Education Opinion

The Greatest Ed-Tech Generation Ever

By Beth Holland — November 19, 2015 11 min read
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This is the LIVE blog of the keynote delivered by Justin Reich, co-author of this blog, yesterday at the EdTechTeacher iPad Summit in Boston.

To begin, Justin announces that he is going to recruit everyone into his generational project: to create the greatest ed tech generation ever.

The Story of the Rainbow Loom

He then launches into talking about the power of Rainbow Loom - one of the greatest tools in recent years to get kids excited about creativity. However, Justin says that the media subtext of the story fell more in line with, “Thank goodness! We have a way to get kids off of devices and creating artistically with their hands and engaging with their friends.” The idea, though, that the kids had separated from technology was ridiculous as Justin shows a YouTube video that has been viewed over 30 million times on how to make a Rainbow Loom Starburst bracelet! The true story to tell about this phenomenon is that kids have connected online to see how many other kids might be excited to join this community of learners to make the most awesome Rainbow Loom bracelets possible. In fact, if you Google “rainbow starburst bracelet,” you will discover that the official video from the company has been viewed only a fraction of the times as the one created by two girls.

What this says to all of us, and to our students, is that this is the most exciting possible time to be a learner. No matter what you may choose to learn, you can do so via YouTube and other media. Increasingly, the perspective that young people, and people of all ages, bring is the notion that all learners exist within a learning commons. This perspective is shaping formal learning as well. As a researcher, Justin has been carrying this concept into his work with MOOCs. In all of the interviews that he conducted, what became evident was that the course did not serve as the central point of knowledge. For thousands of years, teachers have assumed that people came together under the guidance of the course but that is no longer the case. In reality, a course is just one node in the network of possibilities for how to make sense of the content. Increasingly, all students are taking this approach to their learning. The courses are not the sum total of people’s learning experiences. Classes are just one node in the network of possibilities that students may encounter.

Be the Node!

Justin makes his first call to action and asks all of us to begin thinking of courses as one node within the realm of possibility of learning. How can just one course become part of the larger network? For the first time, the concept of time to learn has shifted to a lifelong and lifewide experience. Increasingly, people need to learn throughout their lifespan, so one of the most important things that we can do is to equip people to become these lifelong learners. As educators, one of our most critical challenges is to develop students into these learners who can take advantage of both formal and informal education systems. In order to do this, people need two skill sets: be employable in the near term and be prepared to learn and adapt over time. In many ways, schools need to accomplish the goals of both vocational systems (prepare for specific tasks) and liberal arts systems (prepare to be thinkers).

What Drives Our Challenges?

What does work in a networked world look like? By thinking beyond school, we can start thinking more creatively within school. To begin, Justin recommends reading Frank Levy and Richard Murnane’s work, Dancing with Robots. Their argument is that the kinds of things that computers can do increasingly well will continue to change the skills that students need for the future in order to not be replaced. The cognitive demands of the labor market are growing exponentially as everything gains computational potential. As an example, Justin tells the story of the hot water heater in his parents’ house. If it malfunctions, because it is digital, not only does he need to reboot it, but also call the only person in the area with the skills to repair it - a plumber who is also a computer programmer. From there, he talks about how lawyers are losing their demand as more and more people can complete legal procedures online. Computers can increasingly solve routine tasks, so the question becomes, what are the kinds of things that computers and robots can’t do. There are two things that they can’t do:

  • Solving Ill-Structured Problems: solving the problems that require imagining novel solutions.
  • Complex Communication: anything that requires social interaction with a human being. Think about the role of automated customer service. Any time a computer tries to pretend to be humans, it becomes laughable fairly quickly.

There is plenty of evidence that the kinds of jobs that require routine skills are rapidly disappearing and yet those that require complex thinking are increasing. David Demming, an economist from Harvard, updated the work of Levy and Murnane from 2003 and shows that those jobs that require social skills and non-routine analytical thinking continue to increase while routine ones rapidly decrease. Shifts are happening in the labor market. While preparing for the economy is not the only goal of school, we can see these skills as necessary for being productive citizens in a democracy.

Uber recently went to Carnegie Mellon and purchased their robotics program as a way to create driverless jobs. Think not only about the implications of purchasing one of the best robotics programs in the country, but also the 3.5 million routine jobs provided by truck drivers and other drivers. While this is a huge proportion of the job market, computer scientists could reasonably make this task routine and replaceable by computers. This is an enormous challenge for us as educators.

Gut Check - What Percentage of Your Work Requires Students to do Ill-Structured Problem-Solving?

How much time do we spend as educators developing our students to do complex tasks? As the world changes, how do we shift our pedagogy and thinking?

What Changes & What Stays the Same?

This does not mean that we need to get rid of all routine thinking, the question is how do we shift the proportion of the work that we do. Students still need some routine skills like multiplication tables, but some tasks may not need as much emphasis. As a concrete example, Justin introduces the interrelation of High Tech High and Most Likely to Succeed. While the potential exists for students to do amazing work and learn all of these complex skills, they are still assessed based on concrete, routine skills. There is tension right now as parents and administrators look at the valuable learning experiences as compared to the current logistics of our evaluation system.

Higher Education in a Networked World

The world of higher education is listening to these stories and thinking about what their teaching and learning should be changing. When Justin and Tom started doing EdTechTeacher workshops, teachers argued that creativity and alternative assessments sounded good in theory, but not in practice as students would need to sit in a lecture hall and take notes when they got to college. However, in the last few years, higher education has listened to the world of MOOCs, YouTube, and started changing. Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics, a meta-analysis paper published by Freeman et al., determined that 55% of students learned better through active learning rather than passive receipt of information via lecture. Justin then tells about the peer-learning strategies employed by Eric Mazur of Harvard. Abundant evidence exists that actively engaging students in learning experiences is more effective than having them passively receive information via lecture.

Given our results, it is reasonable to raise concerns about the continued use of traditional lecturing as a control in future experiments."

That statement essentially makes it unethical to use lecture as a control in experiments because it is so ineffective. All learning should be active as it has been proven to be exponentially more effective. At MIT, transformation has happened at an amazing rate as evidenced by MITx. This system did not exist a few years ago, and yet, as of last spring, 83% of students had participated in an online course so as to flip the curriculum and bring more students together to work on complex problems. The conversations about teaching and learning are extraordinarily exciting.

Teaching for Expert Thinking and Communication

Technology plays an extraordinary role in developing these two key categories of skills. Justin highlights a few promising approaches for nurturing these skills of solving ill-structured problems and complex communications.


Justin hired an undergrad to research the role of STEM/STEAM to discover the promise. However, what has been really happening is a focus on science and math. However, if you are doing a good job in teaching students, then there’s a way to think about it. First, consider science and mathematics as “The Facts.” Most assessments in these disciplines require rapid fluency and memorization. For this reason, Engineering and Art become the focus of “Application.” Most of math and science begins with a solution, and yet Engineering and Arts allow students to solve problems that have never existed before. Additionally, because those two disciplines are not assessed, there is tremendous freedom in those classes. Technology then exists as the scaffolding and support structure to allow all of these pieces together.

2. Design Thinking

This is the closest thing that we have right now to a systematic approach that you can teach from one human to another to solve ill-structured problems. The thing that we most need students to do is to solve problems that do not have data, systems, or precedence, and design thinking provides a method. Stanford’s D-School and IDEO have been leading the way on this. Design thinking has started to infiltrate the periphery. Think about the rise of agile learning spaces and maker spaces. That’s one way to create a space to support design thinking. There are also a number of digital tools to support this thinking such as Makers Empire. At the heart of every curriculum lies the potential for design thinking but it’s often too mired in facts to be able to explore it. Justin brings the story back to our passions at EdTechTeacher. The tools and apps that get us most excited are the ones that allow students to do this problem-solving and communication with tools that promote creativity and publishing. There are a lot of great theories starting to drive how to activate student thinking such as the work at Project Zero about Making Thinking Visible and the Connected Learning group that wants to explore the potential of informal learning.

Two Keys to Success

Design Thinking, Visible Thinking, and Connected Learning may be the light to help guide the way forward. However, it is not all positive and “rah-rah.” Systematically, the use of technology in schools has not been transforming student behavior. Justin cites Larry Cuban’s Oversold & Underused from 1990. However, the recent OEDC report showed that the number of computers in schools is negatively correlated with performance on the PISA test. However, if you go into the classrooms where technology is being used phenomenally well, it’s an amazing experience. Unfortunately, the extraordinary only happens in pockets of excellence. The signature challenge is to scale that excellence. Justin sees this as a collective challenge that none of us working individually can solve. The way that the world is changing, and the number of students who need to develop complex skills, is astronomical. Our current students need to develop more cognitive skills than any generation in existence. Justin wants to be part of the first generation who can look back and say “We did it!” We didn’t just move the needle in one classroom, we managed to make the entire system move. That’s the challenge to take on.

To make this happen, the first challenge is to come together and set together the right-sized goal. It can’t be a trivial goal like “we’re going to make everyone turn on their iPad.” However, the goal of “we will all embrace 21st-century skills” is too big. The challenge is to find a goal that can be systematically implemented at the right level for the community and stakeholders. We need targeted goals that can be met and then pursue those goals until they have been achieved. To do that, we need to collect evidence, and there is not a single test to measure and assess ill-structured problems. The second thing that has to happen is that we have to address these goals as a community, and the hardest part is going to be rewriting a contract that has never been written. Right now, there is an unwritten contract of radical teacher autonomy. While that is attractive, it is not a robust system for making schools better. Instead, we need teachers to come together and share their learning as well as be able to share that learning as a way to get better. Teachers need to give up that autonomy and be convinced of the intrinsic rewards of seeing evidence of change. Wherever we are in the system, we need to build these communities. Identify the colleagues who can come into the work together and demonstrate powerful change.

This is a generational challenge. We have to be able to look back on the massive investments in technology and prove that it systematically made a difference.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.