Conversation, Connection and Change: Is technology making schools more human?

Conversation, Connection and Change: Is technology making schools more human?

From Memberanda, Fall 2011 

Charlene Li, whose business, Altimeter, is all about how to leverage disruption, opened the meeting by shifting listeners’ mindsets from thinking about how to manage social media to seeing how it offers opportunities for connection.

She added that the social media explosion also means that the people who represent independent schools—heads, trustees, admission and communication professionals—must loosen their grip on controlling the message. A twitter feed is an ongoing conversation with multiple people who speak on behalf of the school, Li said. New representatives are out on the front lines side-by-side with the more traditional deliverers of a school’s brand—and schools need to find ways to welcome and engage them.

Social media conversations are now so pervasive and powerful that they are creating institutions that need a new kind of leadership, Li said—an “open leadership,” of people with the confidence and humility to give up the need to be in control. Leadership in the context of social media means establishing authenticity and transparency in a responsive, real-time way.

Li reminded her listeners that social media in all its forms “is about relationships. They can’t be controlled, but they can develop. Think about what the path of that relationship looks like from the beginning and how it can be sustained. If you think of it in terms of the relationship rather than the technology, you will look at social media in a very different way.”

Relationships also were on NAIS President Patrick F. Bassett’s mind—relationships between teachers and students, between schools and parents, between independent school graduates and the future. Bassett listed the six skills and values that the 21st century will demand and reward, and that the 21st-century school must develop:

Critical Thinking

The final “C” – Cosmopolitanism – is a recent addition to the list, Bassett said. “The most sophisticated young people have crosscultural intelligence, a respect for different groups and different cultures and different points of view,” he said. Being cosmopolitan is critically important in a “networked, connected, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic world.” “You won’t have a school of the future until your faculty embraces these shifts,” Bassett said.

Bassett also reported on a revealing new market segmentation study. NAIS looked at high-income families who are about to make choices about schooling and divided them into categories:

  • Parents who push—These families increasingly will be choosing independent schools, partly because of ongoing and disturbing declines in public education
  • Success-driven parents—“They’re definitely going to choose one of your schools, just which one?” Bassett asked the audience.
  • “Special kids” parents—There is huge interest in these parents, who are looking for customized solutions for their children, whether they have learning differences or a special talent in the arts.
  • Character-building parents—This is the highest proportion of families interested in NAIS schools, Bassett said. Messaging about character is a huge motivator for them.
  • Public school proponents—These families are not interested and are not really worth the price of a stamp, Bassett said—or even a blog entry, Facebook post, or tweet.

After offering what he called his “potpourri” of trends and ideas, Bassett turned his attention to how technology has affected the student-teacher relationship. “For the last 12,000 years the teacher or the professor or the priest held the keys to the kingdom,” but today those keys are being shared. “You’ll know you’re a 21st-century school when the students are engaged in the construction of meaning, when they are co-creators with the teacher.”

In this new world, the construction of knowledge is changing, Bassett said, referring to Salman Khan’s revolutionary online delivery of instruction that learners can “pause and rewind,” paired with assessments that allow the learner to repeat problems until they have mastered them. “One man changed education,” Bassett said of Khan.

That “one man” was the closing speaker at the meeting. Like Li and Bassett, he evoked a new image of the school-student-teacher constellation. Salman Khan is the founder of Khan Academy, a free online system for learning a variety of topics (mostly in math and science now, but soon to branch out into the humanities) while tracking one’s mastery en route. This year, Khan Academy began to test its ideas in the classrooms of public schools in Los Altos, California, in a small experiment involving two 5th and two 7th grade math classes. What happened there surprised even Khan, who has been an evangelist for online learning from the day he posted his first YouTube video.

Given the time to work at their own pace to gain mastery, students who had been classed as needing remedial help turned out to be as good at math as those originally considered “gifted.” Asked by the Los Altos school board about what they would do with a 5th or 7th grade math classroom, Khan said, “We would have them master concepts before they move on,” he said. They also would provide teachers with real-time data about exactly what each student understood and what he or she was struggling with. “The teacher won’t have to stand up on stage and try to figure out the 50th percentile and teach to that; the teacher will get as much data as possible when a student is stuck and can do a one-on-one intervention or a one-on-two interaction. Every minute of the teacher’s time is focused on a human interaction—not a one-size-fits-all interaction,” Khan said.

Khan emphasized his suspicion that “when people talk about on-demand learning and computer-based videos, there is a knee jerk reaction that this is somehow about automated learning and turning everyone into the Vulcan society or something like that. We think it is the exact opposite: we view technology as a tool to make the classroom more interactive, more human.” The Khan Academy approach will be used in larger-scale tests in Los Altos in the coming year. And he has also been approached, he says, by “a little school district called India.” Khan is also conducting a pilot at Georgetown Day School, an SSATB member school. Wherever Khan Academy goes next, its teaching videos and assessment software have already changed the equation.

How will admission professionals tell the story of schools that are being transformed by the relationships that technology is creating? Other featured speakers at the meeting turned to the specific, offering action-oriented sessions about presentation skills, legal issues, career paths in admission, leveraging technology, research-based financial aid, challenges inherent in admitting for diversity, and best practices ideas from higher education admission. While practical, many of the presentations also took up the gauntlet of the future, echoing the themes of engagement, leadership, and relationship that had informed the keynotes. At the end of Salman Khan’s presentation, SSATB Executive Director Heather Hoerle returned to the stage to announce that SSATB had just signed up Dr. Robert Sternberg, whose new rubrics to measure creative and practical intelligence are beginning to be used for admission testing from the elementary to the college level, for next year’s meeting in Chicago. At that meeting, SSATB, she said, will offer “a continuing conversation about what matters.”

Chances are good that at least a few members of the audience tweeted that news to their connected communities.


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