"The internet is made for questions," says Sean Wheeler.
It wasn't long ago that language arts teacher Wheeler and his Lakewood City School District biology-teaching colleague Ken Kozar -- along with a class of eager 10th graders -- realized that certain questions weren't being asked online. And one question above all resonated with teacher and student alike: How did school do?
"The whole reason that Google exists is because people open their browser with a question in mind. We want to tap into that question mindset, replicate it within our students, and then hold conversations about the answers we find," says Wheeler.
"Our students have become too accustomed and comfortable just finding answers," adds Kozar, "We believe the ability to ask questions gives students the opportunity to have the content serve the conversation, not the other way around."
The Birth of an Edtech Non-Profit
For my part, I met Wheeler and Kozar -- and got involved with their questions -- during the start-up stage of a recently formed Baltimore edtech nonprofit. And therein lies a tale.
Baltimore City Public Schools teacher Andrew Coy and I became co-directors of Baltimore's nonprofit Digital Harbor Foundation in February. The organization's mission is to foster a culture of innovation, tech advancement, and entrepreneurship through local and national education initiatives. Our first major project is called EdTech Link and part of the purpose of the project is to bring students, teachers, and technologists together to produce new open source technologies relevant to learning and built on the real experience of classroom teachers.
Sean and Ken approached us about a project they had in mind. They had a great idea and a great vision, but they didn't know where to turn for the technical assistance and support they would need to see the project through. We offered to help and over a weekend in Baltimore, the two Ohio teachers worked with local educators, social entrepreneurs, and technologists to turn a concept into a prototype. That prototype has been refined into the project that was released today: a video submission frontend asking the question "How Did School Do?" and a tech-powered backend that allows for precise qualitative coding.
University of Akron professor of education Dr. Sharon Kruse created the measurement and evaluation tools powered by the technology; she also has trained Wheeler and Kozar's 10th graders - so that they can code the content of the videos and manage the network on their own. "This project will hopefully make our students aware that they have a voice and that the power of social networks for learning is huge. The ability to be connected makes things we do in the classroom relevant."
The Value of Feedback
For Wheeler, the question itself is vital to understanding the value of what we do as educators: "How can we talk with any kind of certainty about the relevance of education if we haven't asked anyone about it," he says, "Millions of people pass through our schools all over the world, and they represent a tremendous opportunity to learn from what they have to say. But nobody has asked them."
And that's where the "How Did School Do?" project comes in. Wheeler and Kozar are making an appeal on Twitter and throughout social media for people to take a minute, make a quick video telling what their own experience makes them think about the relevance of their own education to their lives, and then to share the video at HowDidSchoolDo.com.
The goals for this project are both immediate and long-term. On the near end, the coding of these videos allows for students to partake in real-time qualitative analysis using professional measurement tools and methodologically sound practices; Sean and Ken both see this type of work blending perfectly into curricular goals across disciplines.
On the far end, what is being collected and coded here comes with data provided by participants including geography, era of schooling, and more that could allow for a real opportunity to evaluate the longitudinal outcomes of educational practice in ways that numbers just can't do. Essentially, this becomes a long-term oral history project that will be searchable by region, time period, socio-economics, public vs private, pedagogical style, learner outcomes, and a variety of qualitative data points -- from resentment to elation.
"I hope these videos begin to reshape the conversation about education right now," says Wheeler, "So much is about quantitative results, and there doesn't seem to be much attention being paid to actual qualitative feedback. But all great internet companies have figured out by now that feedback is a form of currency. We say the same thing in the classroom, and studies clearly show that great feedback results in great learning. So I'm hoping that this kind of feedback, about the relevance of education, can be a learning opportunity for educators and education thinkers around the world."
Ken Kozar agrees: "Curiosity and the ability to ask good questions lies at the heart of real learning. You can only get great answers when you ask great questions."