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May 21, 2012 / Ben Chun

A Map of What’s Disruptive

There are a number of exciting new projects happening in and around education — an area of our lives that’s widely seen as ripe for disruption.

This is my attempt to map out some of the initiatives that I think are most exciting, placing them in a context that reveals opportunities and possibilities for collaboration.

AFSE – Academy for Software Engineering
This New York high school (opening fall 2012) will be the first public high school that I’m aware of to offer an explicit focus on software. With support from Fred Wilson at Union Square Ventures, we’re sure to see some student-entrepreneurs and collaboration between industry and educators that previously only happened at the university level.

Also opening fall 2012, this public high school in Los Angeles will be based on a making and play curriculum, using games and game development in some areas. Executive Director Lucien Vattel is a poster kid for the disruptive spirit, having left a faculty position at USC to jump into the trenches of K-12 education and forge a nonprofit organization to support his research. Now with $3.8M from AT&T, the goal is to share and replicate what works from the LA school nationwide.

Q2L – Quest to Learn
This Manhattan public school has been open since 2009, starting with 6th grade class and planning to grow through 12th grade. Executive Director Katie Salen is a MacArthur Fellow (the MacArthur Foundation also supports the school) who wrote a book on game design. They seem to be doing better than city averages on the standardized measures, although I don’t really know how to interpret those numbers. Now the Gates Foundation has gotten in on the action, helping to fund ChicagoQuest, which opened in fall 2011 based on the same model. While their dumping money into charters and small schools hasn’t been a smooth ramp to results, if we believe in failing to succeed then maybe this is the time they score an epic win.

It’s pretty hard to argue that two super-established traditional educational institutions are going to disrupt their entire show, but they’re also in the interesting position of being more or less bubble-proof. That is, even if higher education is as overvalued as some talk would have it, MIT and Harvard are unlikely to suffer in a crash. Like housing in San Francisco, their product is always going to fetch a premium. This gives them a certain freedom and willingness to experiment. Remember that MIT stared OpenCourseWare in 2001 — five years before Sal Khan founded Khan Academy. This isn’t just bandwagoning, particularly with $60M to get things rolling.

Khan Academy
Presumably you’ve heard of this one. I don’t think the talk about flipped classrooms adds up to a real disruption. Example videos and online practice exercises more or less support and play nicely with the existing structure, pushing it forward but not necessarily presenting a whole new model. On the other hand, I don’t think we’d be seeing things like Coursera or Udacity without the familiarity of Khan. Interesting to note that Khan is getting into the summer camp space as well, presumably as a way to generate research data and footage of their vision for learning. I look forward to seeing that and applaud them if they do end up showing folks how to support learners in project-making. That would move their dot a little closer to…

Everyone who lives on the fringes of the internet knows about hackerspaces. That leaves the entire rest of the population whose exposure to this community comes via Make Magazine and the annual mainstream media coverage of Burning Man. With Dale Dougherty and Saul Griffith taking a DARPA grant of up to $10M to bring their stuff to 1000 high schools over four years, a lot more kids are going to find out that you can just start doing stuff that seems interesting and that the basic tools don’t need to be expensive.

Jane McGonigal is the unofficial spokeswoman for gamification, and her games (which I first became aware of when friends were playing World Without Oil in 2007) have consistently pushed the idea that structuring experiences for yourself and others based on an understanding of both what you consciously decide you want and what will motivate you is a good way to achieve something. SuperBetter is an attempt to make that practice more accessible to the masses. It may just change the way we think about the path to our goals, whatever they are.

A Ring of Fire

This map of hot spots is, of course, incomplete and probably missing some important dimensions given that I had to draw it on a regular two dimensional piece of paper. Nonetheless, I think it offers a framework thinking about future eruptions (to continue this possibly ill-conceived Pacific Rim analogy) and migrations between these islands. It’s an exciting time to be thinking about education beyond traditional schools. Many of us believe that things in this area will be significantly different in five or ten years, but it’s pretty hard to predict what that new topography will look like. My advice: Keep an eye on the lava.

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