Idit Harel’s Global Vision for A New Generation

Notes from the self-described ‘wounded education disruptor with a missionary zeal’.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT MIT Media Lab

An accomplished tech entrepreneur, the founder and CEO of Globaloria, Idit Harel, is an award-winning author, thought leader, and innovator in educational technology. She has been advancing STEM and computing education for decades by transforming education systems worldwide to better prepare today’s youth for the global knowledge innovation economy. What you may not know about her: Idit is an Israeli-American, a former competitive gymnast on Israel’s national modern gymnastic team, served in the Israeli army, professional dancer, mother of three, and holds four degrees. From 1995 to 2004, Idit was founder and CEO of MaMaMedia, a pioneering Internet media company that was the first web-based educational brand for kids. From 1988-1994, Idit was a research scientist and lecturer at MIT Media Lab. Her breakthrough research led to publishing Constructionism with Seymour Papert and her book Children Designers (AERA 1991 Outstanding Book Award Recipient). She has served on advisory boards and committees to help start and shape innovative education programs at the MIT Media Lab, Harvard Graduate School of Education, PBSKids Next Generation Media, MEET, TIG, Saybot, ATLAS University of Colorado, and Macaulay Honors College CUNY. She holds a B.A. from Tel Aviv University, an HGSE Ed.M. and C.A.S. from Harvard University, a Ph.D. from MIT’s Media Lab, and Executive Education from Stanford.

Humans are addicted to learning. Playful learning in particular gives us humans an extraordinary joy.

In this far-ranging interview, she discusses everything from thoughts about her MIT mentor Seymour Papert and the spirit of edtech in the 80s and 90s, to what she has in common with Sebastian Thrun, the goal of education, tips for edtech startups, and even some lessons from Pokemon.

Who are a few colleagues/pioneers in the edtech arena that you admire greatly and why?

Idit: Seymour Papert, who passed away earlier this month, was one of the most innovative learning theorists of the 20th century. Seymour was one of my genius master teachers at MIT Media Lab, a pioneering mentor in edtech innovation, and most importantly, an outstanding humanitarian. His vision for tech-infused constructionist learning keeps inspiring me to innovate every day, to work tirelessly on transforming education systems, and to help teachers and learners everywhere realize their potential. Marvin Minsky, Alan Kay, and Nicholas Negroponte have inspired me greatly as well. Bringing the computer scientist mindset and computational thinking to all students is truly my goal, and the goal of my company, Globaloria. Computer science is the new literacy, and access to learning thinking with it, starting at a young age, is a human right. The ideas of these intellectual giants from 30 years ago about how the mind works and how to invent technology for putting human minds on creative fire — are still my guide, and why Globaloria exists today.

Your seminal work in the field of edtech as a pioneer and innovator is well known. Where are the 1990s Clickerati today and how would you characterize the zeitgeist of the 2010s and coming 2020s?

Idit: In the 1990s, I named the kids born in that last decade of the 20th century, the “Clickerati Generation.” I envisioned how these children would grow up immersed in new Internet media, clicking their way around everything they do – learning, play, communication, commerce, entertainment — and how they would be unable to imagine a world without global browser-based Internet technology (e.g., Washington Post article from Oct 1999). At the end of the 20th century, we re-defined the new literacy at MaMaMedia: no longer the “three R’s,” but rather, “the three X’s” – the survival skills I believed Clickerati kids would need in the 21st century: eXploring digital spaces, or learning how to discover things on your own; eXpressing, or figuring out how to build things with digital tools on your own; and eXchanging ideas and digital creations online. I still believe the 3Xs are new foundational skills today!

CREDIT Globoria girl with gameShe’s got game. Globaloria middle-school student in San Jose learns computer science as she works on a coding project in her social studies class.

This vision became true in the 21st century (despite the collapse of the first internet-era “bubble”). Clickerati kids are alive and kicking, and what was added in the first and second decade of the 21st century are much stronger and stable social and mobile technology-based dimensions for constructionist learning and self-expression, knowledge exploration and modeling, and much better teamwork, co-production and creative sharing of tools and spaces.

What are your thoughts on constructivism and MOOCs? Is anyone doing anything good with MOOCs or are they largely a stage-on-a-stage model and missed opportunity?

Idit: Like Thrun (Udacity’s founder), I, too, am an entrepreneur and CEO in the MOOC arena, a wounded education disruptor with a missionary zeal. And while I share some bloggers’ disappointment of first generation MOOCs to some extent, I continue to be a fan of Thrun’s bold and inspiring vision for MOOCs and their role in benefiting society via rich learning. His search (and mine) for the technology that could change the way we do education is right-on — and for all the right reasons: to improve the teaching/learning process and offer it massively; to make high-quality, Stanford-style or MIT-style education more affordable and thus accessible to close opportunity gaps in schools, colleges, civil society, and careers; to offer effective courses to fast-track the development of the STEM and computing scholars and professionals urgently needed for the global innovation economy.

Your thoughts on lack of engagement with MOOCs or learning generally?

Idit: Improving engagement is usually driven by a particular learning theory. The lack of one is what primarily undermined Thrun’s initial realization of Udacity. We know a great deal today about cognition and about how learning works best with and without technology. When Udacity’s courses didn’t engage most course-takers, Thrun needed to address the question of what students require to make technology-based learning succeed, not simply perfect what he had already tried — his taped instructional lecture. In my view as a learning scientist, what engages MOOC students is a healthy blend of constructionism and learning-by-doing at the core of each course, with instructionist, front-of-the-classroom/studio lectures or tutorials-on-demand, plus coaches and mentors for supplementing any project-based learner as he/she needs, Socratic style.

What is your definition of blended learning, what makes for the best blended learning conditions?

Idit: Before we pick up too much speed we need to stop and we need to consider the educational future we are aiming for in higher education, technical education, and especially in the early years of K-12 education, when it really counts.

I describe it as blended learning for Instructionism vs. Constructionism.

It seems to me that some recent MOOCs and start-up ideas in Blended learning — which at the outset appear exciting and promising — are basically indifferent to what we know about what constitutes good learning. All of a sudden, John Dewey,Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Maria Montessori, Seymour Papert, Jerome Bruner, Howard Gardner, John Seely Brown — more than 100 years of theory about cognition and learning-by-doing — are being forgotten.

We have found that when the aim is to make children the designers and builders of their own learning, and therefore the owners of the knowledge they achieve, Constructionism is necessary. And if investors and innovators want the new flipped classrooms to have a significant and scalable impact on students, we must use technology to integrate and promote Constructionist learning spaces across the country — faster.

What should be the goal of education?

Idit: The goal of education should be to provide all students with the opportunity to achieve academic fulfillment, joy of learning new knowledge and skills, and economic success. In order to do so, our schools need to prepare them for the new global economy where computer science and utilizing computational tools fluently is the new literacy.

Globaloria courses were designed with this idea in mind. We emphasize utilizing computational tools fluently for iterative design thinking through conceptualizing and creating complex projects about topics of passion, interest, or for clarifying misconceptions. By 2025, the workforce will require people who can conceive and create advanced robotics, virtual reality and artificial intelligence platforms. We must prepare our students to become active members of the new global innovation economy (I call it preparing kids for the “Constructionist Economy”) – failing to do so misses the goal of education, and is an egregious act of social injustice.

What does Globaloria do right that sets it well apart from other companies operating in the space, and how is it able to get it so right?

Idit: Globaloria is different from other companies operating in this space because it teaches students professional computer programming languages and engineering practices and skills, as opposed to a light-and-fluffy version of computing, which I refer to as “pop-computing.” Students who take the Globaloria courses are using the same programs and processes as professional engineers and computer scientists working at major tech companies and businesses, and they learn innovation through MIT-style education. Additionally, Globaloria uses iterative design methods to build soft skills like communication, collaboration, creative thinking, and trial-and-error, contributing to students’ well-rounded education.

CREDIT Globoria STEM four

Gracious hosts. Globaloria team hosts NYC high-school students from Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx as interns every summer to evaluate new courses and inspire them to pursue college studies and careers in computing. 

We have been one of the first organizations in the nation to implement “computer science education for all” – schools, teachers, students, subjects and zip-codes. Our decades of research and practice in urban and rural schools guided career and technical education policies and computer science standards at the federal and state level. Our approach is based on my pioneering, award-winning research at the MIT Media Lab on students learning through design and computer programming.

What are your thoughts about the current Pokemon phenomenon? Is this a craze worth looking at, or should we ignore it and walk into barriers like its players? Anything to learn from it?

Idit: How can someone ignore a phenomenon that entered the masses consciousness overnight? I think there are several things we can we learn from it:

1. We can’t always predict what will be a successful product.

2. Gaming is the most pervasive media today and we should use it for learning for that very reason. Successful games can attract millions of users and billions of dollars.

3. The phenomenon can lose its magic as quickly as it gained it – as a game. But if we integrate learning, it can never lose its magic. Humans are addicted to learning. Playful learning in particular gives us humans an extraordinary joy.

4. It’s is easy to control people’s movement in the physical world with simple game mechanics. If we can use the same simple scalable game mechanics for learning and teaching – that’s going to be incredible!

5. We have a huge need to collect, categorize, and organize items — even virtual ones.

6. We’ve only scratched the surface of AR games. It’s the beginning! Let’s teach the next generation how to program them, so better ones will emerge in the future.

CREDIT Globoria groupNext-gen smiles. Students in Houston ISD designed Globaloria T’s to promote their computer science projects among other students and teachers in their school.

What tips would you provide to an edtech startup these days? 

Idit: Don’t give anything for free. Good quality and engaging edtech that is truly transformative requires a combination of smart technology development, platform enabled content development, customized mentoring service, teacher training and guiding services to parents, which cost money to build and service. Part of the experiment of product-market fit is also testing market demand and pricing that can make the business self-sustainable. If all your customers are paying, and renewing, and recommending it to others or buying it for them as a gift – it’s a great edtech company.

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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