after nearly 12 years and was contacted by one of those advocates at a university just this past week, asking if they could somehow bring back my virtual class studio concept. But alas it was too late. Hindsight always has 20-20 vision.
Changing the Game
My current CEO asked me recently to read the book, The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek. Without diminishing the lessons learned in the book, most leaders play with a finite mindset. They focus on winning, by becoming the #1 market share leader, and by beating someone else. A leader with an infinite mindset focuses on building a stronger, more innovative organization. They judge their performance by their own benchmarks, not by comparing their results to the competition. Sadly, most leaders who claim to think with an infinite mindset don’t.
Part of the foundation to an infinite game approach is being resilient to “thrive in an ever-changing world” while their competition will “fall by the wayside.” You don’t have to beat them…..the competition will destroy itself through lack of vision and planning.
In this moment in time, if we were to look at the education industry, whether as a post-secondary institution or a K-12 school system, so many of us are so affixed at the given fires to put out (getting devices and hotspots to remote students, getting teachers setup in days to deliver online instruction, reacting to concerns about Zoom-bombing), that we’re not paying attention to the more challenging questions which, left unanswered could weaken the educational institution and thus, prevent us from remaining “in the game” of education.
I don’t intend to suggest these questions represent an affront to education. As someone who began his career working in the “lower level” of a Long Island middle school and has spent the past 27 years supporting public education, I remain committed to its continued impact. Sometimes, only true friends can be honest with friends, and say what must be said to help bring about a meaningful discussion for its future success. If my suggested questions offend anyone, I am truly sorry….it was not my intention.
The tough questions we should be asking behind closed doors in K12
Most schools are reporting that secondary subject teachers are providing 1 or 2 “live” classes per week, each for 45-60 minutes. The rest of the time students are accessing online resources or curated faculty content or are assigned group work, watching videos, or submitting written and video responses to assignments. The typical elementary class may meet for 1 hour of live time per day. District officials are often quick to respond that they are delivering the best education possible currently.
- Adjuncts – Are K-12 teachers positioning themselves as part-time teachers in the future? Or with the support of teaching assistants (as we see in universities) could schools look to increase class size and reduce the number of faculty?
- Evaluations – Are schools or states even setup to critically assess and evaluate teachers, often a requirement for tenure? Do those evaluation standards need to be revisited to reflect remote teaching?
- Location – Do we need to continue to demand faculty be resident in our communities? Prior to this, I had met a district official in Kentucky who said she couldn’t find a qualified new math teacher for more than 100 miles from her district. Could employing remote teachers help find qualified candidates in some markets and help reduce salaries (such as suburban New York metro school districts where salaries easily top $140,000 in other markets).
- Economies of Scale – Could the most effective teachers be in greater demand and command an even higher salary? If they can construct effective remote delivery of their content – material that could be used for students across the region or country – why shouldn’t they earn more?
- Models for Sustainability – Were smaller, community-based school districts nimbler in adapting to change, or did larger county-wide districts have the staff and resources to pivot faster? What will that mean for the future of either consolidating small districts or de-consolidating larger ones?
- Jeopardizing Key Programs – Are all subject areas still delivering relevant instruction? For many schools, fine and performing arts as well as physical education are being marginalized, suggesting that with pending budget cuts in many states, will they be first in line to face cuts?
- Competition – Are organizations such as Connections Academy and K12 Inc better equipped to support online learning? Will your stakeholders opt to explore online public education options when faced with an extended delay should schools not physically reopen?
- Technology – U.S. school systems have purchased over 25m devices in the past three years, a ratio of 1 device for every 2 students. Thousands of school systems have promoted their 1:1 device programs for years. What was the academic outcome for those districts? Were they truly prepared for a dramatic shift in teaching and learning, or were they investing in devices just to say they were investing in technology?
- Design Spaces – Classroom configurations have seen little change since the late 1800s. How will social distancing apply to classrooms and lecture halls designed in rows and columns? Are our current designs – even among recent architecturally cutting-edge designed school buildings – rendered obsolete or ineffective?
- Invest in Classrooms or Educators – Do we continue to invest in technology for our schools or for our faculty and students? Back in January, my company allowed me to invest in a home video studio where I can record lightboard videos. My first few were a little bumpy, but I’ve gotten much better at them. Having such a setup a studio at home allows me to continue to create professional looking instructional content on demand. Are we to assume this is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, or could something like this happen again?
The tough questions we should be asking behind closed doors in Higher Ed
With some exceptions, the entire country is now teaching its college students via the same few online delivery platforms and video conferencing tools. Most of the faculty, while experts in their respective fields, have little to no training in education, let alone remote teaching. Faculty are typically now providing 1 “live” session of 60-90 minutes weekly, while the remainder of class time focused on group discussion, projects, videos or assignments.
- Value – If the college campus experience is removed from the equation, and all students are learning remotely, will students want to pay the premium of private, liberal arts schools vs. public schools? Will a student be willing to continue to spend 700%+ more in tuition annually when comparing tuition from in-state tuition rates vs. some private tuition rates?
- Competition – Are online universities better positioned to thrive in this market? Could institutions such as University of Phoenix, Liberty University, Southern New Hampshire, UMass Online – each with over 75,000 online students – have the infrastructure, pedagogy, and staff expertise to adapt quicker and faster than your institution?
- Pedagogy – How will colleges of education adapt to provide more remote teaching skills to students, particularly when so few of tenured faculty have experience in the medium?
- New Markets – As with any major economic downturn, enrollment in post-secondary schools sees a surge as individuals look to re-skilling for new career opportunities. I did so myself, returning to graduate school in 2002. With financial challenges at a lifetime peak, will traditional degree programs be what your potential customers truly seek? Are certificates and micro-credentials more palatable. Are the skills needed in the workforce today aligned with your current offerings?
Now is not the time to lead with a rear-view mirror. Higher Education and K-12 institutions must be dedicating resources and substantial effort to envisioning Learning 2030. To that end, I will volunteer my time to consult and advise any university president, school superintendent or state commissioner who wants to start asking these questions now to help envision more thriving and successful education for all. Only with breaking out of our comfort zones can we ensure that the intuition of education remains an infinite game.