The Microsoft Education Award
As an economist, I am sometimes asked to justify how my current research on reading habits in rural Africa is related to economics. “How do they let you study that?” people ask. A quick definition of economics as the study of how to make choices in environments of scarcity, and an addendum of economics as a toolkit of methods for empirical analysis, quickly reveals the naiveté of the question. Schools in Africa are grossly under-equipped for the task of developing the skills of an educated person, and parents, often non-literate themselves, have little appreciation of the power of reading practice as a way to reinforce reading ability. The same parents who will have their children patiently walk a young ox back and forth several hundred times, to train the ox how to plow a furrow, will believe that a child reading the same book twice is a waste of time: “She already read it.” In this environment of enormous potential for improvements in “human capital,” encouraging reading is crucial. Economics would seem to play a critical role in helping to understand.
But for all its vaunted capabilities, the contribution of economics to the discussion of how to improve education outcomes is modest. This is because the more interesting and serious core problems in education fall rather squarely in the domain of psychology. Education is, after all, the process by which minds with particular ways of understanding the world (teachers) impart that way of understanding to minds that have different ways of understanding the world (students). Improvements in education come from more careful attention and insight into how the minds of children work in these structured interpersonal situations. What words should a teacher utter to inspire a student to overcome the hesitation and inertia that are the hallmarks of the reluctant reader? What practices can students carry out that will enable them, through repetition, to master a skill? How can active learning be fostered in a classroom with no electricity, no desks or worktables, and 75 students per teacher? Education psychology brings innovations to the table; economists are more likely to be technicians testing whether new methods actually work.
Technology plays an increasingly important role in education practice, though, because successfully reforming the interaction between teacher and students in the classroom is hard. If the Millennium Development Goal to “Ensure that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling” is to be met by 2015, the desirability of using technology to provide some part of the “course of schooling” seems apparent.
This year, 84 organizations and individuals were nominated to compete for the 2008 Microsoft Education Award. While slightly more than half of the nominees were based in the United States, 21 other countries were represented among the nominees. The nominees may be grouped into three categories of technological innovation or application: connectivity, availability, and applicability. Technology can be thought of as helping in enhancing the connections amongst students and teachers, increasing the availability of educational resources, and offering applications of concepts that a teacher is demonstrating in the classroom. Another distinction that is worth bearing in mind is that some of the nominees have developed technological innovations that circumvent the classroom as a site of pedagogy, while others have developed technology that increases the productivity of the classroom as an educational setting.
In the category of enhancing connections amongst students and teachers, 2008 saw a continued trend to the development of Web 2.0 tools that were recognized by the judging panel in the form of last year’s award winner, TakingITGlobal. There were 18 applicants that fell into this category (about one fourth of the total applicants). Most had developed interactive websites that harnessed the technologies of social networking to enable teachers and students, and other educators or community members, to interact in ways that enhanced learning.
In the category of increasing the availability of educational resources, the majority were specialized websites that made knowledge more available to students, teachers or researchers. Also in this category were projects that delivered knowledge electronically via hardware, such as hard drives loaded with educational or research materials. Finally, there continued to be applicants who crafted elegant and valuable software solutions for the disabled, enabling them to more easily participate in online communities and avail themselves of online or digital media.
In the category of offering applications, 2008 again saw a large number (22, about one-fourth of the applicants) of programs to train students in information and telecommunication technologies. At the most basic, these consist of small computer classrooms where students learn how to use computers and the Internet. In more complex programs, the ICT learning is part of a pedagogy of community engagement. The judging panel generally feels that these efforts are extremely valuable, but typically no longer represent technological or organizational innovations. Efforts like these have been previously recognized, most notably with the very successful Brazilian ICT program of CDI - Committee for Democratization of Information. But there are always applicants in this category that are innovating in unanticipated directions. The one that captured the spirit of the category was the Tabluter, of the ICT Trust Fund in Egypt. In order to facilitate computer and Internet learning amongst adult Egyptian women in rural areas, a design innovation was made of linking computer screens to form a kind of coffee table of the sort that Egyptian women sit around when they gather in rural villages. The positioning of the screens makes the computers less intimidating and helps create a spirit of teamwork and mutual learning. Wonderful, or, as they say in the Arabic-speaking world, Masha’allah!
Determining which applicants merit recognition while others do not is a hard task that the judging panel takes very seriously. The panel looks for both evidence of profound or inspiring change and possibility of replicability or scalability. Change may be in either the technical aspect of the technology or in the systems or institutions developed to deploy the technology. It is a commonplace that many truly amazing and useful technologies have languished in the workshop of an inventor who could not figure out a distribution model for the technology.
Aaron Doering, Go North! Adventure Learning Series, University of Minnesota –– United States Many students in developed countries around the world are passionate about the natural world. Few, however, have much opportunity to experience a meadow, forest, river, or mountain. They live in built environments, and often travel and vacation in other built environments. Their lives are sheltered from the direct, visceral encounter with nature that remains the experience of most human beings in the developing world, and that was the experience of all our ancestors. The disconnect from the natural world leads to moments that are poignant. I remember a friend who grew up in urban areas and exclaimed one day, when she first found herself out in the natural world on a nature walk, “So that’s what a beehive really looks like! Look how the bees are flying around it!” Imagine an adult never having seen a beehive.
The enormous market for media that present and explain the natural world is the (usually laudable) result of this disconnect. Educational television programming, documentaries, natural history museums, zoos, and aquariums do tremendous work in helping educate students and the general public. Nevertheless, these media often have difficulty engaging the student or viewer as a participant, thus enabling more active learning. Students continue to think of the global environment as something abstract and disconnected from their lives, or as something compartmentalized and bounded, and hence are less capable of understanding the complex environmental challenges of the world today.
Overcoming the barriers to greater understanding of the natural world has been the mission of Go North! Aaron Doering has been the principal force behind polarhusky.com, an interactive website that is the face of Go North!, a project of the Learning Technologies center at the University of Minnesota. Doering is an Assistant Professor who holds the Bonnie Westby Huebner Endowed Chair in Education and Technology at the University of Minnesota. Go North! brings together polar scientists and polar communities to share their research and lives with students around the world. The site interactively chronicles annual Arctic expeditions, giving students the chance to see and interact on a “live” basis with the research team. Crackly windy audio and video recordings, live and unproduced, enhance the rawness of the Arctic.
The website reaches millions of users each year, and is a model application of a variety of Internet and telecommunication tools. One commentator posted to the site’s bulletin board, “Many thanks to you Aaron for introducing me to GoNorth! … This is the first year my first graders have really understood that the North Pole is more than a stick Santa put in the ground. They love this curriculum and amaze me everyday with their critical thinking skills.” For more information, see www.polarhusky.com.
Center for Puppetry Arts –– United States “Manipulatives” is the word that teachers use to refer to classroom activities where students use their hands to carry out activities that have learning outcomes. Learning to count is enhanced by the physical act of moving pebbles or seashells from one tray to another. Learning about insects is enhanced when crafting and painting bugs out of modeling clay. One of the major justifications for arts education is that it provides opportunities in the school environment to exercise that “manipulative” learning: perspective, chemistry, history are all learning outcomes enhanced by art classes. Arts education has other justifications, of course. Cultivating the aesthetic spirit inside each person and enabling self-expression are important elements in leading a fulfilling life. Arts education, like so many other public goods, cannot escape the judgment of the budget director. There is always necessity for extending the limited resources available to make arts education more effective at lower cost. And arts education is costly: inspiring students to create is a rare talent. Not every teacher can lead a class in painting sunflowers.
The Center for Puppetry Arts Distance Learning Program, based in Atlanta, improves education quality by implementing a model for delivering “best practice” arts lessons through interactive video-conferencing. Teachers interested in participating in the program request a time-slot. Then through video-conferencing, an experienced puppet-maker leads a number of classrooms scattered around the country in the puppet-making enterprise, which range from a Giraffe Rod Puppet to a Gingerbread Boy Shadow Puppet to Hopi Kachina Hand Puppet. Along the way, students learn about ecology, food, or Native American culture.
More than 120,000 students have benefitted from puppetry arts video presentations. Their model offers a replicable process of live video interaction for many different domains of education, from museums to music. For more information, see www.puppet.org/edu/distance.shtml.
Curriki –– United States Teachers are in constant need of updated and invigorating pedagogical tools. The Internet has enabled sharing of tools, but in a fairly costly way in terms of the time needed to search, sift, and extract. For some, the Internet is a case of technology reducing quality: instead of quietly concentrating on developing an appropriate curriculum, too much time is spent browsing. The Web almost seems to delight in exacerbating our inherent tendency towards attention deficit disorder. Web surfers need to somehow tie their hands to limit how many “clicks’ they will undertake when they sit in front of their computers.
Open-access resources such as Curriki are solving this problem by organizing education information for teachers. This concept of gateway, portal or open access archive is a familiar one from the early days of the World Wide Web. The advent of Web 2.0 tools that allow users to interact with websites to generate, comment, and organize content has seen an explosion of new learning tools designed for educators.
Curriki, based in Washington, DC, makes available curriculum materials and facilitates curriculum-related interaction among primary and secondary school teachers. The website also leverages the tremendous potential of peer-to-peer interaction and user-created content. Curriki already has 40,000 registered users, and is an excellent example of how to use the latest Web 2.0 technologies for social networking and file-sharing, for the common good of students everywhere. For more information, see www.curriki.org.
Dániel Rátai, 3D for All, Ltd. –– Hungary Creating and visualizing 3-D images remains a challenge in many educational settings, especially the sciences and the arts. One can easily imagine the difficulty in explaining the shape that a mathematical equation might represent if the two-dimensional drawing were the only visual representation of the equation. Seeing an object in three dimensions enables far better understanding of its properties.
Dániel Rátai, from Hungary, is the co-founder, along with János Rátai and Zoltán Kárpáti of 3D for All Computer Development Ltd., a family enterprise which has been developing hardware and software that permits a standard PC to represent 3-D images that a user might generate through hand motions. Sensors are attached to a computer monitor and the user, wearing a pair of goggles, moves a 3D pen to draw images in the air; the images are then represented on the screen and seen as 3-D by the user.
Although the software is still in devel opment and has only been adopted by a small number of institutions, such as the Hungarian Institute of Experimental Medicine which is using the software to implement a 3D laser scanning microscope, the committee felt that this kind of software technology may have tremendous potential in the education domain, where students are eager to be “amazed” by three-dimensional representation, and so more likely to learn about the underlying subject matter. For more information, see www.3dforall.hu.
Digital StudyHall –– India Much technology development in education is focused on extending a teacher’s reach as a way of enhancing connections, or replacing the teacher entirely by facilitating more peer-to-peer learning opportunities. But another way to use technology is to facilitate the training of teachers so that they can be better connectors in their own classrooms. Many schoolteachers, particularly in poor schools, are poorly trained and have little experience with high quality teaching techniques. Teacher training is every bit as labor-intensive as teaching itself, and so subject to the same constraints of the costs involved in moving people to the same physical location.
Digital StudyHall, based in Lucknow, India and co-founded in 2005 by Randolph Wang, a computer science professor then at Princeton University, improves education quality in urban slum schools by implementing a new distribution model for delivering “best practice” school lessons on DVD. Somewhat tongue in cheek, they think of themselves as the “educational equivalent of “Netflix + YouTube + Kazaa.” Digital StudyHall records classroom lessons given by high-quality teachers. These recordings are then sent to a central facility, where they are then forwarded to participating schools. Teachers are encouraged to use the recordings interactively as a classroom support, rather than simply as a kind of substitute teacher. The less-experienced teacher learns from seeing how a high-quality teacher interacts with a typical poor urban classroom. The teacher might begin to use techniques gleaned from the videos to improve his or her own pedagogy.
Implemented in 30 pilot schools, Digital StudyHall represents a scalable “system” of video production and DVD distribution that might someday embrace the whole of the Indian educational system. The basic model, moreover, lends itself to extension to other settings, including for example training of health and social workers. Since the project’s inception, the organizers have been encouraging and experimenting with replicability in other countries. For more information, see www.dsh.cs.washington.edu.
Conclusion The 2008 Laureates and other applicants for the Microsoft Education Award represent some of the most innovative work in the field of education technology. Nevertheless, there is always room for improvement. In that spirit, it is interesting to contemplate some of the synergies that might arise as these Laureates learn about each others’ activities. The easy opportunities for mutual benefit are for the lesson plans of Go North!, the Center for Puppetry Arts, and Digital StudyHall to be made available through Curriki. The deeper interesting technology question is how each of these organizations has cobbled together software to manage large numbers of files and present them to the public in a way that is accessibly organized. Other synergies are more fun to imagine. Can the Go North! team make puppets when their hands are frozen? Can the Puppetry Arts team develop some Puppetry crafts that would complement Go North! and deliver them to schools participating in Go North! Likewise, one can easily imagine the master teachers recorded on Digital Study Hall learning from the videos of Puppetry Arts, and vice versa. I have saved 3D for All for last, because the idea of hundreds of kids wearing 3D goggles watching someone draw marionettes that then appear in 3D in front of them is delightful.