The rise and benefit of the education “rock star” has become a hot topic in edutech.
On TechCrunch, Nancy Conrad discussed her foundation’s exciting Innovation Summit. The summit awards 27 high school teams an all-expenses-paid trip to pitch their startup dream to a supportive audience of entrepreneurs. Conrad’s rationale for the summit: Celebrate the top achievers as rock stars and “change the culture of students” across the educational landscape; a hoped for trickle-down excitement for math and science.
Rock stars? There might be a better way for mass education than the celebrity/trickle-down model. I’m convinced that the peer-based validation and collaboration of social learning networks are better bets to jump-start broad scale engagement in math and science. We don’t need to make geeks into rock stars, we need to make learning less geeky.
Social learning platforms enhance the possibilities of grassroots collaboration encompassing a worldwide network of students where learners teach each other; a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach to education; an inclusive, geometric expansion of access rather than the winnowing process of traditional talented and gifted programs.
For sure, the rock stars of the tech industry capture our attention. Undergraduate CS majors at my alma mater are skyrocketing, and many have suggested the increase is in part due to startup rock stars like Mark Zuckerberg, Shawn Parker (recently played by Justin Timberlake in The Social Network) and Kevin Rose. But there are millions of potential entrepreneurs “out there” who don’t have access to a rarified educational pipeline.
And those millions can be served.
MIT OpenCourseWare plans to reach a billion minds with their free offerings – and leverage OpenStudy groups to connect those minds. Almost 12,000 students have already joined the intro CS course. Hundreds of OpenCourseWare consortium members have opened their content to other very promising social learning platforms, like p2pu and videolectures.net.
On OpenStudy, students are now asking close to 15,000 math questions per month – and the vast majority of them are answered by a global set of peers within five minutes. When I asked our top math helper why he answers so many questions, he gave the answer we all hoped: the innate desire for peer-validation; knowing that he switched on the light bulb in a student’s head and that person was thankful.
Diverse combinations of teacher-learners that would never meet in a classroom work together online. An MIT CS major in Boston tutors an AP CS student in Kentucky; a Shanghai student learns English from Emory students learning Mandarin. What’s the common thread? A social sense of co-ownership and an outlet for peer validation that transcends socio-economics and geography.
Game-like rewards have a place in education too. In our study groups, students give medals as thanks for answers, learners earn badges by participating in discussions, and users progress through titles like “pupil”, “lifesaver”, “superstar” and “hero” as they help one another. This is how we can make all students rock stars – by expanding the responsibility and rewards of teaching to a global set of peers.
OpenStudy has been described as a massively-multiplayer study group—an online learning game where everyone is on the same team. And that’s the point of the open social learning movement: when it comes to something as foundational as education, we should all be on the same team, and we should encourage everyone to be a player.
We’re not alone in our approach to expanding educational access. The Gates Foundation recently awarded the Purdue Writing lab $1.5m to develop interactive, game-like features in a social learning environment to help improve high school writing skills. Already a supporter of Khan Academy, the Gates Foundation also recently teamed up with the Hewlett foundation and are helping to fund OpenStudy through their NGLC initiative.
President Obama issued a challenge to our industry: ”I’m calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, educational software as compelling as the best video game”.
I want to say: there are many of us already answering that challenge! Social learning has evolved into a movement of ideas that won’t stop until world-class, equitable and equal access education is achieved. Rock stars will transcend the anointed few as droves of real-world heroes organically emerge through the collaboration of millions of social learners.
CEO and Co-founder, OpenStudy