The Andreessen Theory Will Power Reform — or Why You Shouldn’t Worry Much About the Future of Digital Education
As a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the early 1990s working at the college’s supercomputer lab, Marc Andreessen found himself wondering what to make of what was poised to become a revolution. Just a few years earlier, a British scientist working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research named Tim Berners-Lee began formulating a way to take the bones of earlier information management systems such as Usenet, Arpanet, and TCP/IP (along with the European networked by Berners-Lee’s employer) and turn it into a system that could be used on a mass scale. By 1990, Berners-Lee and his staff had crafted what is now known as Hypertext Transfer Protocol, or HTTP, and effectively opened up what we now know as the World Wide Web.
But it was still a backwater for scientists and computer enthusiasts, largely dedicated to chat rooms and exchanging computers (the early stages of the memes that are as much a feature of the ‘Net as YouTube videos and blogs). More importantly, those who did know about the Web didn’t think that anyone would want to use it. Andreessen understood there needed to be a better way of allowing access to this potentially powerful system — and realized that many would flock to it as soon as the proverbial mousetrap was built. So he began coming up with a new way of interacting with people via the rather novel World Wide Web; by the time he graduated from Urbana-Champaign in 1993, he had created Mosaic, the first Internet browser and the model upon which Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, and Chrome are built. By 1995, he had teamed up with Jim Clark, the founder of computing pioneer Silicon Graphics to launch Netscape, the first commercially-successful Web browser and the tool that would cause headaches for computing giant Microsoft and other established firms for decades to come.
Netscape wouldn’t last as an independent firm beyond a few years of the dotcom boom; by 1999, it would lose the first round of the browser wars to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, and end up being part of AOL (which itself would become irrelevant and part of one of the most-ill-fated mergers in Corporate American history with its deal with Time Warner). But by that point, Andreessen’s thoughts had moved beyond just mere browsers. By the end of the next decade, Andreessen had helped planted the seeds of cloud computing, the new version of old-school time-sharing that is as much a part of corporate life as Excel spreadsheets; funded firms such as Twitter and Instagram; and become a player in voice-over-Internet Protocol phone business by buying into Skype.
While the rest of us were engaged in Web chats, experimented with instant messaging, or like your editor, were launching Web sites and blogs while starting our careers, Andreessen recognized something none of us could really see because our minds were stuck on the existing paradigm: Once people connected to the Internet, a lot of things would happen. They would start surfing the Web with a browser, then visit Web pages. But this wouldn’t be enough. They would soon want to move from being mere content consumers to producers of their own media, launching their own Web pages, directing their own movies and short films, even starting their own businesses using the Web as their sales, marketing, and distribution platforms. As Andreessen pointed out to Wired Editor Chris Anderson in an interview for the tech magazine’s latest edition, “you have economic activity that’s far more advanced, far more distributed than ever before.”
Andreessen was right. From an IT staffer for a Wall Street firm named Jeff Bezos (who used the Web to launch retail giant Amazon), to a financial news journalist named Nick Denton (who took to the Web to found the Gawker media empire); the Web has managed to make creative destruction in many sectors the norm instead of the exception. It has even revolutionized manufacturing. A gadget enthusiast with an idea, a broadband connection, and inexpensive computer-aided design software can launch their own firm, manufacturing gizmos on a small scale with the help of a Chinese outsourcing firm; buy your own cutting and fashioning tools (and add some equally ambitious friends) and you can turn your own garage into a manufacturing plant.
Even sectors that are heavily-regulated to the point of nearly being akin to government such as healthcare are being transformed by the Web. From the use of cloud computing in storing medical records that can be accessed by doctors at a moment’s notice, to the efforts of IBM and the Mayo Clinic to force medicine to use natural language processing systems in handling data (and ending the costly medical errors that come from illegible doctor’s notes), innovation is changing how healthcare is provided on a day-to-day basis.
This, in, turn, has forced all of us to accept new paradigms, even in how we work. Save for those of us working in old-school industrial jobs and fast food, telecommuting and flexible work environments (along with the burden of being always on and ever on call every weekend) have become the norm. The very idea of being constantly connected via some form of device, be it a laptop, a Nook Color, an iPad, or a simple cellphone, has moved from novelty to norm. And the days when newspaper editors, book publishers, encyclopedia crafters, and movie critics served as gatekeepers in determining news and culture is no longer; the myth of common culture, inculcated by Horace Manns and others through schools and other formats has been exposed for what it is.
What does this have to do with school reform? Plenty more than you think. Because the very disruption that has wreaked havoc on book retailers, newspaper publishers, and even first-generation computer-makers will also force the transformation of American public education. It will force school governance structures to change for the better — and restructure the career path for high-quality teachers whose work and talents go unrecognized and unrewarded.
Prompting these thoughts is Education Reform for the Digital Era, Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s latest book focusing on the challenges of making blended learning and smart use of digital tools in schools and districts. And there are plenty. Education traditionalists — especially districts as well as National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates — fear that digital and online tools and systems will fuel more steps in the transformation of public education (and put an end to the practices and policies they so cherish); they also play up on fears that some families have that their kids will have little in the way of interaction with real live teachers, and thus get a low-quality education. They have gone on the offensive to stifle digital efforts; in California, for example, traditionalists have successfully restricted the availability of online courses — and perpetuating Zip Code Education policies in the process — by banning children and families from availing themselves of courses offered by districts outside of the one in which they live. Teacher certification rules (that do little to ensure quality) also complicate the ability to use online learning as a tool for providing children with high-quality instruction across all state lines. Current systems of school finance, which favor the traditional district model and condemn poor and minority kids to dropout factories and failure mills, have not yet been revamped to fund online learning options.
Then there is the reality that most traditional districts are just not very good at using technology; the landscape is littered with examples such as Detroit, where former emergency finance czar Robert Bobb found out that the district bought 160 BlackBerrys that were never used, and reminders that most school districts are struggling to wrangle with the data systems needed to manage school operations (and even a few still dependent on old-school FileMaker software just to manage sophisticated tasks that need more-powerful systems). This, in turn, feeds into skepticism among teachers and education traditionalists (especially those with strong Luddite tendencies and an aversion to anything that may force them to shift their paradigm) that the technology that is being bought will ever be put to good use. The biggest issue of all may lie with reconciling our traditional structures of school governance, especially the traditional district model, which no longer serves children or taxpayers well; abandoning that model could be as much a challenge as enacting school vouchers and allowing for the expansion of charter schools.
Certainly Fordham and the collection of co-authors who put together this book are right in seeing the current problems of making digital education the norm and not a novelty. Those issues certainly need to be addressed. At the same time, the same power of the Web to foment creative destruction recognized by Andreessen three decades ago are as likely to force these changes in ways that no think tanker, school reform activist, district bureaucrat, or teachers’ union boss can ever imagine.
Dropout Nation has spent plenty of time discussing how online education tools offer families and communities the ability to start their own DIY schools that serve the specific needs of the children they love. It is already happening. Even as traditional districts struggle to roll out iPads into classrooms, some 1 million children took online courses during the 2007-2008 school year, according to Anthony J. Picciano of Hunter College and Jeff Seaman of Babson, a 47 percent increase over the number of kids taking online courses two years earlier. Given the rate of growth in those past years, your editor would estimate that the number of kids taking online courses has doubled in the following four school years. While many students were likely augmenting what they learned in school or ex-dropouts engaged in credit recovery programs, more students and families are turning to online courses as their primary way of getting instruction and curricula they need. While these kids are getting their courses, their parents and siblings are also engaged in online learning through college courses. Online colleges account for 31 percent of all higher ed courses by students as schools surveyed in 2010 by the Sloan Consortium, with 6.1 million adults taking at least one course online. And more than half of collegians rate online courses as being the same or better than traditional live classes.
With more families engaged in one form of online learning or another — along with growing evidence that online engagement of all forms doesn’t damage the ability of kids to socialize with others — it will be harder to education traditionalists to play upon fears of technology. More importantly, the very convenience of online learning and ability to customize instruction to student learning needs also means that even more families — especially those with kids wrongly labeled as special ed cases, along with poor and minority households in suburbia who constantly battle with districts to put their kids in comprehensive college-preparatory courses and cannot avail themselves of brick-and-mortar forms of school choice — will demand wider arrays of online and blended-learning choices.
For churches and community organizations looking to help the kids in their pews and neighborhoods stay off the path to poverty and prison, digital learning is even more appealing; they can access high-quality instruction at a lower cost than hiring teachers, and even possibly provide the kids they serve with online guidance counselors who can help kids get prepared for life on the college campus (an especially important issue when working with ex-dropouts who are graduating from high school and entering higher education). The kind of intensive work done by charter schools such as See Forever Foundation’s Maya Angelou schools (along with regular K-12 schooling) can now be done on a mass scale. More importantly, it even could change the game in ways none of us have ever considered. A group of parochial schools could band together to provide online education to an even wider array of students served by other churches, while the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma could do the same, serving other Cherokee communities on the East Coast as well as working together with other tribes in the rest of the country.
None of these groups will stand for any barriers from state education agencies or school districts — and they will fight hard against them. In fact, they won’t have to do much lobbying at all. The nature of the Web is such that it is difficult for any state education agency — or even the federal government — to impose regulation. And the likely consequences could be amazing. Teacher certification, for example, would move away from state teacher licensing boards to national organizations such as ABCTE — or, more likely, American public education would move away from traditional licensing altogether. This, in turn, would speed up efforts to move away from traditional, low-quality teacher evaluations to ones based on objective measures of teacher success in improving student achievement over time.
The greatest potential of digital education lies with revamping how we reward teachers, especially those high-quality instructors who are stuck with the same degree- and seniority-based compensation packages as those who aren’t worth the salaries they collect. This is something that education traditionalists, especially those with a Luddite mentality, never consider. Given that the average teacher likely owns a Samsung Galaxy Android or Apple iPhone, lives in a home equipped with Wi-Fi broadband, and has children using iPads and Nook Tablets, they are probably far more-sophisticated about technology than most would expect and thus, won’t need any form of professional development. More importantly, there are teachers such as Chad Sansing already using video games and other digital tools and techniques in their instruction — and they can help other teachers figure out the ropes.
The possibilities are endless. As Bryan and Emily Hassel of Public Impact noted in the Fordham book, the advance of digital education offers an array of new career paths for high-quality teachers with entrepreneurial savvy, especially in working for online education firms who can offer stock options and other forms of private-sector compensation that would be more appealing that seniority- and degree-based pay scales. One can even imagine high-quality teachers who don’t want to go into administration — the usual route that turns many a high-quality teacher into a mediocre and abysmal school leader — to pursue their own paths. With access to Blackboard, Apple’s e-textbook system, and Citrix GoToMeeting, a teacher who wants to just teach being able to craft their own courses, write their own textbooks, and charge money for instruction; they could also band together to launch their own online and blended learning operations similar to what Salman Khan is doing now with his eponymous flipped learning academy.
Once teachers get their hands on digital and online tools, they will no longer simply be users. They will also not be satisfied with a traditional model of teachers’ unionism that no longer applies in the 21st century (and was never the right fit for education in the first place). One can imagine the kind of professional associations emerging as alternatives to NEA and AFT membership becoming even more widespread, with teachers demanding to becoming as entrepreneurial outside of the classroom as Silicon Valley types such as Andreessen.
The very transformation of society, economy, and culture that Andreessen recognized would happen 20 years ago is also likely to happen in education. And the obstacles that would appear to make these changes a nonstarter aren’t likely to stand up to the creative destruction that always comes with technology. Which is why school reformers must embrace digital learning; along with political mobilization, it is one more tool that can force the overhaul of a failed system.