Learning by Design and Teaching Agents


Christiansen (2008) asserts that technology provides tools to employ for disruptive innovation, technology is not the innovation itself.  If technology were the end of closing the life-gap rather than the means, the life-gap would be smaller, given the fact that computers have been lining classroom walls since the early eighties.  Additionally, schools across America have spent upwards of 60 billion dollars during the last two decades, on technology.  During these two decades, as technology evolved many tools for students and teachers have developed; of these tools, perhaps the most useful is also the most controversial, Data. Big Data is everywhere from the data combined with the Internet of things, mobile apps, and OER’s are vital to and synthesizing for personalized learning.  The technological distortion that has riddled the charter movement, and the public school system, for the last two decades, is the notion of being data-driven by one or two test scores which were reported in an untimely fashion (Thompson, 2014).  Transforming schools from being data-driven to being data-informed proves to be a power-tool for student motivation and empowerment.  However, in a culture that is justifiably data-privacy leery challenges do arise (Schwartzbeck & Wolf, 2012).  Student-data privacy is of utmost concern, as proven by California's Student Online Personal Information Protection Act.  Several state legislative initiatives with regard to student-data privacy and ethical use are currently in the house and senate.  Nonetheless, currently, several schools require key-stroke logins, video surveillance of computer use, and filter internet searches. The combination of security measures ultimately still leave students quite vulnerable when checking personal information non-related to school or when conducting emotionally sensitive, potentially harmful internet searches (Thompson, 2014).  

            As the technology becomes smaller and data grows larger, more innovations are appearing.  Digital Badges, to indicate competency-based mastery, stand to be one of the largest, transformative, bridge-building, life-gap closing technologies (Thigpen, 2014).  Universities, after-school programs, employers, etc. are employing Digital Badges to differentiate and demonstrate student or employee engagement with and mastery of several learning experiences.  Digital Badges stand to be a transformative technology in that charter schools can issue Badges of Learning versus credits on transcripts. This affects the life-gap in several ways; students are not bound to a one-way, one-pace curriculum, such as algebra, an often diploma blocking course.  Instead of attempting and failing an algebra course at their school of attendance, students could engage in a course that instructs and assesses the same competencies, yet in a more user-friendly, passable format particular to individual learning styles and needs.  Each competency passed registers as a Badge within students’ digital portfolios, becoming portable and transferable transcripts without the bureaucratic red tape (Thigpen, 2014).  Through such innovations as blended learning, personalized education delivered by way of technology, and competency-based learning and mastery reporting by way of digital badges students become the leaders of their own learning and less likely to disengage.

While asserting that current practices, which were born out of the needs of yesterday, will not suffice individuals who wish to thrive in the near future, Gardner (2008) cautions against abandoning all aspects of current practices.  One may think that in the technological world of the future, math and science should be the focus of all education. Though globalization does require a greater understanding of math and science, the same is true for disciplines such as the arts and humanities. Gardner further cautions that practices today, such as standardized testing, traditional school schedules and curriculum content are non-productive, as well as possibly dampening the ability to see the need for new forms and processes in order to develop the five minds. Given Gardner’s assertion, one might assume that technology in the classroom removes teachers from the classroom. To the contrary, Christensen, Horn (2008)and Kahn (2012)equally assert that technology cannot and will not replace teachers. However, Technology deployed and employed astutely will humanize the teaching profession once again through 1:1 learning. Thus technology is affecting the life-gap through personalized and interesting curriculum that aids in building and sustaining the student-teacher connections many disengaged students cite as a factor when absent.

            Additionally, Christensen (2008) and Kahn (2012) submit that customized, layered & dynamic textbooks, such as those EnGageNY produces, will decrease curriculum costs as the market scales up, thus saving millions of dollars. From the time when the first whispers of a national curriculum escaped the White House walls, critics balked claiming socialism in addition to citing exorbitant costs to schools for purchasing new materials. However, several discerning schools decided to forgo the expected adoption of new, overpriced textbooks after they scrutinized and determined that publishing companies had not delivered anything different from previous editions. Instead, schools like Berkeley adopted an open source curriculum offered by the New York State of education – EnGageNY.  A majority of the EnGageNY curriculum was created by non-profit amateur curriculum designers. Significant to this shift in technological curriculum adoption is the trend of employing teachers as curriculum designers.  (Monahan, 2015)Technology is creating space for collaborative interdisciplinary curriculum that is empowering for once isolated teachers.  Empowered teachers are more effective teachers. 

            Although Common Core was constructed to be a national curriculum, several states are allowing for and even legislating for local teacher-teacher created curricular that can be accessed through technology. Under the Creative Commons umbrella teachers are able to transcend the brick and mortar construct of public education in order to globally deliver content by way of Open Educational Resources (OER) (Tonks, Weston, Wiley, & Barbour, 2013).  

            The premise revise, remix, reuse and redistribute of OER’s stands in stark contrast to textbook publishers copyright laws. The Open High School of Utah (OHSU), a 7-12 charter, has taken advantage of this instructional-resource paradigm shift since 2009. OHSU serves students in the state of Utah, but is committed to open curriculum free to the world.  The journal interviewed, Tonks, an OHSU founding teacher, approximately two years after the charter opened. In reference to utilizing teachers as instructional designers, Tonks confirmed what has previously been established; teachers, rather than commercial curriculum designers, have a local relationship with and therefore better understanding of, what will engage students in learning.  A keen observation which echoes Wagner’s (2008)assertion that in order to close the life-gap, a genuine understanding of students needs and interests, for the purpose of motivating and engaging real learning, is imperative. (Tonks, Weston, Wiley, & Barbour, 2013)