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The talent chain: How global education could change the way we learn

Yong Zhao wants to remake the American education system from the ground up. Spend ten minutes with him, and he’ll have you believing that not only can it be done, but it should. As the associate dean and presidential chair of global education at UO, his primary job is to develop the vision and the platform that will make online education on a global scale available to any school, anywhere. Making college-level courses available online is hardly a new idea, but using the same technology to transform how K-12 students learn? That’s a fairly radical notion.

Yong envisions a world where top instructors, talented kids and cutting-edge instructional materials come together to produce the kind of creative entrepreneurs who literally change the game. The problem, he says, is that world-changers are made not because of the American education system, but in spite of it. Consider how many of them never finished college or maybe even high school. In those rare cases, the seeds of their genius found no purchase in Education As We Know It, and something drove them in a new direction. You have to wonder what might have happened if a system had been in place that could actually nurture the gifts and ambitions of a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates.

The center of this very nascent world is a second-floor conference room in the HEDCO building at the south edge of campus. Yong and his team have made a lot of their plans around a conference table generally strewn with random papers and empty Dutch Bros. coffee cups. At first blush it’s hard to imagine that this is where an educational revolution might begin, but it seems fitting in a way; many great American endeavors have begun in far humbler settings.

The American education model was ostensibly designed to prepare a wide variety of people to do fundamentally the same types of things, such as in manufacturing or farming. In that context, a homogeneous skill set made sense. But that no longer is the context – not by a long shot. Adaptability and/or a highly specialized skill set are the instruments of success now, and Yong says the current system isn’t serving that need very well. He advocates for a “product-oriented” model that will prepare kids for the modern workplace: Identify a problem, devise a solution, build a team, gather the resources, and make it happen. This is obviously different from the current model, which is hamstrung by the emphasis on standardized tests. Yong would love to debate people on this point, but the problem, he says, is that everyone seems to agree with him.

Two such people include Brian Flannery, his director of operations, and Dane Ramshaw, his learning platform systems developer. If Yong is the vision, Brian and Dane are the ones figuring out how it’s all going to work. They’re both former educators; Flannery was a teacher - later a principal - in Oregon and Ramshaw a primary and secondary-school teacher in his native England. That they have hitched their wagons to Yong’s star is a result of their shared frustration with Education As We Know It, and their ability to do something about it.

Flannery’s soft-spoken and contemplative demeanor belies his abiding dissatisfaction with the status quo in education, which he believes focuses on the wrong things. He doesn’t want to supplement or offer “fixes” to the system – he wants to reinvent it. As a principal, he often saw kids for disciplinary reasons. The conversation would eventually come around to that, but before then he would ask questions like, “What’s important to you?” or “What’s your dream?”

“Very few of them could articulate that,” he says. “They had trouble projecting themselves into a meaningful future. Even the best students at the best schools have trouble not framing their answer in terms of money or possessions. They don’t know how to begin to reflect on what’s going to make them happy and what’s going to transform their lives. And that’s where we fail in education, we don’t help them find a path to a meaningful future, paved with healthy relationships.”

“Education is not about fixing someone’s deficits; it’s to enhance their strengths.” - Yong Zhao

There’s a scene at the end of the classic Peter Sellers film Being There when his character, a simpleton referred to as Chauncey Gardiner, walks across a pond. The point of this fanciful scene, seemingly out of place in a film grounded in physical reality, is that he doesn’t perceive the water as an obstacle. It’s a bit like the old Wile E. Coyote cartoons, where he’d walk off a cliff but remain suspended in midair until he realized where he was, at which time he would produce a sign that said, “Bye Bye” and plummet earthward.

According to Yong, American students are sort of like that – more so, at least, than other industrialized nations. While delivering the keynote at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference in San Diego this past May, he showed an inverse relationship between global academic performance and perceived competence.  In other words, American students who were objectively terrible at something like math were more apt to consider it a strength than their more skilled Asian and Northern European counterparts. While it’s easy to dismiss this kind of confidence as misplaced or ignorant, Yong says it’s a trait that few, if any, other nations have been able to reproduce in their own educational systems; in fact,  academic performance and confidence may have an inverse relationship. So it appears that we are succeeding on some level in spite of ourselves, because every now and then our chaotic, politically divisive, perpetually struggling American education system begets a Steve Jobs or a Dr. Dre. It’s rare, but it happens – and more often here than in other industrialized nations. Yong sees this as an X-factor.

“Confidence underpins creativity and entrepreneurship – underpins the drive to be innovative,” he said in his keynote. “If you don’t have that – if you don’t even believe what you’ve learned – what’s the point?”

American students who consider themselves good at math probably feel that way because they are good at it relative to their classmates, and not because they are meeting or exceeding a global standard of competence (which, incidentally, doesn’t exist yet). Ironically, by holding ourselves to a relatively low standard, we seem more apt to produce students who can’t possibly know – or care – what they lack. This is in stark contrast to the model followed by the aforementioned Asian countries, for example, which spend a lot less than we do on gold stars and smiley-face stickers. Clear though it is that the U.S. lags behind the rest of the world in standardized test scores, it is the undisputed leader in confidence. It may not sound like much to hang our hat on, but it’s something other countries envy. Are our academic shortcomings the necessity that begets invention? Yong thinks they might be, and that we need to accomplish two things to move education forward: Build an educational culture in America that focuses on the nurturing of strengths and not the improvement of weaknesses, and develop a means by which , someday, there is no American education – there is only education. If the “best” countries at education are trying to be more like us, and we’re trying to be more like them, maybe there will be a magic moment when we pass each other coming and going, and pause to admire what we see.

We have the technology

If creativity and confidence are what we bring to the table, other countries bring strengths like academic rigor and innovations in how they teach specific subjects. That’s why Yong and his team want to fill virtual global classrooms with real students and teachers so that K-12 students around the world are exposed not only to other cultures and learning styles, but to global best practices in teaching. Imagine a math class conducted online, with interactive real-time learning tools, by a Chinese instructor, with students from around the world participating. For geography, they join up with another class in the Netherlands. Materials such as tests or study guides are shared electronically, and teachers use it however they wish. Over time, individual strengths and aptitudes start to emerge in students, but rather than being placed into standard AP classes or gifted and talented programs – or waiting for a spot at a charter school – they get to participate in online classes with other students from around the globe who share their interest for the subject, taught by instructors with the passion to match their knowledge.

This isn’t some pie-in-the-sky concept that will take a massive global investment in infrastructure; the technology already exists in abundance. All you’d need is a Web-based platform that could bring open-source tools and widgets to bear on instruction, with the flexibility to adapt to different classroom situations. You’d also need a way to pull in instructional resources (text, video, audio and more), and you’d have to put it all easily within the reach of schools that have gone so far as to ration toilet paper.

Say hello to Oba

Oba is the platform that Yong’s team hopes will transform Education As We Know it. The name doesn’t mean anything (though apparently it means “king” in the West African Yoruba tongue, which is just a coincidence), but its implications are immense. Oba comprises two related products: ObaWorld and ObaVerse.  The former is the flexible suite of tools that form what he calls “the heart of global” (global – get it?). Access, at least at the outset, will be billed at $1 per student per year.  Instructors can charge whatever they like on top of that, or nothing at all. The platform could be as simple as a two-way text chat or it could incorporate any electronic media under the sun, all depending on the capabilities of the parties involved. Class sizes could be 10 students or 1,000, at the instructor’s discretion.

ObaVerse is the marketplace for instructional resources that ObaWorld users can grab or create to suit their purposes. Access to it is free, though the resources themselves may not be. It works like a dashboard, so if a handful of articles combined with a podcasted lecture and a slide show suits the users’ purposes, it can all be pulled into ObaWorld, similar to buying downloadable content for a video game. It could mean the end of traditional textbooks. Materials won’t be vetted per se, but the platform’s democratic nature means that shoddy or outdated materials simply won’t get used. But the thing about Oba that gets Yong really fired up is the fact that anyone, anywhere in the system can create instructional materials. For example, students in Springfield or Eugene could create English learning materials for Chinese students, or a lesson about adapting to Eugene for international students who come to UO.  On the flip side, students in Australia or Japan can create an advanced class in viola technique, or 8th graders in Italy can collaborate on a video game that can help 4th graders around the world hone their math skills.

Democratizing instruction in this way has another, more dramatic benefit: It offers ranking capabilities, meaning that over time, poor instructors aren’t penalized, but they may not get repeat customers. If the host of an online class attended by students around the world is unprepared or doesn’t know his/her stuff, they may find themselves alone in ObaWorld, which is not the same as being out of a job. By the same token, however, excellent instructors may never want for work. Just like prominent bloggers or iReporters, anyone from dedicated hobbyists to retired teachers could potentially become K-12 teaching superstars as long as they are connected to the school’s account in some way. Imagine Yelp: The Teachers’ Edition, and you start to get an idea of how powerful this could be. (As of this writing, Oba will be the platform for three online pilot programs through the COE: Initial Administrator Licensure, the Reading Endorsement through Curriculum and Teacher Education, and some English Language Learner courses.

Oba’s chief architect is Ramshaw, an articulate young Brit who seems like he’d be equally at home playing lead guitar somewhere as building a next-generation learning platform. Like Flannery, he seems to sense he may be in the right place at the right time. Yong sought him out while he was in England, and was convincing enough in his pitch that Dane and his wife moved to Oregon. Since then he’s been coding like a man possessed, all the while getting feedback from educators on a platform that he will continue to refine indefinitely. Not surprisingly, he approaches his task with enthusiasm about technology’s greatest assets: speed and flexibility, which make it possible to keep up with what and how kids are learning.

“When I moved to teaching secondary school, I found that there was a lot of disillusionment with kids. Students who were already exceptionally proficient with computers were stunned to find lesson one at secondary school to consist of, ‘This is a computer. Label the parts.’ So they would switch off,” he says.

Ramshaw feels strongly that educational resources should not suffer an aesthetic deficit.

“As opposed to most social media or business websites, the technology and resources that are reportedly pedagogically sound are far from pretty to look at! Ease of use and a fun, visually engaging experience are key features often lacking when applied to learning,” he says.

It was with this in mind that he developed a number of systems deployed at schools in the UK. Not only as traditional learning tools, but also to provide learners with a voice, effectively empowering them to "shout out" about what was good and not so good.

Turning around a barge

There are mountains of data to support a growing disparity between the United States and the rest of the world on standardized tests. Why? Certainly a dearth of global mindshare is part of the problem. In Yong’s favorite example, he points out that bits and pieces of the iPhone’s hardware are produced in many different parts of the world, each of which is differentiated and specialized enough to contribute meaningfully to making one amazing product. It’s a model that has worked in manufacturing for decades, and Zhao believes that the paradigm shift necessary to fix our education system should take some of its cues from aspects of the global supply chain. Call it the global talent chain.

This is no small task. Like any great American establishment, education’s interests are firmly entrenched and politically charged. Sacred cows will have to be slain. For every educator eager to jettison an outmoded convention, there will be a vigorous defender. Like any major shift, it will have to start one of two ways: the bottom-up, grassroots way or the top-down, here’s-how-it-is way. The former would require a massive outreach effort to introduce educators and parents to the very concept of global, online, strength-focused education, while the latter might only require a relative handful of brave pioneers.

Oba’s vast potential isn’t limited to K-12, either; Mike Bullis, dean of the College of Education, hired Yong partly to bolster the College’s own efforts, hopefully increasing the number of part-time and distance-learning students from 200 to 5,000 by 2015. If anyone should be able to take the pulse of the American education system and understand its needs, it’s the dean of a top-10 education school. As many school districts right in Oregon consider 4-day school weeks and state funding continues to dwindle, it’s clear to Bullis that the current model is unsustainable. New revenue sources must be explored to ensure the COE’s long-term viability as well, and distributed education on a global scale is key to making that happen. Resources aside, the establishment of a powerful and high-quality global learning network through the COE has the side benefit of arming its own graduates with some knowledge about teaching and learning online. If it takes off like Bullis and Yong hope it does, the demand for instructors who understand the nuances of teaching online will increase, and likely attract more (and better) educators to the field.

Parents will require a different sort of convincing. The success and competitiveness of charter schools suggests that there is general dissatisfaction with Education As We Know It, but it remains to be seen whether parents with no international experiences of any sort will be open to their child learning geometry from a Laotian or history from a Canadian. That’s assuming the kids are open to it themselves. But one of Oba’s many advantages is its transparency to parents. They can sit side-by-side with their children as they learn online, review their work, and maybe even learn a thing or two themselves. If a student wants to form their own study group, they can do that, too.

No matter how you approach the question of online education, you can’t argue that the world is changing. We can keep trying to fit a square piece into a circular, globe-shaped hole or we can cut out a piece that fits. If and when we’re ready, Yong Zhao and the UO College of Education will be ready as well.

“Other countries are not our competitors,” he says. “They’re our collaborators, investors and customers.”