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Introduction to online learning

Readers of science fiction were probably the first people ever exposed to the idea of online learning. In the mid-1970s, for example, Orson Scott Card published Ender’s Game, a novel about the use of computing technology to shape children into human automatons in the service of a warmongering state. The plot’s dystopic consequences, facilitated by a device that eerily resembles the iPad, might well have led teachers and policy makers fear the impact of machines on students. After all, technology in the classroom really might destroy the educational principles – not to mention civilization as we know it – laid down by millennia of human thought and invention.

Of course computers have been part of American classrooms for almost two decades, and most educators do not view educational software programs as a threat to learning. Indeed, teachers in the U.S. are keenly aware that lower standardized test scores suggest that our educational system is not successfully teaching enough students the reading, math and science skills needed for a technologically sophisticated global economy. Common Core state standards, which map out what students are expected to learn, will be part of the solution. But which tools, especially digital technologies, students could use to gain insight and strengthen cognitive ability, are as yet largely undefined.

What is almost certain is that the mid-nineteenth century style of in-classroom instruction — one teacher for every twenty-five or thirty students — is a model that can only educate a manageable number of people. What about the hundreds of millions of people who are leaving behind low-tech rural economies, once represented by countries such as China, India and Brazil, for high-tech urban centers? Even a broadly distributed corps of volunteer teachers could not scale up to the demands of a world economy that depends on a deep knowledge of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

What learning model will teach people the skills necessary for amassing and analyzing the terabytes of data generated by our schools, healthcare institutions, retailers, social media, airlines, to name a few? What technology, if any, will aid in understanding the chain of events that lead up to a historical period, or that stimulate the growth of a national literature? Is there an educational silver bullet — the massive open online course (MOOC), for example — that schools can implement across an entire curriculum, or should state standards mandate case-by-case technology requirements?

The fact is, we know of no data that prove online learning is hype or that it signals a genuine paradigm shift in the way human beings are going to learn. Any private company or university that advocates one mode of digital instruction over another is more likely engaged in an effort to gain market share than in determining what actually works. We at McGraw Hill Education Labs certainly would not argue that it’s a bad thing to let the market decide what kind of online learning platform a school should adopt. As the publisher of textbooks for a hundred and twenty-five years, though, we think that before any constituency lobbies for one educational technology over another, it’s crucial to envision an education ecosystem that takes into account the relevant factors concerning pedagogy, schools, teachers, students, authors and other content creators, state education boards and, as some argue, the workplace.

This is why we want to use the MHE Labs Blog as a forum to share our thinking with you — educators, students, school boards, state education departments, employers and parents. In the spirit of debate and investigation, we want to ask questions and examine solutions before we press for one particular online learning model over another. We want to anticipate all the things that could go wrong: Will digital technologies give students an opportunity to cheat? Will the technology itself become an obstacle to learning? Will we be able to keep pirates from distributing our intellectual property — thereby jeopardizing the quality of educational materials and undermining the compensation system that rewards authors? Taking a doctrinal approach in favor of, say, MOOCs over a computer-based program strikes us as premature, especially when so many analytical and philosophical matters remain unaddressed.

Over the next few weeks, we are going to explore issues that many of us at MHE Labs have been talking about. And we hope you will join us in a conversation that typically produces more heat than light. Among the topics we’ll cover:

WEEK 1: Why introduce “newfangled” online learning into an educational system that has helped produce some of the world’s greatest scientists, engineers, writers and teachers?

WEEK 2: How do online learning publishers reach the thousands of schools — from kindergarten to college — with their educational offerings?

WEEK 3: What constitutes authentic learning in a digital environment?

WEEK 4: How do we motivate students to learn?

WEEK 5: What does simulation turn abstract knowledge into “actionable” intuition?

WEEK 6: Why can’t school be more like Whole Foods — the curator of many unique and personalized offerings?

WEEK 7: What is the future of content — or what we used to call “textbooks?”

WEEK 8: How do we compensate authors and other content producers for their work?

WEEK 9: Can digital education and teachers learn to get along with each other?

What we do know about the importance of developing an effective online learning ecosystem is just how much is at stake: A robust economy, a middle class standard of living for millions of people still reeling from the economic downturn, and the ability to thrive in a brave new world “instrumented” with 3-D printers, sensors and robots. Let’s start figuring out what works and why, because the more we learn about how we learn, the better equipped we’ll be to make the best technology – and education – decisions.

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Online learning in the classroom cannot work without teachers

Psych 101. This was the class taught by that balding professor who lectured from the auditorium lectern. We could never forget his class on Pavlov where he summarized the famous experiment about the salivating dog and the bell. The professor paced back and forth across the stage. He had two cap guns in his hands. Intermittently, he would pause, shout, “CS!” and then fire the guns. Everyone in the auditorium would jump and then he would resume the lecture. The professor repeated this scenario several times until finally he shouted “CS” without firing the guns. Just like Pavlov’s dog, who had been conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell, we all jumped. In twenty minutes we learned a lesson in conditioned response — and all these years later, we still remember it.

We would be hard pressed to say that an online learning program, no matter how attuned to the student user, could have the same lasting impact as our Psych 101 professor, or indeed any professor who employed creative pedagogy to teach an important idea. A producer of online learning materials would be wise to avoid making the claim that online content — even the protean cards we propose — could outshine a talented teacher. Beware of any online learning system that aggrandizes itself over the teacher. It will fail.

We’ll take that a step further: An online learning system that seeks to eliminate the teacher will imperil education. The last thing an online learning company should do is turn the classroom into an educational Disney World devoid of surprise, discovery and alternatives.

Teachers have legitimate concerns

Teachers and teachers unions understandably worry that technology will do to education what it already has done to journalism and the music business: “Disintermediate” the human beings who were the heart and soul of those industries. And losing their jobs is only one of the worries that teachers express when the subject of online learning comes up. Among the others:

+ Online learning will end the teacher’s role as subject matter expert.

+ Greater emphasis will be on the technology itself, ultimately placing time-consuming low-level demands on the teacher’s time.

+ Teacher input into curriculum and learning materials will diminish.

+ Fewer teachers will be needed for ever larger classrooms.

+ Salaries will shrink.

We do not dismiss any of these concerns. In fact, we are aware of the feeling today in many quarters that the Internet has become the destroyer of middle class jobs:

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, economists at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, for example, argue in Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy, that Internet-based technologies have eliminated the need for jobs in everything from manufacturing to media; quashed median income in the U.S., and facilitated inequality throughout the economy and society.

Moshe Vardi, a professor of computer science at Rice University, argues that by 2045, machines will be driving our cars, looking after our elderly parents, delivering our packages, producing our food and checking out our groceries, to name a few tasks soon to be performed without the need for human intervention.

Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at The Wharton School, writes in Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It, that employers are reluctant to hire because the available job seekers do not have the technical skills they are looking for.

These are all distinguished voices, and they observe a reality we are not foolish enough to dispute.

But as the political activists in the 1960s used to say, you’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem. We want to talk now about how McGraw Hill, working alongside teachers, are going to be part of the solution.

Data already point to the indispensable role of the teacher

We have discovered that online learning, combined with human instruction, is pointing to some promising outcomes. In so-called blended classrooms, students acquire math and reading skills via online systems while teachers serve as Socratic guides. Rocketship Education, a blended classroom network of five K-5 charter schools in San Jose, California, reports that students — 90 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced lunch and 75 percent of whom are not native English speakers — have outperformed their peers across the state in reading and math. In 2012, four years after rolling out its “differentiated learning platform,” Rocketship students exceeded California’s statewide quality marker of 800 by 55 points.

We like Rocketship’s blended classroom, which operates by collecting data on student performance and then acting on it. The system’s “feedback loop” discerns what material students have mastered and what issues remain problematic. Teachers and their aides help students come up with their own Individual Learning Plan (ILP). According to the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank that has examined Rocketship’s results, “Data from standardized assessments is continuously updated from … classroom and learning lab work to refine each student’s ILP and guide teacher interventions and enrichment work.”

In a report that looks into four blended classroom projects, the Lexington Institute observes that Rocketship is “trying to elevate the role of the teacher: giving [teachers] more access to data, more ownership of their student results, and more ability to focus on higher-order thinking skills when providing direct instruction.” The report asserts that the blended learning model “seeks to empower the teacher.”

An Education Week op-ed by a teacher in a comparable blended learning classroom called Carpe Diem Meridian reaches the same conclusion: “Blended learning is not about replacing teachers with machines,” writes Indianapolis-based Josh Woodward. “Rather, it’s about leveraging technology to provide students and teachers with immediate feedback, holding each student accountable for his or her academic success, and personalizing coursework to best meet students exactly where they are.”

Admittedly, we need more data from online learning programs. But the message from the Lexington Institute and from Josh Woodward comes across strong: Without highly effective teachers and instruction, online learning cannot be successful or sustainable.

We’re going to be part of the solution

Our goal as a data-driven, customized learning company is to elevate teachers to the highest professional status. To make this a reality, we want to cite yet one more worried observer of the job-sapping Internet economy.

In Who Owns the Future, computer scientist Jaron Lanier writes that it isn’t too late to undo the damage wrought by an Internet economy that has made information free to “users” while simultaneously impoverishing journalists, musicians, book publishers and other “content providers.” He argues further that data-gathering “siren servers,” notably Facebook, collect and track user data without ever compensating people for supplying their valuable photos, restaurant and movie recommendations, etc. Lanier offers up a solution crafted by Ted Nelson, the creator of hypertext: Pay people for everything they produce and post online.

We got pretty excited when we came across Lanier’s book because our commitment to paying content creators and app developers dovetails with Nelson’s idea about compensating the creators of intellectual property through a system of micropayments: Every time somebody “touches” your work, be it a book or a paragraph, you get paid something for it.

Why bring content creators into a discussion about the role of the teacher in online learning? Because teachers are content creators as well as instructors. And as active participants in an online learning ecosystem, they will be working with content and app developers to help design curricula, textbooks, videos and other learning materials. Some teachers may even combine their teaching degrees with a degree in data science, a new discipline that will aid in analyzing and interpreting the mass of data that online learning systems will generate.

We do not want to leave you with the impression that the role of the teacher can remain exactly as it was in, say, 1960, or even in 2000. The Internet has made inroads into every aspect of our personal and professional lives. Neither teachers nor textbook publishers can hide from that reality.

At the same time, we recognize that teachers always will maintain supremacy over machines for reasons that Plato would appreciate:

+ Teachers are storytellers.

+ Teachers advance nuanced connections between content and ideas.

+ Teachers direct discussion and mediate disagreement.

+ Teachers serve as inspirational role models.

+ Teachers set the bar and raise it when appropriate.

+ Teachers delegate responsibility and hold students accountable.

We intend to help teachers navigate the learning technologies and technology infrastructure that will serve as their portal into subject matter and pedagogy. A society whose economy and social interactions are only becoming more dependent on technology will need teachers and classrooms to mediate that complicated course between content and truly creative thought.

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Compensating authors and other content producers for their work

Anybody who has witnessed the dismantling this past decade of one industry after another would have to ask if digital systems will upend education too. The fallout of an online learning platform that “disintermediates” either of the essential players in education — author and teacher — would have dire consequences for content producers and educators, and ultimately for students. Before we can even talk about other tech-related issues, we have to address the human side of online learning.

First, let’s talk about content-related issues. In an upcoming post, we’ll focus on legitimate fears about the replacement of teachers by machines.

Let’s be blunt: Without a rational payment system to compensate authors and other content providers, online learning will sink under the weight of copyright infringement and unfair labor practices. We make this assertion in light of documented digital trends these past two decades during which a whole lot of us learned how to get stuff for free. Music, books, movies, software. Frankly, it’s hard to blame any consumer for searching out a good deal. Why would you pay a publisher for an expensive chemistry textbook if you could do a Google search for “chemistry textbook” and get it as a downloadable pdf file? Go ahead and do that search now. It’s amazing what you’ll find.

Getting that pdf for nothing is momentarily nice for you. It’s also momentarily nice for the good-hearted professor who is no longer making money off his textbook and decides to enter into the “sharing” zeitgeist and make his information “free.” A system where even authors have been conditioned to give away their intellectual property, where consumers are constantly looking for freebies, and where publishers are not compensated for the capital they have invested in producing textbooks is, to say the least, a system that is not sustainable over the long term. It’s not even sustainable over the short term.

In 1963, IT pioneer Ted Nelson began talking about the importance of paying people for their work — two years before a UCLA professor of computer science sent the first-ever electronic message to a colleague at the Stanford Research Institute over ARPANet, a forebear of the Internet. Nelson, who termed his iteration of a world wide web “Xanadu,” came up with the idea of micropayments to enable “human-authored media that branch or perform on request,” or, the creative mash-up system he called “hypertext.” The way he saw it, micropayments would compensate “content creators” every time a user summoned up a book, an article, a graph, a song, a measure, a paragraph, a film, a scene, etc. His ethically configured digital system consisted of two-way links so that the system could keep track of content owner and content user. While Internet-based information would no longer be free, it would create — for a small price — a business model that would keep authors, composers, designers and publishers in business.

As we know, society and technology took off in the direction that is familiar to all of us: One-way Web links (not quite as hyper as Nelson imagined they would be); untraceable content users and owners, and copyright rip-offs that permit us to copy content ad infinitum without ever paying anyone for it.

With the publication of Who Owns the Future, futurist and computer scientist Jaron Lanier has helped revive Nelson’s ideas about paying people for their content — not only because it’s the right way to treat the people who work for you, but also because society cannot prosper if people unwittingly — and often unwillingly — volunteer away their books, movies and music. As Lanier argues, current Internet business models make moguls out of the few and paupers out of the many.

We are excited to see that Nelson’s ideas are gaining renewed currency (pun slightly unintended) because they dovetail squarely with McGraw Hill’s own view of an ethical online learning business model. As we said in our post about cards — the menu of educational offerings based on a utility pricing model — the school system benefits by paying only for utilized content. And authors benefit by receiving payment every time a student retrieves their content, whether it’s an entire textbook, a chapter, a paragraph or an app. Because we will know who authored all content, we will be able to create a rich mash up of relevant text, video and audio. And pay for every bit of it accordingly. Hence, Nelson’s insistence, and ours, that micropayments become the coin of the Internet realm.

What an ecosystem based on micropayments and cards gives the student is a highly diverse trove of educational materials and personalized learning paths.

What this ecosystem gives app developers is a way to increase the monetary value of their product.

What McGraw Hill gains from a Nelsonian digital universe is a business model that rewards authorship, provides a standardized platform for app and content developers, and blazes a path deeper into the Impenetrable Forest of Doom — where opportunity awaits schools, authors and distributors of learning systems that fairly compensate all players in the education marketplace.

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The future of content

Now for the hard part. Practically speaking, how do we create a digital learning environment that motivates students to learn?

We need look only as far as the Chinese buffet for an answer.

Among the many items in the Chinese buffet is a dish called Alaskan crab legs. Seafood devotees will tell you it’s delicious, but at thirty-plus dollars a pound, this Bering Sea fare is definitely not cheap.

The same buffet also offers up a Cantonese dish called beef chow fun. It is at the other end of the cost spectrum. So, if you eat two crab legs and some chow fun, you might wonder how the buffet can possibly be profitable. Aren’t you eating up the restaurant’s profits?

You’re not. That’s because the $24.95 the buffet charges each patron results in an aggregate revenue that is still greater than the cost of all the items in the buffet.

This same business model holds true when we apply it to digital learning. With a learning buffet that consists of a textbook — the Alaskan crab legs of the educational menu — as well as videos, games, essays and Web materials — the chow fun — the student gets precisely what the Chinese buffet patron gets: An array of offerings whose variety makes it possible to customize consumption.

And just as the actual buffet is profitable because most patrons are willing to sample the less expensive items on the menu too, the digital learning materials are economically feasible because most students are not going to read the textbook cover to cover. Indeed, professors typically assign only the chapters they deem relevant to their course. Most students will not have the time or inclination to read unassigned chapters. Their school, therefore, would not pay for unread portions of the textbook.

To our way of thinking, the buffet model would be advantageous for McGraw Hill — as well as for a software development community incentivized to produce the crab legs and chow fun of educational apps. And the biggest winner of all? The student, who will have an opportunity to choose from a variety of learning paths. If she doesn’t fully understand the textbook explanation of, say, the First Law of Thermodynamics, she can turn to an animation, video or game. Moreover, the algorithms underlying the buffet will remember what item on the menu ultimately succeeded in illuminating the subject matter for her. This data-based approach to education ensures that the next student who has to learn about thermodynamics will get a recommendation, a la Amazon or Netflix, as to what educational offering has been the preferred one.

Clearly, we have left the Kansas of textbook education for the Oz of diversified digital learning where we are calling this new taxonomy of offerings — as well as the template that contains it — a “card.”

At McGraw Hill, we think of the card as a single, customizable, editable set of educational materials with a variety of navigational capabilities, including zooming, search and version control, that also tracks the student’s learning preferences and habits. The card puts to rest the idea that information must be silo-ized into old-school categories such as biology, physics and calculus. Like the Internet, it is built on the premise that knowledge is multidisciplinary and acquired in a multitude of ways.

With its legacy as a textbook publisher, McGraw Hill is best positioned to contribute the textbook — an essential learning component — to the card. Yet to offer the widest array of content, we will need to engage the participation of the software development community. App developers will enter into the McGraw Hill digital ecosystem to create visualizations, animations, tracking methodologies, databases, readers, and other as-yet-to-be-configured learning tools and technologies. Because all developers would work on the same open platform, the cost of integration into the McGraw Hill roster, through partnership or acquisition, becomes eminently manageable.

While we are reluctant to hold out the card as an educational Theory of Everything, we are prepared to say that the card system will also go a long way to reducing the appeal of piracy. Selling Professor Chu’s Section A physics card to Student Joe in Professor Hartman’s Section B class won’t offer Joe any test or grade advantage because the professors’ cards are customized to their own classes. In any case, school systems and individual students will be able to access a deep catalog of offerings through an affordable subscription plan.

Cards will also equip our sales force with a catalog of offerings that it can take into the Impenetrable Forest of Doom. Its chief product will not be a 600-page textbook that daunts all but the most determined student, but the conviction that no single learning tool suits everyone. The only way to learn now is every possible way.

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Why can’t school be more like Whole Foods

Sometimes a solution to a big problem lies hidden in plain sight. We think that may be the case with education, whose challenges — setting standards, delivering the educational goods and ensuring user satisfaction — are remarkably similar to those in the retail domain.

Bear with us as we talk about Whole Foods Market as a plausible template for the creation of an educational system that curates its course offerings the way Whole Foods curates a seemingly unlimited array of cheeses, meats and “alternative” health products.

Whatever you may think of Whole Foods — that it’s the best thing since sliced bread or that it’s a lot of smoked lox and mirrors — this exemplar of the supermarket pastoral has had a huge impact on getting people to think about what they eat and where it comes from. The strategic planners at Whole Foods accomplished this feat in part by crafting a story around every one of its products. Without watching the made-for-Whole-Foods-video, you would not know that Siggi’s Yogurt, for example, uses milk from local family farms in upstate New York. You would not know that Siggi Hilmarsson abandoned his graduate school studies at Columbia Business School to start making skyr, an Icelandic yogurt. The most important point that Whole Foods wants us to understand is that Siggi’s wholesome food philosophy dovetails with its own: Keep it delicious. Keep it all natural. Keep it simple. “That’s kind of our philosophy today,” Hilmarsson says.

In another Whole Foods video about organic farming, Top Chef Season Five Winner Hosea Rosenberg says it “just makes sense to me and should make sense to most people that you can feel a little more connected to the food” if it’s grown locally. Buying local, he says, is “good for the soul.” When Whole Foods adds its seal of approval to the video with the closing tag line, “Miles Closer. Miles Fresher. Miles More Delicious,” we walk away knowing that no supermarket has made room for “green” products the way Whole Foods has. (Note that Wegmans, Stop & Shop and Giant Carlisle have followed Whole Foods’ lead and Siggi Yogurt is now available at these stores too.)

Whole Foods’ effort to brand itself as a local, home-grown purveyor of artisanal food has an even broader goal than positioning itself as a truly green grocer. By welcoming products such as Siggi’s Yogurt and many other products free of hydrogenated fats, aspartame and eighty other “unacceptable ingredients for food,” it is also associating itself with intelligent risk-taking. Dark Rye, Whole Foods’ online magazine, showcases a video about Swedish restaurateur Magnus Nilsson, whose restaurant ranks thirty-fourth on a list of the world’s top fifty eateries. The white-aproned Nilsson tells us that all of the ingredients at Faviken, his one-of-a-kind restaurant, are sourced within 200 miles of Swedish Jamtland. Why so persnickety? Because Nilsson feels himself to be responsible for every item on the plate. “If you do something with knowledge and passion, it becomes authentic,” he says.

What Whole Foods is telling us is that it takes an active role in defining the manufacture of its products. And by doing so, it has opened up business opportunities for local cheese-makers, bakers, meat smokers, snack producers and organic farmers that the older big box stores do not want to do. You could argue that the difference between a package of potato chips at Stop & Shop and a green package of chips at Whole Foods is minor. But in the quest to differentiate itself from its competitors, Whole Foods has initiated some socially and economically valuable measures: (1) It invites like-minded food producers to enter into the Whole Foods ecosystem; and (2) It rewards them with shelf space in a store with highly motivated customers. In some cases, it even offers them low interest loans to scale up their manufacturing processes.

Why should McGraw Hill model itself on the supermarket pastoral model?

At McGraw Hill, we should look to reproduce this notion that an organization can serve as the catalyst for the production of a more inclusive, more diverse, more effective array of content. If McGraw Hill invites software and app developers, systems analysts, writers, data scientists and others into its education ecosystem, many of them will likely come up with educational products that the current system has kept out.

Just as Whole Foods is the curator of thousands of grocery products, McGraw Hill can be the curator of thousands of new educational products. We are in a position to host the open platform on which content creators would build out these products. Of course with the introduction of new online materials would come the need for new criteria and assessments. This is where Web-based learning has significant advantages over textbooks: A good online learning program will cater to many different learning styles by offering a variety of “learning paths.” It will include a means of monitoring students’ progress and enact metrics to measure what they have learned.

We have the technology right now to give a whole new set of people — currently shut out of the education market — an opportunity to participate. Will these newcomers produce products that will improve educational outcomes? Will school systems decide to embrace online learning? Ultimately, the market will decide the answers to these questions and every other about an educational system that must reinvent itself.

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Simulation: Turning abstract knowledge into intuition we can use

It’s practically a truism that all you really need to know you learned in kindergarten. Kindergarten is where we baked little plastic foods in a toy oven. We built houses out of cardboard bricks. We planted seeds in soil, fed worms to baby turtles, made hamburgers out of clay. Kindergarten is where we experienced the wider adult world in microcosm and where we brought our curiosity to bear on everything we did. How sad we would have been to know that the way we learned in kindergarten would end when we commenced to first grade.

What Friedrich Fröbel understood about children when he coined the word “kindergarten” in 1840 was that educating children best occurs in a simulated adult world. While some kindergartens have veered away from the simulated world of play and make-believe toward a more academic environment, the principle remains more or less unchallenged: Kindergarten engages mind and spirit by asking children to look and do in a setting that resembles their real world.

We can only guess how much more we would learn in grades 1-12 if they were more like our first classroom. The learning patterns students are expected to acquire from the textbooks and tests they cope with in school are radically disconnected from that wider adult world that kindergarten was preparing us to negotiate.

We do find vestiges of that kindergarten educational model in many vocational programs. That’s because some educators understand that a simulated environment offers an effective way to learn skills we ultimately apply to real-world activities.

Aviation, for example, offers simulated training that mirrors many of the foreseen and unseen challenges an airplane pilot will face during actual flight. While nothing short of flying experience would have prepared pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger for the bird strike that forced him to ditch his Airbus A320 in the Hudson River, commercial pilots rely on flight simulation to familiarize them with the turbulence, inclement weather and loss of control incidents they will encounter throughout their career. Indeed, pilots know that even simulation inside a real airplane enhances their situational awareness: Because plane design actually prevents them from feeling the sensation of falling, pilots need a simulated reminder to alert them to the real event.

Thanks to online games and other technologies, simulation is making a comeback in education. The sooner the better.

Let’s look at Sim City, the city-building video game that asks a player to develop a city, ensure the happiness of its citizens and manage a budget. Every type of construction, including residential, industrial and commercial structures, as well as infrastructure systems — all of these are built based on hourly capital costs and taxes. As the player builds out her city, she has to weigh the effect of her financial and social decisions on the entire system. What players gain is an intuitive sense of all the related factors involved in sustaining the life of a city.

A simulated learning environment such as Sim City would in no way replace a textbook city planning curriculum. Students would still study “Understanding the Urban Environment,” “Introduction to Geographic Information Systems,” etc., and they would still read Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But after spending twenty hours with Sim City or a comparable program, their knowledge of city planning issues would be much more than theoretical. Students would become intuitively acquainted with the cascading effects of an action.

Moreover, the rules and logic that underlie Sim City’s simulated learning environment would also be valuable to students studying law, government, philosophy and computer science.

McGraw Hill already has started down the 3-D simulation path with a set of practice suites. One of them — Practice Operations — lets students learn how to manage customer expectations, address supply chain issues and expand client relationships. Individual modules introduce students to a range of enterprise operations, from human resources to shipping. Like Sim City, MH Practice Operations gives students a 360-degree view of a business operation that includes everything from onboarding a new employee to sourcing raw materials in a developing country.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s possible.

Our opportunity here is to create a curriculum that consists of diverse simulation tools and the more traditional tools like textbooks and knowledge assessments. We want to promote multidisciplinary thinking so that the materials geared to urban planning might also apply to, say, history and sociology. The goal is to make the classroom more responsive to the big problems in technology, healthcare, manufacturing and urban life we want this and future generations to take on.

What we’re saying is revolutionary. We are talking about mirroring the world we experience every day on our computer screens, tablets and smartphones in the classroom. That world — the Internet — doesn’t lend itself to artificial divisions any more than real life does. Even Yahoo!, which began by dividing the Internet up by category, sub-category and links, is struggling to carve out a more valued, more intuitive space in the high-tech industry. We have all learned that surprise and serendipity cannot be spoon-fed to us by way of a hierarchical Internet.

Here’s our premise:

Let’s capture people’s passion. Let’s make them curious, the way they were curious back in kindergarten. With curiosity comes the willingness to work, to ask questions, to click through to the next level. The-sky-is-the-limit nature of the Web makes people incredibly motivated to learn and explore. If we educators ignore the possibilities that Internet-based simulation gives us, we are ignoring a powerful tool that can turn abstract textbook knowledge into intuition. Simulation, along with textbooks, is going to help our students become thinkers and doers in the classroom and beyond.

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In the beginning was motivation

No educational movement has had a greater impact on American schools this past decade than test-based accountability. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is the best-known exemplar of an education model committed to the idea that students need to study certain core subjects and then get measured on what they learned. So it comes as something of a surprise to us that the Texas Public School system — a forebear of NCLB — is questioning the very model Texas inspired throughout the nation.

Before we point a finger at a likely reason for Texas’ reappraisal, it is only fair to say that the high school graduation rate in Texas rose from 63 percent in 2007 to 72 percent in 2011. On the surface, this dedication to frequent testing appears to have borne fruit. Yet about half of Texas high school graduates who enroll in community colleges need to take at least one remedial math class. We’re clearly looking at a paradox of a good graduation rate on the one hand and student unreadiness for higher education on the other.

Why this is happening we cannot knowledgeably say without examining data, evaluating the curriculum and assessing a host of other relevant factors. What we do want to suggest, though, is that for all the effort that goes into a testing and standards-based curriculum, the outcome falls far short of the goal: To make students care about their education.

We’re hardly going out on a limb by saying that high-stakes accountability systems are themselves part of the problem in U.S. education. The joke is that the students, teachers, administrators and state regulators who have come to find the various standards-based accountability systems problematic could fill Yankee Stadium. Most famously, Diane Ravitch, the NYU professor of education and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution — once a proponent of standards-based testing — now asserts that testing itself is undermining education. In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Ravitch says that students ultimately “master test-taking methods, but not the subject itself.”

The accountability system has led to many troubling consequences. One of the most serious was the so-called Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal. An investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation released in July 2011 ascertained that 44 out of 56 schools cheated on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, a set of state-administered standardized tests. Turns out that a group of teachers raised students’ scores by erasing wrong answers and filling in the right ones.

If the accountability system worked, Atlanta Public Schools would not have had to cheat.

Bad stuff. But an even more lethal consequence of these poorly designed accountability systems is the effect they have on students’ motivation to learn. The same students who entered kindergarten happy to explore the classroom and the wider world through play, games and story-time find themselves mentally exhausted and bored by the drill-and-kill mindset they encounter in first grade. Learning becomes something you do to pass a test. It has just about nothing to do with discovery.

What the adherents of accountability and testing miss is that human beings are motivated and motivating by nature. That’s plain old Maslow, but there’s hardly a major thinker on education or society who hasn’t talked about motivation as a driver of human aspiration: Plato, Machiavelli, Skinner, Cecil Alec Mace and many others.

We’re not talking rocket science here. Think of math or music or language as a mountain and a bicycle as the tool to help you climb it.

You can let someone take you to the foot of a mountain and tell you to ride your bike up to the summit. Without knowing any better, you take the most vertical approach up and start pedaling. The journey is so hard you want to give up.

Along come the teachers and administrators. They say, “Well, the biker isn’t biking hard enough. Let’s create state standards around bikes that ensure that as many bicyclists as possible will make it at least halfway up the mountain. That’s all we really expect most of them to do.”

That’s our educational system today. It’s based on pain and lowered expectations. What biker — or student — would struggle only to get halfway up the mountain? Where’s the pleasure in that? What have you really gained? The biking “system” denies the bicyclist the high that comes from embarking on the full journey.

Can we at McGraw Hill design learning paths that consist of enjoyable challenge? The “s” on “paths” is intentional. It should be evident by now that students learn in different ways. Somebody really might be able to rev that bike straight up the mountain. But most people are going to profit by taking detours, and by retracing a particular route before gaining the mastery to pedal all the way up the hill.

Our hope is that an effective online learning model will offer students a variety of learning paths because we know there is no one-size-fits-all way to learn anything.

The learning tools McGraw Hill seeks to create will reflect the way people naturally want to learn. If it is to succeed, our online learning system must embrace a kind of “knowledge without borders.” The subject of Samoa, say, is going to interest students whether they are studying anthropology, psychology, geography or Margaret Mead. The subject of Steve Jobs is going to interest students studying technology, innovation, business, marketing or social mavericks. It never even occurs to us searchers to filter our curiosity through some set of search categories.

The designers of search at Google recognized fifteen years ago that the motivation to learn respects no categorical boundaries. Yahoo meanwhile had gone to a lot of trouble to categorize knowledge on our behalf. We don’t even need to ask which mode of search won out. If nothing else, just compare Yahoo’s stock price with Google’s.

At the same time, we have to say that the “Google way of learning” offers no silver bullet. We bring it up here only to float the idea that categories are not the way to present knowledge. They are also not necessarily the way to organize the classroom. A more useful way to organize students is through cohorts — and in the case of online learning through digital cohorts.

Online gamers already know what we’re talking about. They sign on for a game and over time get better and better at it. Eventually, they’re invited to join a guild so they can go on a quest with other gamers. At first they’ll be among the weakest players. With time and effort, though — and maybe even by dint of some innate “addiction cycle” associated with the activity — they will rise through the ranks. And they will rise because they are being constantly challenged by better players. What gamers have in great abundance is the motivation to get better at the game.

Can we in the digital learning space use this idea of the cohort to motivate students to learn? Keep in mind that we’re not talking about plunking a student down into a Massive Open Online Course. So far, MOOCs have succeeded in educating a tiny handful of hyper-motivated students who do not mind sitting in a room alone, interacting with a Web-based program and satisfying the course requirements — all without any consistent contact with the professor or other students. Digital cohorts operate on the premise that we are social animals who can really only learn with other people.

It’s one thing to ride up the mountain yourself. It’s another to ride up with your friends.

Our goal as a company that wants to be an online learning leader is to create digital cohorts based on an individual’s natural motivation to learn and keep learning. To bike another ten steps. To take the more challenging road up the mountain. An online learning system that recognizes the supremacy of motivation over subject matter is an online system with staying power. School itself couldn’t quash the excitement of learning.

Texas, are you listening?

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