Engineering a 21st Century Education

As a game developer turned teacher, the one most difficult part of the transition was paper. I'm not even talking about the thousands of copies of handouts and worksheets for students. I'm talking about the paper that compromises the layers and layers of bureaucratic processes that any sufficiently large organization develops over time. The forms. The reports. The mundane paperwork that must be done to uphold the laws that govern the operation of a school.

I get it.

It's stuff that must be done.

The problem isn't that it exists, it's how schools deal with it. The school has limited resources available so it needs to get the most out of the resources it has. That makes sense, right? The school administration has ready access to a large number of highly trained, adaptable, resourceful, and intelligent individuals on hand with a wide range of skills covering every discipline imaginable. It has teachers.

I'm always more than happy to help when needed! I just get frustrated when I'm asked to perform work that could be reduced or eliminated by technology.

In my last post, I talked about school being a game and the need to meta-game it. One of the first issues that I think we need to talk about are "opportunity costs". Every hour that teachers spend on administrative tasks is an hour that is not being spent on teaching. Furthermore, these costs are recurring. If schools could automate 10 minutes worth of administrative tasks each day from a teacher's workload, they would save each teacher about 30 hours of work over the course of the year. That's a lot of time that teachers could reallocate towards improving instruction.

Teacher time is a valuable resource and finite one. Education needs to be engineered to get the most out of that time. Based on my short time as a teacher so far, here are some of the systems that I think could be optimized:

We need a complete "Electronic Individualized Educational Plan Record" system overhaul. The current generation of "Student Information Systems" is grossly insufficient to deal with the complexity of our educational legislation. Schools need to keep documented records of adhering to a student's legally entitled accommodations, and a significant amount this documentation is still being done on paper. We have the technology to design an educational record system that is secure, fault tolerant, and efficient. It would take an substantial initial effort, but imagine the time that it could save school staff in the long run.

We need a better "asset management system" for school property used by students. It's very frustrating to me as a teacher when I need to fill out carbon copied checkout lists for textbooks by hand in the year 2016. When a student doesn't return the textbook, I'm required to fill out another carbon copy form, manually address an envelop to the student's home, and put it in the mail bin for processing. Why isn't this process electronic yet? I should be able to snap a picture on my phone, press a button to assign it to a student or document its return, and everything else should be taken care of by a computer program. We clearly have the technology to do this.

We need a "behavioral intervention tracking and diagnostic system". The school keeps paper records of certain student behaviors such as tardy slips and misconduct reports -- which again are filled out by hand on carbon copy paper. There are also some cases where the teacher is expected to intervene in certain ways such as contacting the parent. The issue is that there are so many different rules that I need to keep track of and responses that I need to take to that data. We need a system that that can track behavior data from multiple sources and suggest interventions based on a statistical models of what has and has not worked for that student.

On top of moving from antiquated "pen and paper" systems, we also need to improve interoperability between the educational software we already use. There's some good ideas happening with the Tin Can API, but the support from technology providers just isn't there yet. I love to see new ideas in educational software! The problem is that some of these applications seem to neglect the teacher's experience with the product. We need to set higher standards for educational software.

Whenever my students complete a learning activity on the computer, it should automatically go into my grade-book. The grade-book should automatically flag any items that need to be manually graded, and the process of providing feedback to the student should be as stream-lined as possible. More detailed information about the student's performance should be stored into a database for later statistical analysis.

The other problem is the lack of standards regarding assessment items. For example, my students love Kahoot. I would totally use it way more if it were easier for me import multiple choice questions from an existing database. If I could program randomly generated questions in MyOpenMath, export them to a standardized format, and then import them into Kahoot, I would be one happy teacher.

I don't think any of these technologies are unrealistic. It's not like I'm asking for facial recognition software to replace hall passes or an artificially intelligent grader (although those would be kinda awesome too). If schools want to instill "21st Century Skills" in their students, they need to lead by example. In the "21st Century", knowing what processes can be automated by technology is a crucial skill to have. To do otherwise is a disservice to both teachers and students.

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