Getting and using data

I generally avoid reading Internet comments, but Ben’s post about educators’ fear of technology made me look (Damn you, Ben!). Most of the comments on Sal’s original article can be summed up as “The current system works, you need to prove yours is better before we’ll listen to you.”

First I wanted to point out the “system” that all of these commenters are referring to only exists in the developed world. In the US, where we have plenty of well-trained educators, it’s easy to forget that those resources are extraordinarily hard to come by elsewhere. The ideas that are going to change and save the world from our current and future selves won’t necessarily come from the first world. Shipping thousands of tons of textbooks to remote parts of the world is not going to move information fast enough. The Internet is already revolutionizing communication and lending in these areas, why not education?

That point aside, “the system” doesn’t work the same for everyone. Lots of commenters focused on the uses of technology they’ve seen in classrooms. My mother happens to be an administrator, and former teacher, in the Yonkers Public School system. It is a very large, and relatively poor in terms of per-capita spending on students, school district. There have been plenty of initiatives that brought helpful technology into the classroom (like smart boards), but to this day teachers lack proper training and equipment to make effective use of that technology. Focusing on the existence of that technology in itself or on one teacher that has created an inverted classroom in one school in one subject is not proof that the old system is working.

So, let’s focus on proof. There have been plenty of studies and reports on the problems with the existing system, but I don’t care as much about those because they are only measuring outcomes. Optimizing for outcomes is what leads to policies like No Child Left Behind that, in practice, turn classrooms into yearlong test preparation courses.

We need to be optimizing process, and that’s what the kind of data that the Khan Academy is working towards gathering can do. Imagine real-time assessment data that tells a teacher or coach not only that a student is passing or excelling in a subject area but what specific concepts they’ve mastered and what concepts they’re struggling with. In this system, classroom time, a clearly valuable commodity, can be spent working on what students need the most help with instead of broadcasting a message that is, by definition, too broadly targeted to be helpful to every student in the room.

You want data/proof? Well, so do we. I just happen to think that we have a better chance of getting the data that really matters, and turning that into process innovation that really helps, than folks working within the textbook/lecture/classroom structure ever will.