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Turning Theory into Action: The Role of the Foundation in Education

I am a child of the Wikipedia Age: this is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, my brain is now saturated with all sorts of exciting factoids ranging from the evolution of the west-coast rap scene to the complete first rounds of the NFL Drafts from 2005-present; on the other hand, I tend to sit down for a bit of research on a new blog or investment report only to resurface five hours later from a link-induced haze. Wikipedia in particular makes it incredibly easy to pop from one idea to another, something my wandering mind takes to quite fondly.

Recently, this condition has begun manifesting itself within various other platforms in my life. Pinterest has proven to be an exceptional tool for wasting time - a simple search of the word "pie" has quite literally consumed entire weekends of mine. The iTunes store, with its plethora of playlists and recommendation engine, has expanded my musical vocabulary through hours of combing and streaming (and has also wreaked havoc on my credit card bill). Then of course there is Twitter, the grand daddy of them all. Perhaps no single entity has leveraged user engagement and freely created content better than the network spun together by @Biz, @Ev, @Jack, @Noah, and the 500+ million others currently tweeting around the world. One could spend his entire life clicking from tweet to tweet (in fact, I'm pretty sure lots of people are paid to do exactly this). Once you have finally inspected all your latest updates and have scrolled back to the top of your homepage... what do you know? 20 new tweets to read!

But Twitter offers more than just user-generated content; it allows you to essentially probe the depths of the internet without even leaving the network. Twitter has transformed into the go-to source for news consumption, with an estimated 93% of all tweets containing a link of some shape or size (author's note: this statistic is entirely made up... but it feels true). This is what makes Twitter such a potent force in the realm of time consumption: you get the feeling that you have scoured media the world over when in fact you have barely moved an inch.

It was during one of these Twitbinges that I recently encountered a fascinating link worth sharing here: "Time to Teach Those Teaching Machines," published in the New York Times Education section. The article begins: "Examining the impact of technology on American education in XXXX [author's note: year to come] is like examining the impact of the automobile on American life when the Model T Ford first came on the market."

True, the Times has a fondness for writing about technology's impact on scaling and strengthening education (as it seems each day brings a new exposé on the MOOC craze). But this article is a bit out of the ordinary... mostly because it was published in 1970 (and written by acclaimed ed-journalist Fred Hechinger). Yes, ed-tech has apparently been a thing since the 1960s - who knew?

The piece focuses on study done by the Commission on Instructional Technology appointed by the Johnson administration in 1968. The study was not particularly kind to the then modern uses of technology in the classroom, and the criticisms hold up surprisingly well in today's context. Check out some quotes from the article below and stop me when this starts sounding familiar:

• "Educational institutions make scant use of the potent means of communication that modern society finds indispensible and that occupy so much of young people's out-of-school time."

• "Much of the equipment, including language laboratories, languishes ill-maintained or broken in school basements.

• "The pieces of the educational revolution are lying around unassembled."

• "Cost is an important factor. Little money is available for research. The country spends 20 times as much on health research and 60 times as much on defense research than on education research."

• "Much of the machinery is too complicated for teachers. Teachers must be trained, not in the occasional use of technology but in the restructuring of the curriculum to make the technology as much a part of the educational process as the textbook and the blackboard."

• "Most educational reform expenditures are spent on patching up the system rather than changing it. But by all accounts, the system no longer works in the modern context, least of all in the mission to educate the poor and deprived."

In the education space, it is abundantly clear that real progress is only made when the public sector (led by the citizens themselves) buys in and pushes financing at scale: unfortunately, in the world of K-12 politics and especially regarding technology integration, change happens ssslllooowwwlllyyy. With public funding being a hit or miss option, some body or entity is needed as an intermediary. In my opinion, this is the space most resourcefully filled by the foundation - taking the ideas that should be pushed in the public agenda and proving out their usefulness.

The Gates Foundation typically steals the spotlight in this regard, and rightfully so. No other nonprofit can match neither the deep pockets nor the brand equity of Bill and Melinda's project. But they are far from alone. George Lucas, for instance, recently sold the rights to the Star Wars franchise for a cool $4.05 billion. While diehard Star Wars fans have cringed at the idea of Disney exploiting the likes of Han Solo and his furry pal Chewbacca for financial gain (expect new movies [three more are already in the works], cartoons, and video games galore!), ed-tech enthusiasts should be dancing in the streets: Lucas will be dedicating a majority of the proceeds from the sale to education philanthropy, specifically toward helping to educate schools on how to most effectively integrate computers as a teaching tool.

But the foundational work to promote technology in education is not simply reserved for the rich and famous: organizations both small and large, local and global, are actively furthering the cause while the public sector looks on for evidence of results. One group that I have come to know in particular is the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Located in Boston and headed by Nick Donohue, Nellie Mae awards grants ranging from the low thousands to the millions to projects, institutions, and smaller foundations focused on systems-wide change at both the state- and district-level, as well as Research & Development and general public understanding. In order to make concrete change at a governmental level, the public by definition must be supportive of the efforts that consume taxpayer dollars and time. Without an informed public, scaling change is but a dream.

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation is rooted in the New England education system. Its vision is for all New England learners to leave high school prepared for success at the college level (and beyond), for all high school graduates to emerge as engaged and productive citizens of their communities. To do this, the Foundation is focused on promoting a personalized, individualized learning path, moving away from the "one-size-fits-all" model that has dominated the American education system since the advent of the textbook. This includes experimentation with flexible learning time and learning environments, academic progression based on mastery and not seat time, and focusing on the so-called "advanced skills." Reading and math skills are undoubtedly quite important, but when coupled with skills like problem solving, global awareness, and technological literacy, they become truly powerful. I recommend perusing through the myriad projects underway at Nellie Mae here.

With the work being done by George Lucas, Nellie Mae, and a host of others at the foundation level, it is my hope that the next time I encounter an article like the above penned by Mr. Hechinger, it won't seem so, well, relevant. Op-eds from 1970, especially those concentrating on the use of technology, should feel outdated. Anything less is simply unacceptable.

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