Unlocking the Gate to Better Learning
By LeiLani Cauthen
To “ungate” in software is to allow a user to proceed to the next level or into a new section. In some software, gating is a way for teachers to lever up or hold back individual students so that they can surge forward if they are high achievers or remain with a group.
Cleon Franklin, a great innovator and former Director of Virtual Schools and Online Learning at Shelby County Schools, said a very interesting thing about what happens when you ungate students. “When you let them learn forward and go outside of their age group, it is like moving up to a new game level inside video games, and some kids find the opportunity inspiring. New software allows students to get more than run-of-the-mill digitized teacher-created and whole lessons, so they can surge forward through to higher subjects. Students can leave algebra behind and finish calculus as 9th graders or sooner.”
When Franklin saw the students in Memphis doing just that, he said he felt schools “had been holding kids back for 100 years.” With the digital curriculum software transition, learning could get to dimensions well beyond just un-gating and into a whole new golden age of unleashing human potential.
In practice, teachers find some students are easier and that they enthusiastically intake lessons, projects, and the programs planned for them. Others seem to be unreceptive. Their minds are distracted or perhaps not capable of pushing thought through the bottleneck of speech and other forms of communication to connect well with other people and life. We can observe student types. But we may not have regularly observed a certain type of student mind, the one that can step well beyond the guardrails of commonality and throw off anything but the foundational information, basic conceptual language and math to soar into unexpected greatness. This kind of mind is often labeled as “gifted” and allowed to accelerate, but within somewhat normalized arenas. Those students, fueled on basics but allowed instant access to all other human knowledge without normalizing, could flourish and become the future leaders we so desperately need. Imagine that. Now imagine that it is possible via custom software and virtual world learning environments.
Imagine as well that the minds that need a high amount of careful remediation also flourish, because they are attended to and can therefore attain more. It’s important to note that normalized gifted programs and lowest-common-denominator whole group teaching are usually not individualized or personalized learning in the same way that software could enable it. Teacher-differentiated learning is working to adapt a lesson so that certain learners can intake the same lesson as everyone else but at their own pace.
Intelligent learning engines inside immersive courseware will give future teachers the ability to leverage the best in software development and systems. These future teachers will be able to program starting points and requirements, and masterfully inject social collaboration along the way. It will be more like travel planning for the learning journey and less like teaching in the traditional sense.
Leveraging Technology without Gating
While somewhat idealized, this promises two eventualities:
First, student learning, which is restricted by our present system, may gain a freedom heretofore unseen, networked through technology for access to unprecedented amounts of both knowledge and community.
Second, a reinvigorated teaching profession, now with a new modality, will allow any student to realize gains based on his or her needs. This will help prevent the demoralization of teachers who get too few joys in their teaching by rarely seeing true accomplishment. Along the way, a need for more teachers with more specialties, either directly associated with schools or acting as market free agents, will potentially change the whole industry.
Rigor is that often misunderstood word bandied about by educators that makes outsiders believe there is some secret sauce to how teaching has to be done, how instructional design works. There is a good reason for this: some publishers in the past have offered products that just don’t do the job. They lacked “rigor,” meaning they were not academically impactful and were not intellectually or personally challenging for students.
Fear of the lack of rigor is natural when the new learning modality in many pieces of courseware looks and acts like a game. But gamification does not mean the learning is less rigorous; it is just different.
This is where the past is still holding us back. Schools have been used to years and years of learning trials to validate a single textbook as worthy of the needed rigor of teaching and learning. There is a great crying out for things “that work” and “are proven.” All new digital learning objects are expected to be validated the same way because of the past way of doing things. This cry for trials proving rigor has prompted a response from industry in the form of multiple companies doing evaluations of products. The problem with some of these evaluations is they are mere commercial labels placed for the benefit of earning income from the company being evaluated – directly or indirectly.
The Department of Education (DOE) has proffered grants for rapid-development learning trials to try to help with the great barrier of time-to-trial that has been the industry norm for years when adoption cycles were long and arduous inspections. Faster inspections while still doing a detailed rigor inspection is the aim.
Some of the large districts, places like Houston Independent School District (HISD), oversee their own evaluations. They not only have a team in place to evaluate digital curriculum, they even have a specialized team to evaluate whether a single app has the security clearances required to be downloaded into the HISD environment, and that evaluation is given in a 24-hour (or less) period by the dedicated team.
In actuality, the allowance for the market to determine on its own what works and what doesn’t is already a function of our open free markets, albeit an unsystematic one. Confusion about quality and actual rigor are added by the OER preferential language of both the federal government and the states. In the future, policies related to the characteristics of software by teachers and schools, currently being road-mapped by the Learning Counsel’s work and extended by professionals in districts, added to verified user comments, will act as an instantaneous “trial” in the consumer domain.
This is similar to the comments anyone can see on Amazon or other major e-commerce hubs about any product. In the education social media platform Knowstory, little light bulbs are used as the ratings symbol. Where favorable, that product rises in purchase and use. Where unfavorable, the product wanes and falls off the catalog. That is the free market mechanism.
Since this has yet to be seen on a national scale for learning objects, the reality is that the market still demands trials. As we move towards a consumerization of learning however, we will have market dynamics determining how to “ungate potential” on an instantaneous and international scale.
About the Author
LeiLani Cauthen is CEO of the Learning Counsel and author of The Consumerization of Learning.