Interview | Laura Pappano, Sense-Making and the Year of Disruption

Laura PappanoShe recently wrote the article, “The Year of the MOOC,” which was featured on the cover of the New York Times Education Life section. Laura Pappano is the author of Inside School Turnarounds (2010), co-author of Playing With the Boys (2008), and author of The Connection Gap (2001). A former education columnist for The Boston Globe, Laura’s work has appeared in The New York Times Education Life section, The Harvard Education Letter, The Christian Science Monitor, The Huffington Post, and The Boston Globe Magazine among many others. She is New York Times Education Life/Harvard Education Letter writer-in-residence, Wellesley Centers for Women and has written about education for more than 20 years. At Technapex in New York City, she’ll moderate a discussion among a stellar panel of entrepreneurs who will discuss how education is becoming more open and social, and what challenges and opportunities this creates.

Victor: Let’s start with the state of technology today and why there’s a perfect storm brewing – what’s your take on the current landscape, and do you agree with a perfect storm brewing?

Laura: I’m not sure what you mean by “a perfect storm brewing.” The phrase evokes for me a sense of calamity and that’s not what I see. There is, for sure, a lot happening now – and very quickly – that is changing not just how we do things but how we think about the things we do. In both K-12 and higher ed we are asking basic questions like, “What is learning?” For decades learning has looked a certain way and had familiar ways of being measured and confirmed. That suited some students really well. But others were excluded. A decade ago, in some elementary school classrooms say, technology was a “helper” that offered – often to struggling students – a way to practice all the things they were already practicing. Doing it on computer provided some reliable, uniform approach, and a way to mark progress. Today when we talk about technology in education – k-12 and higher ed – we are talking about transformation, about the re-ordering of what we learn when, of who gets to learn what, of how we interact with classmates and peers, of what the teacher’s role looks like, of the responsibility and control students have over their learning. Incidentally, this comes as we are having a parallel conversation about performance character – qualities like grit, and perseverance, self-control and motivation – that are critical so that all students can take advantage of what an open digital learning universe looks like.

Victor: You’re headed to NYC Technapex. What’s on your mind as you look ahead, and what message(s) are you considering imparting to the crowd there?  

Laura: I’m actually looking forward to asking questions. The messages – to the extent that there are any – will percolate up from different people sharing their intense slice of experience. I can’t wait to draw on the fantastic expertise so we can all try to make sense of what’s unfolding. That’s my big goal: Sense-making.

Victor: What are the key issues and challenges in edtech today? 

Laura: It’s very exciting that everyday we hear about new tools, but there is such variation in quality and the way tools work that it’s very confusing for the people who need to use them. How can you tell what is really good? Years ago, rudimentary tools had rudimentary websites and interfaces. Now every site looks polished, but the back-end quality can vary a lot. Not only is it hard to judge until a user has invested a lot of time, but we don’t have a sense of a reasonable standard. In terms of K-12, it takes a big investment to find good tools, explain how they can be useful, and make them part of the learning landscape.

There are also such wide disparities among schools in the capacity to figure out and tap new tools that I see the digital divide growing even greater. It used to be that access to hardware was the key problem. Now, the issue is access to training and expertise to teach kids how to search, problem-solve, and communicate appropriately. It’s another form of social capital. I volunteer to run a school newspaper in a poor urban school, located in a gorgeous new building – with no wireless and computers that aren’t effectively networked. Teachers go to each computer and get students’ work off with a thumb drive. How can these kids learn the skills they need to be digitally fluent?

Victor: What emerging technologies are most interesting to you?

Laura: The great thing about all the smart, creative people doing this work is that every day brings cool stuff that solves problems that you didn’t even know you had. In education, I’m most excited by technology that allows for customizable learning. In MOOCS, for example, that looks like back-end software that recognizes not just that you got the answer to a quiz question wrong, but why – and offers a guided explanation. That is a powerful and efficient way to learn because you spend time on what you don’t understand. Technology will be most useful in education when it can adjust to the learner rather than hoping the learner adjusts to it. The field of deep learning – the ability of technology to sort through masses of data to identify patterns that look like human reasoning — applied to education could bring struggling learners into the fold by helping educators understand the variation between the way we traditionally teach something and the way those who have struggled might best learn.

Victor: Thoughts on the current state of education in America? 

Laura: That’s a huge question. I have a lot of thoughts. My most pressing concern is about the widening gap between students with access to the best academic preparation and those who by dint of birth or circumstance are not getting the education they need to be productive and happy.

Victor: Now let’s weave technology in – how can or how will technology assist in moving education to a better place? What key technologies will do this?

Laura: This challenge is not solved by a technological fix, but with a human investment. We need an intense and concerted effort to normalize the use of technology in low-performing schools. Schools may have hardware, but stuff doesn’t work in a fluid way and teachers often use computer labs for word processing and printing, rather than helping students use tools to build and create things that are shared and presented.

Victor: How will K-12 flow into the current college and university re-mix?

Laura: I’m not sure what you mean by re-mix. But increasingly, we will see students arriving on college campuses who have already done college work – not AP courses (college-like work), or a community college course here or there – but high-level introductory courses, especially in math and science, that will accelerate for these students the progress through college. A master’s degree add-on that now takes a year could become a six-month add-on or even part of the four-year package. University attendance is expensive – in time and money. Those in science and technical fields will not want to wait years to develop their ideas and make a splash.

Victor: What advice do you have for technology solutions providers / edu-preneuers in the education sector? 

Laura: Create interfaces that are so simple and intuitive that teachers in low-performing schools insist on having them.

Victor: What key areas might we have skipped that you’d like to add or emphasize or discuss? 

Laura: I would caution tech people to remember that success depends on non-tech-oriented people loving the tools. It can get really exciting and heady (and insular) talking to people who “get it,” technologically speaking. Real advances come when the school that refuses to use, say, Dropbox, because educators don’t know or trust how it works see that it could be supremely useful.

Victor: Anything else? 

Laura: You’ve covered a lot!

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