‘Learn’-Launching the 2017 Edtech Conversation With Cautious Optimism

‘Learn’-Launching the 2017 Edtech Conversation With Cautious Optimism

Edtech gatherings that attract more than 1,000 attendees, such as LearnLaunch’s Across Boundaries Conference last week in Boston, are usually echo chambers of hubbub and hoopla about technology’s potential to transform education.

Yet throughout the two-day gathering of entrepreneurs, researchers and educators, keynote speakers urged attendees to curb their enthusiasm, and evaluate the edtech landscape with a sense of cautious optimism.

As the first keynote speaker, edtech investor and Getting Smart CEO Tom Vander Ark began by asking the audience to share their edtech expectations and concerns—the list grew exponentially. Big data, open spaces, employability, utilizing maker movements, balancing innovation and accountability, privacy, collaboration, closing the digital divide, personalized learning, and navigating the hostile political climate were just a few of the concerns the audience members brought up. Throughout the conference sessions, there were no shortages of ideas on how to address those issues.

Preparing Students for an AI Future

Concerns about automation, artificial intelligence and their impact on jobs featured prominently in national headlines this year. However, according to Vander Ark, these subjects remain on the fringe in public schools: “I have visited many schools in America, and I have never heard them have that conversation.”

Yet they better start, urged Vander Ark. K-12 schools seeking to innovate must move away from creating ‘coding boot camps’ to more lessons on computational thinking and data analytics. Foreshadowing a future full of big data, he called for educators to change their current practices if they want their students to be prepared for a world filled with AI robots.

“High school graduates and everyone behind them will live their lives and do their work with smart machines. Schools should be teaching data analytics,” suggested Vander Ark, so that students are equipped to ask and answer: “What is the data associated with a problem? How do we take smart tools and use them to attack that dataset?”

He wasn’t the only keynote speaker urging schools to take AI seriously. Erik Brynjolfsson, Director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, danced around the same theme in a provocatively titled talk, “Will Robots Eat Your Job?”

Citing Siri, Skype, and Watson, he pointed that humans will never be able to compete with robots when it comes to information accumulation. That’s why educators need to pay attention to cultivating skills in students that robots don't do efficiently.

“We should not be educating people about things that machines do well; we should be complimenting machines,” he said. “Machines are excellent at following instructions in great detail; they are good at memorizing facts. I would like to see us invest more in developing student’s creativity, interpersonal skills, teamwork, unstructured planning, empathy, motivation, and leadership.”

Tom Vander Ark Keynote

Personalization and Project-Based Learning

Others themes that dominated the conference were personalized and project-based learning.

The conference featured a Learning Innovation Showcase, where students presented and described projects that they designed, implementation or participated in. “We’re entering an era where there’s a lot of new engineering and artificial intelligence. I think it’s important to learn about that and brace ourselves for what may come in the future,” said Parker, a blue-haired, enterprising seventh-grade from Mohawk Trail Regional School in Massachusetts. Her school spent a few months on a STEM mystery novel project that involved multimedia tools along with books to prompt deep conversations about artificial intelligence, engineering design and ethics.

However, as some teachers noted, implementing these types of personalized projects can be challenging because of limited space, scarce resources, and altering assessments. Adam Peloquin, a high school science teacher, had to completely transform the way his students were assessed. “When you’re [out working] in industry, no one makes you take a test to prove you know something. They are looking at other things like how hard you work, how you collaborate with others, and how you present in front of a room. We do the same thing, and that’s where we should be going, preparing students for life after college,” said Peloquin. His students designed a “Greengineering” learning course at Newton North High School in Massachusetts.

Where are the Administrators?

Fewer than 10 percent of the 1,000-plus attendees were school administrators. Yet almost every panel member agreed that leadership is a prerequisite to any efforts to “transform education.” The task is difficult if they are not part of the conversation.

“It is a very different educational conference than ones we typically go to, definitely more entrepreneurial,” said Nat Vaughn, principal at Blake Middle School in Medfield, Mass. “Right now I still think there is a divide in the sessions. A lot of educators might come and think, ‘I am not sure if this [conference] applies to me. It sounds good and it is interesting, but I am not certain.’ The philosophical discussions happening here is critical, but on a teaching level they [principals and teachers] are thinking ‘What can I do tomorrow with my kids?’”

Vaughn does believe there’s value for teachers, however. He says his teachers are already pushing many of the ideas that leaders in the sessions proposed.

Startup Village

Politicizing Civics Lessons

Like friends on Facebook, speakers couldn’t avoid commenting on the political climate. In the session addressing technology and civics lessons, teachers and edtech organizations debated ways to combat politicizing their work.

“Now when teachers suggest CNN as a source students can use for papers, we hear parents rebut them claiming they are a Fox News family,” said Kristen Harmeling, a partner at YouGov. She shared the difficulties that her nonpartisan organization is facing in trying to help educators navigate through the age of “relative truths.”

Educators in the room seemed overwhelmed, commenting on how lessons on topics like the environmental preservation and social inequality have suddenly become very political.

“The point of a social justice curriculum is to let students take a stance,” said Harmeling. She emphasized that lessons should teach both empathy and the rule of law to be efficient and referenced resources like Facing History and iCivics as good places to look for materials.

LearnLaunch’s Ambitious Goals

This education technology conference is just one of the pieces in LearnLaunch’s ambitious 2017 goals. In addition to their accelerator, which graduated over 36 companies, it is launching an innovation center on the campus of Rocky Hill School, a private K-12 school in Rhode Island. There, campus edtech companies from the LearnLaunch Accelerator can pilot, test and develop new products with input from faculty and students.

“Edtech is booming in Boston and beyond, bringing real advances to teaching and learning,” explained Eileen Rudden, co-founder and board chair of the LearnLaunch Institute in a prepared statement. “Over the past four years, Across Boundaries has gained a reputation for bringing the industry together to discuss some of the hurdles that make it difficult for all students to benefit from education technology.”

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