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“All hands to battle stations”

I am a StarTrek fanatic, and so these words will always reverberate in Captain Picard’s (Patrick Stewart) clipped British accent.  It felt like battle stations that Saturday, the room packed by Marina Gorbis and her talented team at the Institute for the Future’s “Hack the Future of Education” day long session.

Hats off to the IFTF team for realizing the urgency for reinventing education and for calling all hands to battle station.  They packed the room with diverse set of people who had with one thing in common, a passion to change the status quo in education.

You need all hands to make a dent in education’s problems.  And we have to feel a sense of urgency. We need to get to battle stations, now. We need a solution now and it is going to take everyone working together to make that happen.

I have always felt it rather presumptuous to assume that only the high priests of Higher Ed should be invited to these sessions of problem solving about education.  A typical academic conference, the usual venue for discussion and collaboration of these issues is depressingly uniform with mostly faculty and higher education administrators and salesmen.  Conversations float around the usual circles, the usual obstacles are trotted out, the usual ideas, locked into the usual frameworks are discussed, hands are shaken and agreements made over the usual glasses of wine and nothing really changes.

But Saturday was different.  You had some unusual academics, the innovators in an old regime, but the ones most open to innovation, ones who were actually taking risks by doing cool things: Southern New Hampshire University (@snhu), Center for the 21st Century University at Georgia Tech (@c21u), San Jose State, Stanford, CSU, Berkeley.   The Department of Ed was represented by Hal Plotkin, my favorite DoEd guy, remarkable visionary and doer.  He fills me with hope that the government may actually be helpful in all this. Then you had a small cluster of big companies, with IBM’s most imaginative thought leader, Jim Spohrer (@jimspohrer), AutoDesk, SimCities. The Foundations were listening, Gates (@gatesfoundation), Kaufman, Edutopia, Gordon and Betty More.  I loved the group of small companies, including the startups that are really taking this whole industry apart.   CodeHero (“Coding is literacy”@primerlabs), Udemy (@udemy), Minecraft, Singularity U (Startup and Academe), BioCurious (Opening lab sciences to the world @erigentry), ScienceHackDay (Get everyone hacking science together) and OpenStudy (#Take 10 Teach 1o, peer learning for the world @OpenStudy). Anya Kamenetz (@anyanya) representing the Press, and finally, remarkably the students, the learners, from high school to recent graduates.  It was eyeopening to hear their voice, to add their opinion to the table – and humbling to hear their candid opinion of the education we have built with years of  research and funding.

The solutions to educations many problems are not going to come out of one sector alone, certainly not from Higher Ed institutions or from the Government.  I doubt if industry can or should solve these problems. Certainly foundations are trying to establish fertile ground to nurture innovation. And start-ups can come up with out-of box thinking but can’t take it down alone.  But together, with the right attitude we can. For this to happen, we need more venues like the IFTF Convening, where the bouncer doesn’t check your degree at the door, where the doers and the thinkers are valued and the stakeholders have a voice, and where all sectors of this ecosystem are represented.  Different voices, different perspectives, different contributions. After all, even Captain Picard needed his Klingon and Android to “Boldly go where no one has gone before”.

Take 10 Teach 10

Sergio Alvarez is a 9th grader in NY, failed every math class through 8th grade despite numerous teachers and paid tutors. He dreams of a future where he engineers planes, but you and I know the harsh reality: this is very unlikely. Kids like him get discouraged, bored, drop out of school, and wait tables all their lives. However, Sergio discovered OpenStudy, met Hero, an OpenStudier who took interest in him. Six months later we received a note from him telling us he was making 90s in his math class. This is fairy tale with a happy ending, only it is not a fairy tale. Sergio is an actual user in OpenStudy and there are many more like him. And for Sergio and the others, it is not an ending, but a beginning.

Our venture OpenStudy is unique. We call it open social learning. Help is always available for all the learners in the world, who raise their hands and ask for help. We offer a highly scaleable, low cost, global solution to the problem of providing learning help through an open social platform for peer-to-peer learning.

We have proven this disruptive model over and over again, to thousands of learners. Today there are 100,000 registered users, from over 40 partnering institutions including a who’s who list of the MITOCWs and OpenYales to the community college systems of West Hills and Piedmont. Our users ask over 1000 questions a day in Math alone and are usually helped within 5 minutes. Our impact on learning: 80% of our users surveyed reported that using OpenStudy had helped them gain a better understanding of their course material. And there are stories like Sergio’s.

Our solution is really blindingly obvious especially to anyone with a teenager. Give them a Facebook like social site and the social interactions will then lead to engagement, the peer to peer learning creates a win-win scenario and users complain happily that they are addicted. Addicted to math! When was the last time you heard that?

As satisfying as this is, there is more. As our users engage with one another, young with old, the middle schooler with the MIT engineer, American, the Pakistani, the Tanzanian, the Turkish, the Hindu, the Muslim, the Buddhist, the black, the white, brown… they learn to interact, be courteous, they learn to be helpful, they learn to work together, to communicate. For the most active of our users, OpenStudy becomes their passion.

Communication, Teamwork, Passion, Helpfulness.

What does that sound like to you?

To us it was apparent that in our social learning platform, we had also created an ecosystem where our users could move beyond subject matter expertise to learning soft skills that matter. They were moving from the mind to the heart. Think of it as learning things that are not captured on a grade. Not only do our users practice these important skills of the heart, we can then report on on what they have learnt. With crowd sourcing, game mechanics and analytics, we can report on teamwork, problem solving, and most of all the elusive attribute, but in a way the most important: passion! You and I know this should have been taught in school, somehow? Right? But tragically, all too often it isn’t.

And finally, this is my core belief. In education, what lies between failure and success is a human. A teacher, a mentor, a friend, a peer. I believe all the technology being developed today will not solve the problems of education if it does not deliberately and purposefully include the social element. And I believe in the power of open social learning systems to solve some of education’s biggest problems.

Here is my Call to Action. Come experience OpenStudy for yourself. Be a Hero to a Sergio. Take 10 minutes to teach 10. And you may well learn something too.


This is the talk I gave at the gathering organized by the Institute for the Future “Hack the Future of Education Day”