On a 360-degree stage at the 2018 Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) annual conference, Tom Vander Ark — the first and former executive director of education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and now the CEO of Getting Smart — issued a hard truth.
“We’ve all been augmented,” Vander Ark said, using verbiage still primarily reserved for sci-fi literature to qualify the current state of artificial intelligence and machine learning for a crowd of educational technology directors and district IT leaders.
Sharing the stage with Jonathan Rochelle, Google’s director of product management and founder of Google Drive and Google Docs, as well as Katherine Prince, senior director of strategic foresight for KnowledgeWorks, Vander Ark led the audience through a discussion focused on navigating what they call the Fourth Industrial Revolution — defined by artificial intelligence, or machine learning.
The keynote bounced around on the different ways the onset of artificial intelligence will play into our everyday lives — the effect on civic responsibilities, a radically different workforce and a new management structure for company and administrative leaders — but the speakers primarily dwelled upon the challenges that both students and teachers will face as technology backed by deep learning finds its way into classrooms.
The Changing Student
“Everything feels like it’s coming at us much, much more quickly,” Vander Ark told the audience in reference to the pace of technological development in the classroom, noting that people tend to underestimate how quickly innovation compounds itself, and thus fail to prepare for the changing world.
During a subsequent panel of the same three thought leaders — moderated by Valerie Truesdale, the associate superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina — a conversation about how to design learning for the changing world went in three different directions, with one common theme: Educators and the classrooms they’re in will have to adapt to the changing student.
Rochelle, who was asked about the direction coding should be pushed in both traditional and technical schools, said that foundational skills like coding should not be reflexively excluded from some classrooms.
“Coding isn’t just for engineers or people who will continue to code as a career,” Rochelle said, and emphasized that even if schools don’t implement a standalone course on computer science, adding an undertone or a thread of coding and computing can be successful in guiding students.
Only 35 states currently allow students to count computer science courses toward high school graduation, according to Code.org, a nonprofit that Rochelle lauded as a critical proponent of computer science nationwide.
Prince offered an accompanying strategy when asked about the best practices for students in a changing classroom.
“Given the rapid rate of change that we’ll be experiencing and the increasing capabilities of smart machines, we need to focus on helping people develop a foundation for leveraging our uniquely human assets — our emotion systems — and core to that is our social and emotional skills,” she said, adding that “we need to place more emphasis on helping people have awareness of themselves, social awareness, deep self knowledge and then build on top of that.”
Fostering emotional and social skills, Foster believes, is the key to workforce readiness for today’s students. For Vander Ark, though, project-based learning, or PBL, is step one toward developing independent thinkers and “student agency,” as he calls it.
Using the performing arts as an example of PBL, Vander Ark noted that students involved often take on difficult challenges that demand self-discipline and time management, while at the same time fostering the social and emotional skills that Prince highlighted.
The Changing Leader
The panelists also deliberated on the best practices for administrative employees, and offered some suggestions that the audience members could take back to their districts or institutions.
Vander Ark, a former superintendent in Washington state himself, flatly told the audience that outdated organizational methods will result in failed strategies.
“Top-down execution-based plans won’t work — they’ll be outdated,” he said, instead suggesting that the leaders in the audience construct a “generative environment” — one that’s top-down, bottom-up and inside-out.
“If you don’t bring teachers into your conversation you’ll get fired, or you should get fired,” Vander Ark said.
The idea of superintendents becoming conversational leaders was also commonly shared by the panelists.
To Prince, the most important aspect of facilitating administrative change was a comprehensive one. Encouraging local community leaders, she said, would reinforce change.
“I would love to see schools have student feedback every single day,” Rochelle said. He would also like to see parents and school boards take control and say, “This is how we’re going to measure learning.”