Too Big to Scale?

Similar to how the international development field obsesses about “sustainability,” the educational technology field obsesses about “scalability.” When these two fields intersect—exemplified by One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), Sugata Mitra, and now m-learning—big questions are asked.

Just as The Walking Dead is not really about Zombies, the recent post by @mathalicious equating Khan Academy with McDonalds is not really about the perils of video instruction. It’s about the fear of scaling teaching and learning, and what happens when we disregard the important bond between student and teacher. Why on earth do we want tech messing with this bond? Isn’t teaching and learning just a too big and complex and intimate human endeavor to try to scale?

Although @mathalicious raises some good points, the following worry seems far-fetched:

“On another level, though, Khan Academy and its donors may preclude better products from coming along: products built by experts that actually can improve how students learn. And ultimately, this may be the most dangerous thing about Khan Academy: not that it exists, but that it’s the only thing that does.”

Leaving aside the issue of what defines an “expert” and the idea that everyone in a community—even coders!—can and should support teachers and students improve teaching and learning, Khan Academy is not going to preclude new products from coming along, nor is it the only thing that exists. In fact, one of the exciting things about Khan Academy is not Khan Academy, it’s MathTrain TV, and what’s to come in the next few years as youth worldwide create, teach and learn with their peers, with and without their teachers, schools or Khan Academy.

The big question of sustainability and scalability in teaching and learning is, therefore, not about which platform or technology exists; it’s about how youth worldwide are going to work collaboratively to address critical global concerns to help future generations be healthier, better educated, and more prosperous. Effective global collaboration requires care and nurturing by teachers who commit to build trust and respect among their students. It’s a long-term investment that so far has been resistant to scaling.

Maybe meaningful cross-cultural collaboration is too big to scale, but we’re expecting our Connect All Schools consortium and other national partners and policy-makers to change that. President Obama remarked last week, “We’re going to keep on trying to engage as many countries as possible, mainly because it’s good for our national security.” It’s good for our teachers and students, too, and new technologies can play a role in supporting this engagement.

We shouldn’t expect an e-mail message or a Skype call to immediately transform teaching and learning overnight. So, let’s give US classrooms plenty of opportunities and encouragement to reach to partners around the world. Connections between classrooms may take years to develop, and may affect teachers and students differently over time. This will include a changing relationship between teacher and student. We shouldn’t fear this new world of globally connected, mobile, social, “anytime, anywhere” teaching and learning. Zombies, on the other hand, …

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