Why We Should Experiment in Education

Why We Should Experiment in Education

“Teach more with less.” That’s the empty line heard across the nation as teachers deal with more students per class, less resources, and higher expectations of student achievement. But for Udacity's Sebastian Thrun, doing more with less has become the norm. With tens of thousands of students taking his classes online, Thrun is helping his students master topics from Computer Science to Statistics -- all without desks, textbooks, whiteboards, or any other school supplies crucial to traditional classroom learning.

It’s trivial to compare Udacity to a formal classroom setting. Most students are self-motivated learners, and Thrun and co. execute their ideas quickly and frequently. There are no school boards, focus groups, stakeholder panels, steering committees or national organizations dictating what should be taught, how it should be taught, and how it should be measured -- those decisions lie with the Udacity team.

More aptly, Thrun is experimenting, but you don’t have to take it from us. Writes Thrun is the latest Udacity blog post:

“This is why I view Udacity as one big experiment. Every class is an experiment. Sometimes we mix basic with advanced material. Sometimes we optimize the visual production quality of the material. We run countless experiments.”

Where Udacity’s (and others’) experiment has especially blossomed is in its approach to student mastery. While a considerable slice of education research happens to agree that learners are more engaged when they regulate their own learning, it’s actually the most basic of startup strategies: appeal to users in order to maintain growth. 

There’s no denying the ‘let’s-prove-I-can-make-it-at-Smart-U’ crowd exists among MOOC users, but the vast majority simply want to attain knowledge where there was none before. “It's not the failures that matter, it's the successes. When a student finally solves all problems, mastery has been achieved,” Thrun writes. The approach, while not without flaws, is central to Thrun doing more with less -- less infrastructure, less supplies, less formal, more intuition, more time to understand, and exponentially more students learning.

Now let’s consider the processes for a K-12 public school and a startup, and contrast the underlying assumptions for each. In the K-12 system, edu-policy sets requirements for funding and students are tested against these requirements. When they are successful, they’re deemed college and career “ready.” When unsuccessful, they’re passed off the books as someone else’s problem. The underlying assumption is that every student who makes it through the system will have achieved some standard level of competencies that enable them to be productive citizens. When and where adequate resources are available, this assumption tends to hold true.

For the vast majority of startups, the process starts with a problem and a user. With MOOCs that may be inefficient distribution of knowledge (by educators) or over-demand for knowledge (by learners). A prototype is flung together and put in front of users. That first prototype is probably awful, but developers will keep iterating until the users are happy. As users, critics, experts, and data points provide feedback, more and more prototypes are produced and tested until a sustainable solution is produced for the user. Even that may not be perfect--it may be hard to scale from one happy to user to many. But progress has been made. The underlying assumption is that the product can only evolve with user engagement.

Policymakers and administrators -- whether guided by nostalgia, fear of change, or both -- assume a rigid system to be effective and try to make everyone fit inside. Teachers and principals are caught in the middle, tweaking wherever possible to reconcile their local conditions and students’ needs with disparate requirements -- and often made out as villains when those tweaks don’t bear fruit.

Good entrepreneurs are accountable to their users. The process is transparent and end users are encouraged to provide critical feedback. And when entrepreneurs fail to address that feedback adequately, the startup fails.

That Udacity and other MOOC platforms have experienced monumental growth in less than 12 months and "educated" tens of thousands of learners speaks directly to the power of experimentation and accountability for users. That this experiment simply iterates over a popular learning theory (student mastery over student performance) is an indictment of a K-12 system that's lost touch with its users.

Does this mean MOOCs are the answer every classroom should move to the cloud and hold 24/7 office hours? Hardly. Nor does it mean K-12 institutions should operate as loosely as startups. More likely it shows that making bold steps and even missteps in discovering what really helps students learn can quickly and greatly increase the number of successful learners.

Every school and classroom must deal with different resource constraints and in many cases have reason to cry foul. But without a renewed sense of accountability and an adjustment -- especially by parents and policy makers -- towards an attitude of experimentation on students' academic needs, we shouldn't be surprised when seeing the same results.

Leonard Medlock is an associate editor at EdSurge, an entrepreneur, a graduate of Stanford's Learning, Design, and Technology program. a passionate advocate of teachers and a diehard Dallas Cowboys fan.

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