Bringing the Benefits of Technology to Education

In the beginning there was the chalkboard.

The wall-mounted slate was a disruptive technology that enabled the social networking of pupils in a common space. It provided access to a shared learning environment and allowed for pedagogical assistance at a nearby help desk. The technology was a revolutionary leap over personal slates or twigs used in conjunction with a patch of dry soil.

In any conversation about education and technology, it’s worth remembering that a new device or aid has staying power if it solves a problem. The chalkboard addressed a longstanding problem in 1800 about how to educate children of all ages in a one-room schoolhouse with a single instructor who had to teach a “cross-disciplinary” curriculum, or, as it was called, the Three R’s. The survival of the chalkboard to the present day in nearly every corner of the world attests to its role as a transformational educational tool.

We at MHE Labs see no reason to abandon anything that has worked incredibly well for 200-odd years without an on/off switch or without a software stack designed to extend its educational reach. The chalkboard and other enduring technologies, such as textbooks, have helped educate generations of students, some of whom acquired the intellectual necessities to produce penicillin, split the atom and invent the Internet.

What we are more tempted to challenge, though, is a mindset that cherishes the status quo because change is expensive or frightening, or because what was good enough for me should be good enough for you. Our goal is to investigate educational technology to see what works – whether the technology is new, old, consumer-based or business-to-business.

All of us who have lived through the past two decades understand that the world we inhabit today is not exactly the world of our fathers and mothers. None of us alive as recently as 2000 could imagine that every industry that brought us the benefits of modernity — automotive, publishing, retail, for example — would be shaken to the core in less than a decade. The Internet economy has had an impact on the way we work, consume culture, and even as Nicholas Carr argued in “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” think. Moreover, the geopolitical landscape has undergone seismic shifts. The majority of U.S. manufacturing jobs are snaking their way around Asia and Latin America, and, if the futurists are right, many of them will yield to automation by 2045. When that era arrives, we can only hope that people will be doing ultra-sophisticated high-tech jobs that will require ongoing education and training.

That era isn’t very far away. By the end of this decade, China is expected to graduate 195 million young people from colleges and universities, and the U.S. 120 million. Will 315 million students from China and the U.S. alone have the luxury of learning the “old fashioned way,” in a classroom with teachers, textbooks and chalkboards? We also have to ask: How good has the old fashioned way been at teaching students from diverse socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds?

Of course technology already has made inroads into the conventional classroom. edX, a nonprofit start-up from Harvard and MIT, enrolled 370,000 students in late 2012 for its first official massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Coursera, a Stanford University start-up, has 1.7 million enrollees. The Khan Academy, an online offering of 3,000 self-paced tutoring and practice videos, already boasts 229,704,855 “lessons delivered.” At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, McGraw Hill itself unveiled an adaptive ebook that assesses what students retain as they make their way through the incrementally more challenging “Smartbook.”

Yet without any research to speak of on these new learning formats, the question begs to be answered: How authentic an educational learning experience are any of these from the student, teacher and state standards point of view?

Which brings us to the mission of McGraw Hill Education Labs.

No single individual or constituency knows with certainty how to address the technology demands of a twenty-first-century education system. That’s why we at MHE Labs are using this blog to spark a conversation. For starters, we would like to share with you some questions we have about the educational landscape:

+ What problems need to be solved?

+ Why is technology such a hard sell?

+ What educational and marketplace opportunities cry out to be met?

We intend to offer up some possible answers as well — answers derived from our own long engagement with the education marketplace.

We surely welcome ideas from textbook publishers, but we also need to hear from the garages and kitchen tables where most of this country’s innovations, from Apple to Hewlett-Packard, have been born. We recognize that innovation comes from a certain risk-taking personality — free of institutional dark matter — that creates products and systems. It’s these innovators who will attract the one or two customers ready to use a new product, provide feedback and spread the word to potential customers. We are the first to admit that the most profound educational innovation is likely to come from outside the ecosystem of big business and government.

As the publishers of conventional and digital textbooks, we are even prepared to ask if we are expecting too much from technology. We have seen other industries, notably healthcare and aviation, wrestle with the same question. How much technology can an innovation-averse industry, such as healthcare, assimilate into its processes? How much technology can an innovation-friendly industry build into its airplanes without creating a fresh set of problems? As much as we want to test the potential for digital technologies to improve educational outcomes, we need to make sure we don’t change something that has worked well at various times in history.

To fulfill the mission of MHE Labs and this blog, we will articulate our vision for an open community that inspires educational content driven by metrics, research and science. We will describe the logy, inefficient education market that all textbook publishers know first-hand. And we’ll talk about how an open, flexible technology infrastructure can facilitate the growth of a dynamic educational marketplace whose beneficiaries are not just individual students but also a global society that must educate a new generation for a world whose contours we are still struggling to make out.

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