Are schools ready for the power and problems of big data?

[Big Data at AltSchools is creating an environment for personalized learning. Discover in this eSchoolNews article how data can provide the necessary insights on a massive scale for meeting the needs of all learners. For years I struggled with how to combine an a academic program aligned to individual talents and interests with collaborative projects that provide real-world connections. The Manchester Academic Charter School (MACS ) in Pittsburgh is trying to make this happen. Other schools, like South Fayette, are also looking at Big Data as a tool to better meet the needs of their students.)

Imagine classrooms outfitted with cameras that run constantly, capturing each child’s every facial expression, fidget, and social interaction, every day, all year long.

Then imagine on the ceilings of those rooms infrared cameras, documenting the objects that every student touches throughout the day, and microphones, recording every word that each person utters.

Picture now the children themselves wearing Fitbit-like devices that track everything from their heart rates to their time between meals. For about a quarter of the day, the students use Chromebooks and learning software that track their every click and keystroke.

What you’re seeing is the future of K-12 education through the eyes of Max Ventilla, the CEO of AltSchool, a Bay Area startup that represents the most aggressive, far-reaching foray into the world of big data and analytics that the K-12 education sector has seen to date.

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MITx u.lab: Education As Activating Social Fields

Until last year, the number of students in my classes at MIT numbered 50 or so. Less than twelve months later, I have just completed my first class with 50,000 registered participants. They came from 185 countries, and together they co-generated:
• >400 prototype (action learning) initiatives
• >560 self-organized hubs in a vibrant global eco-system
• >1,000 self-organized coaching circles.

What explains the growth in group size from 50 to 50,000? It’s moving my class at MIT Sloan to the edX platform, making it a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course).

Designed to blend open access with deep learning, the u.lab was first launched in early 2015 with 26,000 registered participants. When we offered it for a second time, in September, we had 50,000 registered participants. According to the exit survey, 93% found their experience “inspiring” (60%) or “life changing” (33%); and 62% of those who came into the u.lab without any contemplative practice have one now.

Inverting the 21st-Century University

One-third of the participants had “life changing” experiences? How is that possible in a mere seven-week online course? The answer is: it’s not. The u.lab isn’t just an online course. It’s an o2o (online-to-offline) blended learning environment that provides participants with quality spaces for reflection, dialogue, and collaborative action.

From the perspective of the course co-facilitation team, the whole u.lab experience felt like a journey of profound personal, relational, and institutional inversion. To invert something means to turn it inside-out or outside-in. In the case of the u.lab, not only was the classroom experience inverted, but so was the conversation among learners and the learners’ cognitive experience. Unlike traditional classrooms, the u.lab is characterized by:

distributed organizing: opening up the classroom to many self-organized hubsaround the world;
generative dialogue: opening up the conversation from teacher-centric downloading to student-centric generative dialogue;
collective governance: opening up the institution to a global innovation context while cultivating spaces that help the system sense and see itself;
prototyping practices: opening up the learning modes through hands-on action learning methodologies;
self-transformation: opening up the deeper sources of human intelligence by activating the open mind, open heart, and open will.

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Face-to-Face vs. Online Learning: Why Is It Either/Or?

[For a period of time there was a debate about online learning. Today there’s a growing acceptance of the value of “blended learning” where students work collaboratively in real time, but also build their knowledge and skills online. In this Edutopia article Matt Levinson, the head of an independent school, explains how Global Online Academy provides his students with an online community of colleagues to work on projects. In Pittsburgh the World Affairs Council has played a similar role connecting schools to counterparts around the globe.]


In the film The Intern, a 70-year-old senior citizen named Ben Whittaker (Robert DeNiro), applies for a “senior” internship with a fashion tech start-up experiencing explosive growth. The interview process requires him to submit a video. Uncertain how to make a video, Ben enlists his nine-year-old grandson and wows the company with his warmth and personality. Ben gets the job.

He brings real-life experience to his new role, and his high EQ brings dividends to the company’s fast-moving, over committed CEO, who learns to appreciate and value Ben for his sincerity and integrity. His “old school” approach finds him in a suit and tie each day, while his younger colleagues wear t-shirts and don’t shave. Ben’s charm is that he is skilled at and values conversation.

In “Reclaiming Conversation,” a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Professor Sherry Turkle writes:

But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.

And in The Intern, Ben challenges CEO Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway) to learn who she is through conversation, listening, and empathy.

As schools continue the march into online and blended learning, there’s much to take away from the lessons of Ben Whittaker. The approach doesn’t need to be either face-to-face or online. It can be both. With a growth mindset, we can be open to new ways and modes of connecting.

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