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The ABCs of Tech Education

25 Jan

Last week, in the wake of Code Academy’s  – “Learn to code in 2012” campaign we asked:  What does digital literacy really mean today?  And what might a Digital Literacy Agenda for 2012 include?

Betsy, our friend at Google, replied directly arguing that “digital literacy” is too narrow a concept – we need to think more broadly about “digital citizenship,” she argues. “Understanding how to write code that builds an isolated piece of technology is like understanding how to read and write, or knowing the ins and outs of a particular subject like Biology. But understanding how the Internet works is like understanding the way society is governed.”  It’s about providing enough digital civic education so that students can recognize why Chinese censorship of the Net, SOPA/PIPA, or debates about wireless spectrum are connected to our fundamental values about speech and communication.

I’m agnostic about whether “digital literacy,” “digital civics,” or even basic “technology education,” is the right term. But, as I watch Mozilla, Code Academy, General Assembly, and many others dive into this topic, its clear there’s a need to continue untangling these concepts.

Last week Bloomberg and Fred Wilson announced the new Academy for Software Engineering, a tech-focused high school in New York. In doing so they intimated that one vision of the school is to develop a tech curriculum that can be exported to other schools in New York.  What might such a curriculum include?

In our view, basic tech education should center around three core concepts: Understanding, Creation, and Critique.

  • Understanding Understanding is about explaining the building blocks of technology as well as the larger ecosystem of institutions in which technologies operate. It’s about enabling students to understand the basic relationships between inventors, tech companies, publishers, regulators, or consumers and the centers of control therein. It’s also about teaching the fundamental “internet architecture” or “digital civics” topics of which Betsy speaks.
  • Creation Creation is about giving students the basic tools and grammar to create and “build stuff” using new technologies. It about raising a generation of “web makers” as Mozilla trumpets. It is also about teaching the fundamentals of publishing in the new media era and the flow of information on the web. Ultimately it’s about giving young people the ability to exploit all the structures and architecture, to have a voice. This is part of democratizing media and technology. Today, creation might be about providing basic coding, mobile app creation, or web design skills. But it’s surely an evolving standard.
  • Critique  – Critique is about enabling students to decipher and analyze both incoming information as well as the communications they create. If teaching coding is like teaching the basics of a new language (ie. basic grammar), teaching critique is like teaching literature. It’s about teaching students to analyze the reliability, perspective, and editorial control in the Wikipedia articles, digital videos, or other web communications they receive.  It’s about enabling students to understand the difference between platforms that are highly moderated or curated and those that are opens. It’s about understanding what’s at stake with anonymous vs. identifiable speech.

It’s clear that in some cases, teaching these fundamentals may require the creation of new high school classes -  i.e. coding class.  But in many cases, it’s more about extending our existing classes in literature, history, and science to cover the technology related stories and topics.

Digital and web literacy is a lot about opening up the black box that is our tech-enabled world so that more people can participate in this world and critique it. Coding alone is about being able to create and modify this box.  It’s clear that the Academy for Software Engineering will likely add a whole host of additional classes on entrepreneurship, design, finance and many other topics.  But if they can lead us and strike even the basics of digital literacy and technology education right, that will be a huge accomplishment.

Building A Digital Literacy Agenda

5 Jan

One of our most popular posts this fall was “Why Digital Literacy,” where we talked about the growing set of thought leaders speaking out about the importance of digital literacy. For some it’s a matter of training the next generation of entrepreneurs and engineers. For others it’s about matching skills to jobs and ensuring basic comprehension of the information ecosystem.

The digital literacy debates are escalating as we head into 2012; but as I listen, it strikes me that few have articulated what digital literacy really means.  What constitutes a digitally literate high school graduate? What do I need to be able to know, make, or understand to be a digitally literate adult?  The most thoughtful piece I read last year was by @betsymas at Google, titled “To learn how the Internet works is to learn civics.”  She emphasizes that teaching students to code is not enough:

Understanding how to write code that builds an isolated piece of technology is like understanding how to read and write, or knowing the ins and outs of a particular subject like Biology. But understanding how the Internet works is like understanding the way society is governed. The architectural design should be taught in high school, the same way we teach about the design of the US Constitution.

Last Friday, as I was returning from vacation, I was amused to hear a network segment titled “2012 – the Year of Code” looping in all the airports. It was filled with catch phrases – “Code is the new Chinese.” “Code is the language of the next generation.” “First we teach math, then we teach code.”

The segment was provoked by the recent launch of Code Academy’s New Year’s Resolution Coding Class – “Code Year.”  At Code Year, anyone who adds his or her email to a website receives free coding classes once a week for a year.

The Code Academy campaign is an awesome initiative, and they’ve managed to sign up over 100,000 people so far.  Still, if 2012 is the Year of Digital Literacy, it’s time to dive in and think about a real Digital Literacy Agenda.  We’ll try to unravel this further in the coming months. For now, I’ll leave you with Mashable’s Code Academy video… in case any of you want to learn how to code… whilst we debate!

Why Digital Literacy? A bit of thought analysis…

2 Nov

As we’ve begun writing and advocating for greater investment in digital literacy we’ve challenged ourselves to step back and think, does digital literacy really matter?   Should all young people really be forced to take a programming class? Should teachers teach the basics of Internet architecture?

For some, the answer is a resonant yes.  But, it’s not obvious.

We don’t, for example, teach young people how to build houses or cars at school, though it’s clear that both physical architecture and the basics of combustion engines impact our every day lives.  We don’t even teach many young people the basics of the stock market, investing, or simple money management.

Why then is digital literacy different?  Is it different? Or is this just another case of tech-exceptionalism….

As we’ve explored the blogosphere it’s become clear that those who advocate for digital literacy are motivated by many different visions and world views. They also attack the challenge from different angles.

For many policymakers and professional training advocates, digital literacy is about empowering the next generation of workers and students with the skills needed to compete and add value in today’s market.

For Mozilla and other free speech advocates, this drive is about creating a “web-literate planet.” It’s about enabling anyone and everyone to understand what’s “under the hood” on the Net and empowering individuals to build upon, understand, and manipulate the “operating system” of our lives.

And for many start-up community advocates, digital literacy is seen as a basic pre-requisite for managing programmers and cultivating the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Yesterday, Fred Wilson, a New York VC who is starting to invest in education projects like Code Academy and Skillshare, wrote a post on the importance of basic coding skills. Therein he posted a striking quote from media theorist Douglas Rushkoff.

Of everything I’ve read, Rushkoff provides one of the more eloquent and compelling justifications for investing in digital literacy:

When human beings acquired language, we learned not just how to listen but how to speak. When we gained literacy, we learned not just how to read but how to write. And as we move into an increasingly digital reality, we must learn not just how to use programs but how to make them. In the emerging, highly programmed landscape ahead, you will either create the software or you will be the software. It’s really that simple: Program, or be programmed.

We’ll be refining our own views and justifications over the coming months, but for those fighting the good fight on digital literacy today, hopefully these thinkers both inspire and put a few more arguments in your arsenal.

Re-Framing the NYTimes Edtech Messaging

27 Oct

In a recent article in the NYT, Matt Richtel shared the story of the Waldorf School in  Sillicon Valley, which avoids use of any technology as a teaching aid. The writer highlighted this fact in order to consider whether indeed education technology is an effective teaching aid and supports better learning results. We believe the discussion needs to be better framed. The growing onslaught of anti-edtech articles is confusing the edtech debate and harming both industry and students.  Here are the key issues, as we see them:

1. Parents’ aversion to screens and digital devices.

This is the true topic of the NYT article. The Waldorf “trend” relates to parents’ concerns about childrens’ over-exposure to the “digital screens.” Parents are concerned about their kids watching TVand spending endless time with devices.  This topic has nothing to do with education technology, though eliminating technology in schools can be one answer to this fear.  Yes, one can have schools with no edtech – but such schools are ignoring the reality of our digital life.

2. Effectiveness of Edtech in schools.

This is an important topic that requires a deep assessment of the different technologies used by schools. Edtech should be used as an efficient, interactive means of delivering high quality, personalized educational content. Edtech does not replace the need for high quality teachers, though it may standardize the level of content delivered to students.

3. The use of Edtech to achieve Digital Literacy.

This topic relates to the use of edtech in enabling digital and technology literacy. It is our firm belief that edtech should be used to promote exposure to new, exciting technologies and digital communications tools. However it is also important that students do not use technology as though it were a “black-box”. In the same way students are encouraged to analyze digital works, schools should “open” up new technologies and discuss their composition.

What level of digital literacy should we expect students to obtain within schools? This is the main topic of our upcoming post.

Edtech Investment is Essential For Tech Literacy

20 Oct

The discussion about investment in educational technology should focus not only on learning results but also on its contribution to the digital literacy of future generations.

As school districts across the US enter 2012 planning, there is an increasing debate about the value of educational technology investments. For some, “edtech” is a way to reduce costs and increase operational efficiencies in schools. Others express an almost messianic faith that edtech investment will support teachers and drive learning results in core academic subjects – reading, math, science.

On the learning results front, the latest news looks bleak.  As the New York Times recently reported, education technology companies and advocates have grossly inflated the software report card.

In a nutshell, “schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning. This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements.”

Yet, educational investment is about more than just spurring existing learning goals through new means. Classrooms of the future will play an essential role in ensuring that the next generation of students acquires the basic digital skills needed to succeed in today’s world- from computer programming and online research to analysis of social data and basic web publishing. Furthermore, in a country that continues to suffer from a great digital divide, the classroom remains one of the few places where students who lack computers, broadband connections, or smart phones at home can reliably access these tools.

We are now in the midst of an economic recession, with increased uncertainty upon us. While significant numbers of high school and college graduates live in areas where job opportunities just don’t exist, many more workers are unnecessarily unemployed because there remains a tremendous mismatch between skills and market needs.

It’s time we in the US acknowledge the digital skills gap and define a “Minimum Standard of Digital Literacy,” a standard that every high school and college student should reach by graduation. 

Should we demand that every high-schooler know how to write a basic computer program? Should they know how to analyze a Wikipedia article and decipher it’s sources? What about editing a video or deconstructing a commercial?  We will have to work to define the standard, and there is room to debate the balance of hard computer skills vs. critical thinking abilities.  But the need is there.  Once we establish the Minimum Standard we will then have a rubric from which to design new edtech products, investment in infrastructure, assess student performance, and analyze the value of our tech investments.

We think that the digital literacy of children is an essential frame through which the ROI on edtech investments should be assessed.  In future posts we will propose a Minimum Standard of Digital Literacy and look forward to collectively debating and agreeing on this standard.

Open Platform vs. Open Content. The Big Debate at Educause 2011!

19 Oct

In listening to the announcements by both Pearson Education Inc. and Blackboard Inc. this week, we were intrigued thinking through which might have more appeal to educational institutions.

1. an open and potentially free learning platform – this is what Pearson is suggesting, leaving Pearson to focus on its core content business.

2. a proprietary learning platform through which educators and institutions will be allowed to share content under a creative commons license, allowing Blackboard to focus on its core proprietary software business. Blackboard’s suggestion.

There are several challenges to both models:

First, in order for the Pearson platform to be truly open, it would need to guarantee its long term openness, ideally by making the platform available under an open source license. We also wonder about the extent to which institutions, instructors, and even other content companies will agree to allow Pearson to play an even more central role in the educational content game.If the Openclass vision rings true, Pearson will become not only the dominant provider of educational content but also the central “content filter” for education.  If Openclass were truly open, there would be limited risk as other content providers could compete as well without risking potentially harmful taxes or filtering. If Openclass is not truly open, then there is room for concern.

Blackboard, by contrast, is interested in maintaining the proprietary nature of the platform (its main business). It assumes that an open content model would have broad appeal, adding to the value of the Blackboard platform and making it all the more “sticky.”

Whether schools will trust Blackboard as a vehicle for content sharing is still an open question. If the content will be truly open, then schools can gain a valuable repository of open content that can be used outside of Blackboard as well. This would create a tremendous public asset.

So the contest begins: Open Platform vs. Content. Two of the largest players in education have each placed their bets. Now we’ll wait and see how “open” each is really willing to be…

Why Write

9 Oct

Open Technology is a blog started by Michal Tsur and Leah Belsky.  We are two people who’ve traveled a varied path between the worlds of tech entrepreneurship,  business strategy, and academia.  We came together at Kaltura – a New York tech startup launching the world’s first open source media platform.  We were also both fellows at the Yale Information Society Project – a research institute focused on the future of the web and to understanding the way new technologies can be a force for positive change in the world.

Over the past 3 years at Kaltura we’ve brought to market an amazing video platform that has transformed the use and vision for media within top broadcasters, educational institutions, and enterprises. We developed a unique open source business strategy, and also founded an open advocacy organization, the Open Video Alliance, with Mozilla, PCF, Google, and others.

Yet, as we’ve grown Kaltura, we’ve become increasingly aware of how limited the discourse is between the tech community and the more academic worlds from whence we came.

For us, this blog is an attempt to bridge that gap- to connect BIG ideas about innovation and open technologies to industry and to the practical lives of entrepreneurs trying to start and grow companies. Most of all though, it’s a place for us to think and learn, within a community, and to refine our ideas in this time of change.

We will focus on a few key themes:

  • Open source tech and open systems -  What is the future of open source technologies and the open web, particularly in an age when web services, tech-activism, and social networks are rapidly changing the way we use and interact with the Net?
  • Digital Education – The education system today is crashing. Students are shouldered in debt. And generations of workers and graduates lack the skills needed to succeed in a digital world, and in a world with more complex technologies and industries. What is the future of digital education and how do we use digital literacy to empower the next generation of entrepreneurs?
  • Startups, Innovation, and Entrepreneurial Communities - We’ve both studied innovation academically and had the privilege of working in growing entrepreneurial communities in New York.  We’d like to use this blog to share some of our insights and lessons learned.

We’ve also had the privilege of working with many amazing friends, entrepreneurs, co-founders, and thinkers over the years, so you will likely see a few guest posts from them as well.

Welcome.