What the Military, Chromebooks & Teacher Training Tell Us About the Future of Education Publishing
As a consultant whose primary business focus is educational publishing, I try to read as widely as I can about developments in K-12 education and educational technology. Three articles I read recently, addressing seemingly unrelated topics, led me to draw some conclusions about the future of K-12 education publishing. The headlines of these articles (which I’ve paraphrased) are as follows:
- Personalized learning is a group activity
- Great teachers are made, not born
- Schools are turning away from iPads as classroom devices
Now, let me try to connect the dots.
The first article was by a seasoned military officer, Kevin M.A. Nguyen, who outlined his view of how personalized learning works, and how his experience might be brought to bear in K-12 schools. For readers who don’t follow trends in education, personalized learning is all the rage these days. The theory behind it is that today’s technology enables learning plans to be personalized for students who learn at different speeds. Used effectively, computers can feed content to students based on what skills they master and how quickly they master them, as measured by assessments embedded in the materials. Student outcomes will improve as a result -- or so goes the theory.
Picture students in front of computer screens, or iPads, all being taught by an unseen robot that evaluates their clicks and adjusts their lessons accordingly.
Not how it works in the military, wrote Nguyen, now a product manager at Education.com. He described a situation where soldiers come from a wide variety of backgrounds, rural and urban, from all over the country, with varying levels of intelligence and different learning styles. Training these disparate groups to perform complicated tasks -- like preparing for battle -- requires breaking them down into smaller sub-tasks, giving each member of the “class” smaller assignments. If an officer underestimates enlisted men or women’s ability to learn, he’s wasting valuable resources. If he overestimates them, to quote Jack Nicholson’s character from A Few Good Men, people die.
Nguyen’s point was that training soldiers requires personalized learning -- i.e., the leader has to expect soldiers to learn in different ways and at different speeds. More importantly, he said, for this kind of instruction to be effective, the members of the group need to come back together and share their individual insights -- and they need their leader to provide feedback and guidance to maximize the instructional benefits for everyone involved.
In other words, personalized learning is a mix of individual and group activity, and the role of the leader/teacher in making it stick is critical.
The second article was from the June 11-17 issue of The Economist, the cover story of which was “How to Make a Good Teacher.” The sub-head of the story read, “Great teaching has long been seen as an innate skill. But reformers are showing that the best teachers are made, not born.” Citing a strong body of evidence, the story debunked what it called the “myth of the natural-born teacher.” Teacher training works, The Economist argued -- but only when it’s done right.
The third article (actually, there were several of this ilk) discussed the fact that Chromebook computers, which use an operating system developed by Google and are designed to facilitate Internet access but to do little else, have begun to dominate sales to K-12 schools, overtaking iPads as the classroom device of choice. The most recent stats I saw said that Chromebooks accounted for 51% of institutional purchases in the first quarter of 2016, while iPads’ fell to 17%. Why? For one thing, Chromebooks cost about half as much as iPads; for another, they have full keyboards. They don’t run apps locally, nor do they need to: all the software and content that a Chromebooks needs -- other than the operating system itself -- lives in the cloud.
Apple’s CEO Tim Cook, reacting to his company’s loss of market share in the K-12 segment, disdainfully referred to the hardware supplied by his competitors as “test machines.” In a BuzzFeed interview back in December of 2015, he said, “We are interested in helping students learn and teachers teach, but tests, no. We create products that are whole solutions for people -- that allow kids to learn how to create and engage on a different level.”
Cook implied that selling devices that have little computational firepower but do include keyboards -- which happen to make it easier for students to take tests -- is a form of pandering. The people making buying decisions at K-12 school districts don’t seem to agree. To be fair, iPads are doing much better in lower grades, in which keyboarding skills are not as important, but as grade levels rise, iPad purchases decline.
So what does all this have to do with the future of educational publishing? A fair amount, I think.
Point one: even if educators embrace the concept of personalized learning, algorithms are not going to replace teachers any time soon – if ever. Personalized learning is a great idea, but if our military writer is right -- as I think he is -- schools will employ of mix of individualized and group experiences, and teachers will continue to provide the glue that pulls it all together.
Point two: what will make those teachers effective instructors is good, solid training. In fact, the more complicated the instructional challenges (and delivering personalized learning certainly is complicated), the more important teacher training will be.
Point three: iPads’ falling out of favor, losing out to machines with less functionality but equipped with those all-important keyboards, is a sign that the written word will continue to be the cornerstone of K-12 education. Yes, students will consume and even create multimedia resources as never before, but if they can’t write about what they learn, they’ll be in trouble -- and they won’t be able to pass those pesky tests.
All of this says to me that educational publishers will continue to do what they’ve always done, albeit differently. The instruction they deliver will live less often on a printed page and more often on a website, but text will be at the heart of it. The illustrative material will less often be photos and more often be videos (with audio), but visual material will still fulfill the function of engaging students and supplementing written instruction.
Plus, to the degree that software is part of the mix, it will likely live in the cloud, without having to pass through the gatekeepers at the Apple App Store on its path to the end user.
And if great teachers are not born but made, the educational publishers who provide the right kind of teacher support -- in the form of well thought-out curriculum (as distinct from disconnected pieces of content), accessible product training, and other forms of professional development -- are the ones who will succeed in a digitally driven educational environment.
Plus ça change...