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In March, technology entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, representatives from big-name companies and philanthropies and some teachers descended on Austin, TX for a conference meant to highlight new solutions to the biggest dilemmas in education.
Educational games, apps, data dashboards and social media were touted as the next big things in panels with titles like “EdTech Entrepreneurs: Are They the Next Superheroes?” and “Building Schools Into the Innovation Ecosystem.” The main theme at the SXSWedu conference—which is linked to the better known music and technology festivals—was how these new technologies are poised to make the learning experience for students more “personalized.” With data gathered and organized by new software systems, games and apps, the idea is that teachers will know their students better than ever and be able to pinpoint exactly where they’ve gone off course and, the hope is, what they need to get back on track.
The panelists were passionate and people were excited.
“The market is going to be the best forum that’s going to solve the problems [of education]. Not government. Not NGOs,” said Stephen Coller, of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation during a panel about “Big Data” (The foundation is one of the many contributors to The Hechinger Report.)
Somewhat less well attended than the sessions devoted to tips on how to make a profit in the ed-tech sector was the screening of a documentary, “The New Public,” about a school in a high-poverty Brooklyn neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant. The film, one of several that screened at the conference, held up a more complicated—and less certain—picture of what’s needed to solve some of education’s most intractable problems. The filmmaker, Jyllian Gunther, followed the lives of students, teachers and administrators as they launched a new high school, Brooklyn Community Arts & Media (BCAM), one of the hundreds of new small schools opened under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration.
Like the technologies being promoted at SXSWedu, smaller schools were also meant to personalize the learning experience for students; the hope was that replacing large, comprehensive high schools with smaller school communities would make education more intimate and student-focused, and would help boost graduation rates. (Early on, the Gates Foundation helped fund the small school movement, but as research on the effectiveness of the reform came back mixed, the foundation abandoned the idea.)
Gunther’s cameras, including the ones students took home with them to film scenes with their parents and siblings, captured how difficult it is to get education right for the neediest students.
For the school leaders and teachers at BCAM, personalized learning didn’t involve apps or data dashboards. They took a less high-tech approach: getting to know the mostly African-American students and their families well during meetings and home visits, taking seriously their hopes and concerns about their own education (even letting students give input on punishments for peers who misbehave), and taking into account their culture and experiences outside school, including incorporating hip hop and dance into the curriculum and providing sessions on self-esteem for girls worried about their body image.
It was attention that the students had often found lacking in their previous schools. And yet it often wasn’t enough. Gunther returned to the school to check in on how the freshman she’d met four years earlier were faring their senior year. Many had left. Others who had once planned on college were struggling to make it to graduation at all. In a particularly heart-rending storyline, a once-buoyant student who wrestled with his sexual identity became more and more dejected as he received college rejection letters, one after the other.
In the fourth year, test prep became a more prominent feature of the school as teachers and administrators reflected that they should have put more emphasis on academic rigor—not just getting to know and engage their students. Perhaps some of the new technology coming down the pike could have helped them better juggle the balance between challenging, engaging and caring for their students.
The personalized learning that ed-tech pioneers are talking about now involves using data points like test scores, attendance and, perhaps someday, information about students gathered from games or their internet searches, to home in what students need academically. Maybe more high-tech systems and detailed data would have helped teachers recognize how far behind many students were on the path to graduation.
But would it have helped teachers figure out how to help a student deal with her rage issues so she could get over her frustrations in science class? Or how to keep a young student who was mocked for being gay at school and at home from losing hope and help him stay focused on his strengths? Or how to salvage the academic career of a student whose prospects once looked promising and who suddenly stopped caring about his future?
The film doesn’t make an argument for or against any particular reforms. Instead, the educators at BCAM discovered that even when you know nearly everything about a student, solutions to help them succeed can still be elusive.