In an era where scalability and rapid growth have become the desired outcome for nearly every sector, including education, there’s a dangerous misconception that’s leading to ineffective learning environments. Tech giants, armed with capital and influenced by the growth models of Silicon Valley, have increasingly tried to apply these principles to the classroom. But is this drive for scalability truly in line with what makes an effective learning environment?
Mark Zuckerberg’s ambitious foray into personalized learning serves as a cautionary tale. Through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), nearly $100 million was funneled into the creation and propagation of Summit, a personalized learning platform. But despite these significant investments, there’s little evidence that such platforms have led to substantial improvements in education. Summit’s model, which primarily relied on students learning through playlists on computers, envisioned a classroom where each student progressed at their pace. This approach was based on the belief that traditional “whole class instruction” was impersonal and failed to meet the needs of individual students.
However, the real-life classroom experience begs to differ. An illustrative example can be seen in the teaching method of Liz Clark-Garvey of New York City Public Schools. Contrary to the belief that individualized computer-based learning is the most effective, Clark-Garvey successfully creates a deeply personal and engaging whole class learning environment. By stimulating student interactions, allowing them to share experiences and ideas, and guiding them collectively, she proves that whole class instruction can indeed be personal and effective.
The truth is, learners don’t always enjoy or benefit from isolated learning environments, like those provided by individualized laptop-based platforms. The allure of technology in the classroom, especially in models that emphasize isolated learning, overlooks the importance of human interactions, shared experiences, and collective growth.
Despite the consistent failure of purely tech-driven initiatives in classrooms, many billionaires remain fascinated with the idea of scaling personalized learning. This mindset mirrors the business models where growth and scale are paramount. Yet, when it comes to education, the sheer drive for scalability often overlooks the nuanced, multifaceted nature of learning environments.
The Summit Learning platform and Khan Academy, both monumental players in the edtech industry, have different operational approaches, educational philosophies, and business models. By contrasting these platforms, we can discern some crucial insights into why education business models shouldn’t solely concentrate on scale and growth. Let’s delve into these differences:
- Origin and Motivation:
- Summit Learning: This platform was initiated as a collaboration between Summit Public Schools, a group of charter schools in California and Washington, and Facebook’s engineering team. Their motivation was to personalize education, fostering a student-centric learning environment, with individual mentorship and project-based learning.
- Khan Academy: Founded by Salman Khan, this started as a series of YouTube tutorials for his cousins. The motivation behind Khan Academy is to provide a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere, focusing heavily on instructional videos and practice exercises.
- Content Delivery:
- Summit Learning: Emphasizes a mix of self-paced learning, mentor-guided projects, and real-world application. The learning experience is designed to be holistic, integrating cognitive skills, content knowledge, and habits of success.
- Khan Academy: Primarily delivers content through instructional videos, with accompanying practice exercises and quizzes. It’s more structured around the traditional academic curriculum.
- Business Model & Funding:
- Summit Learning: Initially developed with support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Summit does not operate on a profit basis. It’s focused on partnerships with schools to implement their personalized learning model. This inherently means it’s more selective and isn’t aiming for mass-scale adoption.
- Khan Academy: A non-profit that relies on donations from various sources, including philanthropists and the general public. Their model inherently focuses on mass reach, aiming to make education accessible to as many individuals as possible.
- Target Audience:
- Summit Learning: Targets schools and educators looking to revamp the traditional classroom experience by integrating personalized learning pathways. The partnership approach implies a deeper engagement but with a more limited audience.
- Khan Academy: With its ‘education for all’ mantra, it targets a global audience, from students to teachers to curious individuals.
- Scalability and Growth:
- Summit Learning: By design, Summit’s approach is not centered on rapid scalability. It’s more about depth rather than breadth—profound impact on partnered schools rather than superficial engagement with many.
- Khan Academy: Given its universal appeal and broad content areas, Khan Academy is designed for scalability. It aims to grow and expand its user base, reaching millions worldwide.
Implications for Business Models in Education: While both platforms have their merits, contrasting them offers a valuable lesson. Summit Learning’s approach shows that impact in education doesn’t necessarily mean reaching millions. Sometimes, profound change occurs when you focus on depth—when you engage deeply with a more select group and ensure transformative experiences.
Khan Academy’s broad-reach model is valuable for general content delivery, but education, inherently a deeply personal experience, often requires depth, mentorship, and tailored experiences, as Summit attempts to provide.
The take-home message for edtech businesses is that while scale is admirable, genuine educational impact might necessitate a focus on depth, personalization, and strong partnerships over sheer growth and numbers.
It’s concerning that a handful of individuals, influenced by the business world’s growth mindset, wield so much power over the education landscape, often without a deep understanding of effective learning dynamics. While technology has a role in education, it’s crucial to ensure that it serves to enhance the learning experience rather than dictate it. As history has shown, the whims of a few, however well-intentioned, should not overshadow the foundational principles of effective education.
Yet, there’s a burgeoning area in educational technology that embraces the human touch, recognizing that personal experiences are what make learning memorable and effective. Eric Hawkinson’s “My Hometown Project” demonstrates the promise of effectively merging technology with education. His TEDx talk showcased a virtual travel platform where students can share personal tours of their hometowns, allowing peers to step into their shoes and experience these places from a deeply personal perspective. Not only does this model leverage technology to break down physical barriers, but it prioritizes the sharing of individual stories and experiences, fostering empathy, connection, and deeper understanding among students.
The “My Hometown Project” leans into the very essence of what Zuckerberg’s initiative missed. Whereas the Summit Learning program relied heavily on individual progression and depersonalized interfaces, Hawkinson’s virtual tourism platform provides a space for personal narratives to thrive. It invites users to understand different cultures, traditions, and histories through first-hand accounts, blurring the lines between formal education and experiential learning.
So, what can we glean from these contrasting approaches? Firstly, the mere integration of technology in education does not guarantee success or effectiveness. The essence of learning lies not in the pace but in the experience. Secondly, for educational technology to be truly transformative, it should prioritize human connections, personal narratives, and shared experiences. As Hawkinson rightly pointed out, technology can be a tool to connect people, not isolate them.
As the edtech landscape continues to evolve, stakeholders, from billionaires to educators, should remember that technology’s real power lies in its ability to amplify human experiences, not replace them. With this in mind, the future of edtech can indeed be promising, fostering more intimate, personal, and effective learning environments.