Education Opinion

Young Education Leader Profile: Andrew Coy, Digital Harbor Foundation

By Sara Mead — June 12, 2013 12 min read
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Educators, parents, and policymakers increasingly recognize the critical importance of developing students’ skills and knowledge in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields--both for national economic competitiveness and for the individual opportunities that skills in these fields open up to students. Yet international assessments show that U.S. students lag behind their international peers in science and math, and many schools are ill-equipped to prepare students for a world of increasingly rapid technological innovation.

Andrew Coy is working to change that. As Executive Director of the Baltimore-based Digital Harbor Foundation, he works to connect students with opportunities to use and develop technology skills in real-world situations, improve technology curriculum in schools, and build teachers’ competence in technology. This work draws on his own personal experience as a classroom teacher, web developer, and technologist. Raised in Eagle River, Alaska, he now lives in Baltimore with his wife and one-year-old daughter.

What does the Digital Harbor Foundation do? What do you do there?
The Digital Harbor Foundation (DHF) is a non-profit organization that fosters innovation, tech advancement, and entrepreneurship initiatives in our hometown of Baltimore and beyond. In January of this year, we just re-opened a closed-down Rec Center as a brand new Tech Center, located in Baltimore’s inner-city. In addition to providing out of school-time opportunities for students passionate about STEM, the Tech Center functions as a unique R&D lab focused on how education technology can enhance and improve technology education. We are able to help students gain valuable tech-based skills (such as web development, app development, 3D design and fabrication, or audio/video production) as well as general soft-skills (i.e. interpersonal, professional, or digital communication). Participants who have learned enough are even able to gain valuable work experience through our STEM Engine program where student teams build real projects for real clients.

As the Executive Director I do a little bit of everything at DHF. While most of my time is spent on vision, fundraising, and building an EdTech ecosystem in Baltimore, I also make sure to spend time each week with students -- working on projects, visiting local tech businesses, or otherwise just making stuff with technology.

You say you’re interested in bridging the gap between education and technology: What is the nature of that gap?
Over the past hundred years of formal education, school work has been created to be something separate from “real work.” At one time, that made sense, especially as most “real work” was very dangerous, exploitative, and didn’t involve a lot of intellectual activity. But today, this isn’t true and it is increasingly the case that isolated school work is obsolete--both from the student’s perspective and future employer perspective. In other words, an employer doesn’t care how many worksheets a kid has done. Instead, employers want to see examples of a student’s dynamic problem solving ability, which is often best portrayed not through a numerical value but rather a portfolio of work demonstrating design thinking, iterations, problem-solving.

Education is, however, a huge bureaucratic system with lots of inputs and factors. To change any aspect of it requires both a large-scale vision and precise incisions. To accomplish the monumental task of doing our part at DHF to shift the conversation and focus of education, I outlined three main problem sets and began solving them in a micro-environment.

We began with educator development. Teachers have been told for so long that their role is to be the content expert in the classroom. This used to be true when content was scarce and difficult to transfer from one geographic location to another. In our time, however, information has become infinitely available and widely dispersed. It has also simultaneously increased the rate at which it changes. As if these two facts were not enough to demand a shift in educator training and development, there is an added, unintended consequences that is stunting budding technologists in millions of classrooms -- and that is an unintended culture of fear. If a teacher has been told he or she is suppose to be the content expert, and that teacher feels anything but an expert in the rapid changing world of technology, it is only natural to feel unqualified to talk about technology. This fear, the fear of appearing to not be an expert, has paralyzed teachers from using technology in the classroom and encouraging students to pursue careers in the high-demand tech sector.

What educators have to understand is that no one is an expert in all aspects of technology. On the cutting edge, you have to be comfortable with a constant degree of uncertainty -- with figuring it out as you go along. My goal, therefore, is to transform the culture around teachers from one in which they feel they have to be the content expert who knows everything, to one in which they are comfortable as an expert in the process of learning and social networking. This is the same behavior I wanted to see students exhibit around technology -- to say, in effect, “if I don’t know something, I can figure it out because I’ve learned how to learn and I’ve learned how to connect with the experts.”

Funded by the Abell Foundation, the Digital Harbor Foundation launched last spring with a cohort of 10 teachers -- each of whom received more than 300 hours of educator development. Working with researchers from Johns Hopkins University, we took a look at what was most effective in that intensive experience and have since boiled it down to the most crucial 50 or so hours. Just this spring, we actually spun that out of the non-profit into a for-profit entity, called An Estuary, to expand its scope and reach. That company is now serving, starting this summer, as a premier source of educator development for clients from around the country.

The second problem I saw revolved around curriculum. So much of the technology curriculum in schools is outdated and hasn’t been revised to reflect the realities of the modern tech world. Even at technology schools, like the one where I started my teaching career, curriculum development has remained a bureaucratic and slow process -- which is antithetical to a fast-paced, dispersed tech environment. Technology classes around the country are woefully slow to respond to business-sector needs. In the tech community, there is a substantial unmet demand for web or app developers, cyber-security professionals, or digital fabrication technicians, just to name a few. Yet, the education systems have not been able to respond adequately, if at all. A Tech Center, like the one DHF just launched, is a perfect place for us to develop and learn firsthand about the types of technology education methods that work. By diving into new models of education and new content, our own “R&D lab” will give us invaluable feedback from the students about what works and what doesn’t. School systems will then be able to learn from us and take to scale what we have shown effective.

The third bucket of problems I saw revolved around youth workforce development. Students who have spent their academic careers doing worksheets where discrete problems have definite answers are ill-equipped to work in an innovation economy where there are multiple answers to often amorphous problems. Students need grit, determination, convergent and divergent thinking skills, and above all else--passion. This is gained not by repetitive worksheets and multiple-choice testing, but by real work with real outcomes. The work we do with our STEM Engine program is designed to give students this exact type of experience. We take students who have gone through our curriculum and have basic skill sets in app or web development and pair them up with clients who have real world needs. Students make apps or websites for these clients, get paid, and then are able to bank that money into personal scholarship accounts. The value of working on something real for a client that that person needs and wants is something you don’t get anywhere else.

To truly bridge the gap between education and technology, we need to move towards having students spend much more time solving problems that don’t have answers instead of ones that do. A multiple choice question already has an answer and we know what it is--we’re only asking the student to find out if they know. I’m more interested in asking students questions that don’t have answers and teaching them the skill sets to help them solve an unsolved problem. Yes, students need a baseline of knowledge, but when the focus is on passing a test, we’re asking them to do their minimum instead of their maximum.
Teachers, students, administrators, parents, and the public at large all will have to adjust to this new mind-set and approach to learning. If we want to stay relevant in today’s innovation economy, however, this is not optional.

You’re engaged in a variety of education and entrepreneurship-related activities in Baltimore: What excited you about the education reform and entrepreneurial climate in Baltimore today? Best case scenario, what can we expect to see emerge in Baltimore over the next few years?
The EdTech space, as I see it, currently has some real unanswered needs. Nationally, most EdTech has focused on how to achieve better student test scores. This does not get at the real problems in education, which are increasingly apparent in the current economic climate. It is my belief (based not on test-score data but on unemployment and vacant jobs data) that we don’t have a jobs crisis, we have an education one -- the sheer number of vacant tech jobs despite the overwhelming unemployment makes that apparent.

To answer the question specifically about Baltimore though -- I believe our geographic location makes us a perfect place to figure out some of the hardest problems facing education. In the greater Baltimore region: we’re within 20 minutes of the country’s best and worst schools; we have the opportunity to develop solutions for students in urban, rural, and suburban communities; and we have access to some of the highest concentrations of STEM professionals. For example, in the state of Maryland there are currently 19,000 unfilled cyber-security jobs and we have the highest concentration of cyber professionals in the triangle formed by Aberdeen, Fort Meade, and Washington DC. We have both a massive need in the workforce and available mentors. These numbers are only growing -- and yet, the education system’s ability to supply enough highly-trained and interested individuals is weak or non-existent. Given the right set of supports, we can solve that problem and the whole country will benefit greatly. My overarching goal is to create an ecosystem where we are able to leverage education technology for technology education and I believe Baltimore is the #1 place in world to do that.

Why/how did you come to work in education?
Education found me in a very round-about way. Despite doing well in school I always seemed to find my most valuable learning outside of it. For example, I dropped out of college four times. Every single time, however, it was to do something I cared deeply about and from which experience I learned more than any set of classes could have taught. Experience was my real education and life my real school.

When I came to Baltimore through Teach for America, I was driven to open up real opportunities for my students through bridging the digital divide for my students. I saw that my students had tremendous needs and I wanted to be part of helping them realize they could solve them. I knew based on my background in web development that there were countless opportunities out there for students who had the necessary technology skill set and I saw no reason why inner-city students shouldn’t take part in that world. The school-day curriculum and opportunities had sever limitations, though, but as I had learned throughout my college experiences, it was the out-of-school time that really allowed one to explore one’s passion. Before the end of my first year in the classroom, I founded an after-school club to teach students web and app development.

More important than the question of how I came to work in education, however, is perhaps the question of why I keep working in education. For me, it is all about individual students. Seeing a student’s potential, working with them, caring that they find their way out of poverty and all while having fun with technology at the same time -- these are the things that keep me in education. The Digital Harbor Foundation is the most pure representation of passion-based learning and it is all about ending the cycle of poverty (both financial and intellectual) for all of the students we can reach.

Who are some of your heroes/mentors/people you respect whose examples shape your work?
I’m particularly inspired by the work of Will Richardson, Steve Anderson, Mary Beth Hertz, Seth Godin, Clay Shirkey, and Chris Lehmann, as well as Shelly Blake-Plock, who was initially the Co Executive Director with me at Digital Harbor Foundation (and now the CEO of the recently spun out for-profit company). They all are doing amazing things and have done far more than I have already to affect the kind of change in the larger education system I am advocating for as well.

What is your long-term goal/What do you hope to be doing 5-10 years from now? What do you hope to have accomplished?
I want to see the conversation in education shift from a focus on test scores to real world outcomes. Once you are done with school, a test score does not matter in the least. What really matters is how your schooling prepares you for what happens 5-10 years after it formally ends? Are you still thinking of things it helped equip you with, or did you really just start learning when you finished school? People like to say, “school should be about learning for learning’s sake.” I couldn’t agree more -- I just don’t believe it should cost $50,000 a year to do that. Information is abundantly available and, if you’re passionate and driven, through the internet you can connect with people to become an expert in anything you want. What’s necessary is a context or roadmap to help navigate that space. That’s what education should be providing. It should be answering the question of how to help people think creatively and solve unsolved problems. To get there, the education system needs to develop an overall acceptance for measures of learning that don’t revolve around traditional tests: we need portfolios, demonstrations of work, and real world application instead of isolated and artificial demonstration of discrete content knowledge.

Ultimately, however, my personal goal is to end poverty (financial and intellectual) for all of the students who take part in programs at the Digital Harbor Foundation. I want to see today’s students in high-paying jobs using technology. I want to see them engineering the world to be a better place -- one that is empathetic, passionate, and purposeful.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook 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.