Designing the Future of Education
Education is changing. The past year and a half have proven that online and blended education models are possible, but are they effective? Moreover, are they sustainable for the well-being of our culture, nation, and society? Are students and teachers being left behind by the disruption of our education paradigms in the wake of the pandemic? Are these new education models here to stay? And bringing it back to innovation and design, what role does design play in all of this?
The future design, function, and outcomes of our education practices are of vital importance to the quality of life of our population and strength of our economy. The level of cognitive skills of a nation’s students has a large effect on its subsequent economic growth rate. While we’re still in a period of flux and malleability with school districts and state legislatures only beginning to codify what the next year and next 5 years should look like, we have an amazing opportunity (and in fact, an incumbent need) as creative leaders, innovators of education (yes, that includes teachers!), and designers, to exert a strategic, informed, and human-centered influence on the shaping of future realities for our nation’s educational system. We sometimes fall prey to thinking of sustainability in design as mainly creating greener products. However, sustainable design also encircles socially responsible design which safeguards the future of cultures, communities, and the social fabric of the body of multi-users. As creative leaders, innovators, and designers who are concerned with the sustainability of the products and services we create, education is a prime arena for Innovation Strategy and Design Thinking to play a central role in creating a sustainable future.
Sundberg-Ferar’s work with Michigan Virtual focused on just that. We had the privilege of working with this organization, which has been advancing K-12 education through digital learning, research, innovation, policy and partnerships since 1998, to apply Design Thinking and Design Research to address the pain points and experiences of students, teachers, parents, and administrators during the period of emergency remote learning in March 2020. Read the results of that study and get the infographic here.
In the conversation recorded below from April 2020, we talk with Jamey Fitzpatrick, President and CEO of Michigan Virtual. We get his personal thoughts and convictions on what future education could be, how Michigan Virtual is helping, and you’ll get a sneak peek of our Design Research and Service Design work with them to apply Design Thinking to the problem of emergency remote learning and the future of education.
Designing the Future of Education
Online Learning vs. Emergency Remote Learning
Q: Jamey, can you share about the distinction you make between online learning and what many students, educators, and parents have experienced during the covid-19 pandemic?
A: It might be beneficial for me to try to draw a little bit of a distinction from what we refer to as online learning and what I think should be appropriately titled, “emergency remote learning”. Sometimes those terms are being used interchangeably.
You know, we’ve got 1.5 million children in the state of Michigan that have been completely disrupted and not able to attend a physical school. We’ve thrown a hundred thousand educators into the Arctic waters and asked them to do some heroic things, probably without a lot of training and support, and in many cases, without the technology that they need. Teachers and parents and kids are doing the best they can. (I will just note that in the last seven weeks, since COVID-19 hit and our schools have been closed, we have had 40,000 online course enrollments from teachers wanting to hone their skills and learn something new about online or blended learning – all available for free for Michigan educators.) It’s just a testimonial to their perseverance. Teachers recognize they need to hone their skills and come up with some new ways of reaching their kids. But I really wouldn’t call what we’re doing right now [online learning]. It’s really kind of a giant band-aid to get to the end of the school year.
I just want to draw a distinction because what we do with online learning has a significantly more fidelity. We spend a lot more time creating the content and resources, and training our teachers to teach in an online environment. It’s significantly different than emergency [remote learning].
The reality is, I think we’re all crossing our fingers hoping that some really good things come out of this. And there will be lessons learned and opportunities to continue some of those things into the future.
“Compared to the massive changes in the way we communicate, shop, do business, and access entertainment, we’re only in the early stages of disruption in education by technology.”
10 Assumptions for Planning the Future of Education
So I wanted to talk about innovation and the future of education.
Online learning has been around for a long time, but it’s still in its infancy. Best practices are still being learned. New technologies are starting to surface new ways of doing things.
I wanted to outline 10 planning assumptions that really create the foundation for why [Michigan Virtual] exists and the work that we do. These are the pretty simple, and I think many of you probably could come up with the same list.
1) The current system is not serving all children in Michigan.
2) High school is boring or not relevant for too many teens.
You know, if you ask 100 high school kids [to give] one word to describe high school, you know, you’re going to hear “boring” maybe 45 or 55 times. You know [lack of] relevance.
3) Competition for human talent is growing everywhere.
We know the city, the state, the country that is best at educating their citizens does the best economically. That’s no longer a secret, everybody knows that.
4) Academic achievement expectations are increasing.
The academic achievement expectations that school districts around the globe are setting is continually going up.
5) School funding pressures are intense and growing.
We know that this has been an issue, and unfortunately it’s likely to become more of an issue in the next 18 months to two years, as we try to rebound from the horrific loss in tax revenue that’s not going to support schools because the money’s simply not there.
6) K-12 education has not achieved major productivity gains.
I’ve worked in K-12 education and educational technology for 30 years or so. I’m likely the only person in the state of Michigan, who’s worked at a local school district, an intermediate school district, and the state department of education and has never taught, but I’ve had this compelling belief that technology can help a good teacher teach and can help any learner learn. And we have yet to fully realize the benefit that technology can offer as a productivity gain in teaching and learning. We’ve made some administrative efficiencies, but not really getting into the teaching and learning side.
7) Traditions in k-12 systems are strongly held (eg. summer).
Traditions, as we all know, are really strong in K-12 education. You know, we used to have kids on vacation in the summer so they could be in the fields and help pick crops. We know that that’s no longer the case, but we continue to hold onto the traditions like that.
8) Inequities are significant and showing more than ever.
The inequities in education are real. They’ve been there for decades. I think they’ve been exposed, as it relates to digital access and technology during COVID-19 more than ever.
9) Advances in technology can help teachers and learners.
This core belief that technology can help is central to the work that we do.
10) New delivery models are needed to personalize learning.
And then an expectation that we need to be thinking about new models that personalize learning.
New Paradigms of Personalized Learning
I’ll just give you one example of some of the thinking that we’ve been doing just to really try to “take off the lid” and think about what’s possible during this crazy, crazy time. Everybody’s familiar with Uber. It’s a really sophisticated app that’s very easy to use on your phone and matches a person with transportation needs with somebody who has a car and wants to make some extra money.
Well you know, say it’s in the afternoon and there may be a student right now in Traverse City who is having difficulty trying to figure out how to divide fractions. And what if we were able to use a platform like Uber and instead of trying to facilitate transportation services, facilitate learning services. Then a student in Traverse City could get on the app, identify what grade they’re in, what their content area challenges are and what the lesson or unit they’re working on, and maybe there’s a teacher in Novi who right now at this very minute is willing to jump online and help that student in an environment like what we’re dealing with right now on zoom.
Well, our [current education] system’s really not set up to deal with that and that kind of delivery model. Students typically go to a district, and that district receives funding to support that student. So we’re literally just trying to think about new models as we go forward.
I want to answer these four questions, and I’d like to challenge all the [readers] to answer these questions in their own heads:
Where is learning today?
What’s the future of learning?
What’s most important as we go forward?
How do we get there?
Where is Learning Today?
I would say in terms of where learning is today, if you benchmark us or compare us against other sectors, like how we do business, how we access entertainment, how we shop, how we communicate, I would say education right now is in the very early stages of this disruption phase. If you think of how every other sector of our economy has been disrupted by technology – in large part, that just hasn’t happened [in education]. COVID-19 is likely going to accelerate a lot of that activity, but I think we’re fairly early in on that disruption cycle, which we know is going to happen.
What’s the future of online learning?
You know, you might expect something really sophisticated and really fancy, but in my humble opinion, it’s all about personalized learning.
What’s most important?
And when I say that, I’m not talking about personalized learning for fourth graders v. third graders or boys v. girls. I’m talking about personalized learning that’s based on your cognitive preferences based on real research on the brain, and being able to serve up content in a format and a style that’s personalized to you as a human being, that really maximizes your learning capabilities and strengths. That’s where I think learning is headed. The only way I believe we’re going to get there is by leveraging new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, predictive analytics, big data.
How do we get there?
I believe there are three core elements that we need.
First, we just need to have a shared understanding that technology and data really can personalize teaching and learning and facilitate “high-touch” learning environments. I think oftentimes people think if it’s “high tech”, it’s going to be teacher-less, it’s going to be without human relationships. And that’s not anything that I’m proposing.
The second thing I think we need is to be able to be more intentional about how we take risk and embrace innovation by developing and implementing new models.
The third one is just this mindset that we’ve got to fail fast. We’ve got to learn even faster, and we’ve got to adjust, because every new model that we try isn’t going to be perfected overnight. We’re going to have to work at it. So that’s a summary of where I think education is headed.
“The only way this vision can be fully achieved is by using powerful innovations that are emerging today such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, predictive analytics, and data science.”
Are physical schools going extinct?
Q: Do you think as we go forward that in the US, traditional K-12 school systems will cease to operate as we know them?
A: [Physical] schools play such an incredible role in our society. There are too many things that schools do: the social networking component, the extracurricular activities, just the custodial responsibility. I mean, if you and your wife both work, to have your children at a physical school during the day is relieving you of some daycare responsibilities. So I really don’t see schools in the United States or anywhere for that matter ceasing to operate. It would shock me if we ever got to that point. There’s just too many other value propositions that they play in our society.
Will remote learning lead to popularization of homeschooling?
Q: Some families choose home schooling instead of participating in the state education system. Do you know what’s the percentage of that in the US?
A: You know I don’t think there’s really good data on that because many people who are homeschooled don’t necessarily report that they’re homeschooling. It’s a relatively small percentage. I think the one thing I’ve heard in talking to people is the pressure that is going to be placed on our schools in the fall. Everybody is giving significant grace right now to our schools. They know that this is just completely disruptive. Nobody had planned for it. Nobody could have predicted it. And I don’t think anybody’s expectations are all that high. I think if we encounter this in the fall or into the next school year, and schools aren’t able to provide more fidelity in what they’re doing, I am fearful that people, who maybe never even remotely considered it a year ago, will leave and think about homeschooling. So that will be a competitive pressure point that I think school districts will have to weigh and evaluate.
When is online or in-person learning more effective?
Q: What data or reviewed research is there that speaks to whether online or in-person learning models are better for this or that application?
A: From analysis that has been done by numerous groups around the country, and around the world for that matter, online learning has proven to be effective. So you can kind of take that and move that big question to the side.
I think the more important question that should be asked is – and I get this all the time from parents and from reporters and people who are not real familiar with online learning – how do you compare online learning with face-to-face? It is highly, highly dependent on the learner and highly, highly dependent on why it is that they’re engaging in the online activity to begin with. I’ll just give you a couple of examples.
So let’s just take a 16 year old student who goes to a Michigan high school, has a D minus GPA, is probably a year behind in their academic credit with their cohort, and has failed every math course they’ve taken for the last three years. Say we take that student and try to put them in an online math course with not a lot of instructor support. It’s just the kid and the computer. I’m going to tell you that student’s probably not going to enjoy a lot of success. Now you take that same student and you say, “hey, you’re really not doing all that well in your studies, but somebody said you were really interested in rockets, or somebody said you were really interested in digital photography, or somebody said you were really interested in being a chef”, and you give them a learning opportunity that happens to be available online on one of those content areas where they’re actually motivated to learn, and you might see that student do phenomenally!
Take another student who goes to a small rural high school and wants to be a scientist and really wants to take AP physics or really wants to take a Latin, and it’s just not available at their local high school. You give that student an opportunity to have access to something like that through online courses. Oftentimes those kids are so motivated. They’re going to just cruise through the online course and they’re going to be very, very successful.
So the simple answer is that online learning has proven to be as effective as face-to-face. The nuance there though is that it’s highly dependent and variable to the individual learner and why they are taking an online course or why they’re taking a face-to-face course. That’s the simple answer.
Could personalized learning lead to lack of balanced education curriculum?
Q: How early should personalized learning begin, especially as it relates to students highly influencing their course direction and specializations?
A: I’m going to separate course content from the expectations we would have about student achievement and career exploration. I’ll be honest with you, I think more than ever before, young people have absolutely no understanding about many of the careers and occupations that exist today – let alone the careers that are in the future that many of us can’t even see right now. I actually think that we should have a career channel on TV or online where it’s “okay, so this week we’re going to look at accountants or we’re going to look at law enforcement and we’re going to look at investment bankers”, and the companies that employ those kinds of people are going to want their employees profiled during these videos. You know, a day in the life of an engineer at Ford motor company, [for example]. I’m sure Ford would have an interest in having their engineers profiled to attract talent.
I just think as a nation, we’ve really not done as good a job as we could to try to help create excitement, enthusiasm, and give kids an understanding [of careers]. And unfortunately many of our school counselors don’t have a grasp on some of these occupations and careers. Nobody was telling me when I was young that I should be thinking about working for an online virtual learning organization. I think we want to try to, as young as we can, to give kids those career opportunities so that they can get a window.
I have a good friend who’s an orthopedic surgeon. He knew at 7 or 8 when he got a little toy doctor’s kit that he wanted to be a physician. And I know people that are 55, 60 years old, they’re still trying to figure out what they want to do with their life. So there’s no magic answer there, but I think the one constant should be: we shouldn’t lower our academic expectations for kids because somebody wants to pursue something in 6th grade that may not require them to take Algebra 2, because at the end of the day, they need Algebra 2. Why would we rule out a career or an occupation so young in their educational venture, right?
Could this blended high-tech approach be more cost effective compared to today’s model?
A: Wow, that’s a big question. I mentioned that we have full-time cyber schools in Michigan. Every student generates a little over $8,000 of what they call student foundation allowance. And if a student chooses to participate in full-time cyber school, (which [Michigan Virtual is] not, we’re a supplemental provider,) they would generate the same amount as a student going to Troy high school. However, in other states, there have been policies put in place that say, if you’re going to participate in one of those virtual programs, you’re going to get less foundation allowance. We’ve seen a mix. I will tell you that [with online] you don’t have the infrastructure costs from a building perspective, but you do need significant technology for developing the curriculum that’s available online, training the teachers, and instructor costs. Whereas 80-85% of the average school district costs are embedded in their teaching staff. So there are probably some savings, but if you want to do it right, and if you’re trying to provide the entire educational experience for that young person online, you probably want to supplement that with some things that would be face-to-face that would really round out that person’s education, and which are likely going to have some expenses associated with them. So if you wanted to do [online] with greater fidelity, it’s probably similar in cost structure.
I wanted to share this link because we have been extremely busy in the last seven weeks, trying to support Michigan schools. We’ve put online content out there. We’ve done a significant amount of training for teachers. We put together some planning resources. Even parent resources that they may find beneficial. Most notably we’ve secured a statewide license around a social, emotional learning app that’s designed for students, parents, and teachers.
We know that stress is not a good thing, and there’s plenty of it during this environment. That app is a resource free to all to learn a little bit more about how you’re dealing with stress, and tips on what you could do to prevent stress and be an advocate for your own mental health as you go forward, whether a child, a parent, or, or an educator. Because we’re all struggling with this at the same time.
About Michigan Virtual: Michigan Virtual’s mission is advancing K-12 education through digital learning, research, innovation, policy and partnerships. The organization as created in 1998 as a nonprofit by the state of Michigan and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to work on workforce development issues and to leverage the power of the internet to deliver education and training services. Since 2000, the organization has been focused primarily on Michigan’s K-12 community.
About Jamey Fitzpatrick: Jamey Fitzpatrick serves as a catalyst for change and a champion of innovation in education. He provides strategic leadership for Michigan Virtual and has worked in K-12 education and educational technology for 30 years. His career, spanning work at a local school district, an intermediate school district, and the state department of education, gave him the compelling belief that technology can help a good teacher teach and can help any learner learn. And we have yet to really fully, fully realize the full benefit that technology can offer as a productivity gain in teaching and learning. In addition to his previous leadership roles at the Michigan Department of Education and Saginaw ISD, Jamey also worked in the private sector for Pitney Bowes Corporation. He serves on the Board of Trustees for Olivet College.
Lynnaea has a natural passion for storytelling and building relationships. She started her college education in Journalism, but soon found her passion in switching and completing her degree in Industrial Design. Now she uses her industrial design skills and enthusiasm for communication to support studio projects as well as design and develop Sundberg-Ferar’s marketing and communications materials. In her spare time, she is a freelance musician, reads, does anything outdoors, and works with her husband on updating their 1924 Detroit home.