Social Education: The Schools and Tools of the Future
March 23, 2022
For the past four years, my job every single day has been to wake up and talk to as many educators, students, and supporting staff as are humanly possible. I do this because I think the US is way past due for a complete revolution of its education system and I am more than happy to lead the charge. I realized through my own educational experience that every time you enter a classroom in the US, you are transported back 100 years in time. Every other aspect of our lives has been upgraded to the point that our fridges can tell us the weather next week, yet somehow we’re still using chalkboards and multiple choice exams to teach when we know there are far better ways to do it. That’s not the only problem; every other workplace out there has pushed to optimize their technologies, provide support and benefits to employees, and modernize their overall approach — except for educational institutions. It speaks volumes that the main precursor to every major innovation in history has failed to innovate itself. Before anyone asks, let me make it absolutely clear that I don’t think the education problem in this country is the fault of the actual educators at all. In fact, I think the issues often stem from the lack of support we provide for teachers and professors, both in their personal and professional lives.
The teachers I talk to are exhausted — they’ve been given every new technology under the sun without anyone stopping to think about whether it will actually solve real problems for them or if it’s just another thing to add to their to-do list. This tells me that we’ve accurately recognized that there is a problem and that teachers need to be the first point of access to the solution, but we haven’t actually thought about how the solutions will function in real life. You can’t just hurl tools at them and hope for the best with the assumption that adding any sort of tech equals progress. The wrong tools will only make life even harder for both students and instructors. I know this firsthand because I just got out of college in 2019 and thus unfortunately experienced the start of the ‘new classroom tech’ wave. I had the privilege of going to a well-funded and highly rated public university and although I experienced at least ten different new classroom technologies in my time there, not a single one of them ever worked in a truly effective way. It was alarmingly clear that whoever built these tools hadn’t been in a classroom in at least the last 10 years. A forum tool for hosting graded discussions is not going to help me or my instructor in any measurable way, and neither is another app that tells me where the dining hall is on campus. The largest class on my undergrad campus is currently over 1,100 students. Do you think either one of those ‘solutions’ is going to help those students and their teachers create a genuinely effective learning environment? Probably not. That’s the real problem we should be trying to solve for — how do we use modern technology to make quality education more accessible to every student? We need to steer away from trying to make our current system more efficient and lean more towards how we rethink education as a whole. When only 46% of all college students in the US actually go on to graduate, it’s clear that we need to revamp the entire education system rather than optimize pieces of it.
So now that we know our goal is to create an entirely new classroom experience for everyone involved, how do we start to piece together the solution in a realistic way? In my personal experience as a student, as well as the founder of an educational technology company, the starting point should be to utilize the community that already exists inside of every single classroom in America. We don’t inherently think about classes as communities, but I think it’s high time that we start. The research behind this is staggering — students learn better and have a more fulfilling education experience when they feel like they have a support system. We can’t ensure that they each have a functioning support system at home, but we can guarantee that at school. Social media has taught us that it is now possible to connect corners of the world that would have never had access to one another even ten years ago. I’m not saying we introduce social media into the classroom, but we can borrow from the premise of it to deliver a solution to students that feels intuitive and comfortable. Think about networks like Reddit or Twitter; we use these spaces to ask questions and get help from people we would’ve otherwise had no contact with and often times prefer this over Google because you get a “human answer”. Anyone who is a subject matter expert can get online and help someone who’s thousands of miles away, and that person being helped gets the knowledge they need faster than ever. Both parties leave these interactions feeling good about themselves for either helping or getting help.
Let’s apply this structure to the classroom. What if students had a scalable way to ask and answer each other’s questions, such that they could each become active knowledge creators for one another? What if we could do this in a way where every student could read these questions and answers and get additional knowledge without going to Google to search for it, perhaps even strengthening the bonds between one another out of appreciation for getting help? Now I know what you’re thinking, that sounds great but how does this help the instructor? Let me paint a picture for you: Imagine you’re a professor teaching a class of 150 students. On average, you’re probably helping each student individually at least once throughout the class. That help typically happens outside of lecture and on the professor and student’s personal time. As the student, we usually need our questions answered within a specific time frame to either get the homework done or study for an upcoming test. This puts an additional strain on the professor to essentially scale themselves to make sure everyone gets the help they need in a timely manner. Not only does this take away from the time they have to plan their lessons, it also reduces the time they have to relax and rejuvenate before class the next day. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to surmise that a lack of work/life balance can detrimentally affect the mental health of an instructor and thus lead to burnout and other issues that can bleed into their classroom. An October 2020 survey conducted by The Chronicle stated that more than two-thirds of over 1,000 higher education faculty participants reported feeling “very” or “extremely” stressed or fatigued in the past month. When instructors are burnt out, it can have a domino affect not only in their own lives, but also those of their students. The trickle-down effects of their stress can make it difficult for students to get a consistent learning experience and have access to the resources they need to pass and graduate.
Once again — this is of no fault to the teachers that have dedicated their lives to building the next generation of this country. The responsibility to alleviate these issues and create a modern educational experience goes to a handful of decision-makers who need two things, in my opinion:
Research-backed ed-tech solutions that are built with students and instructors in mind and,
Deep knowledge of this problem that will allow them to make an informed decision when they procure new tools.
When we set out to solve this problem four years ago by building a scalable learning community, we began by talking to the actual admin who implement new tools on a campus. We understood their issues with integrating new tech and getting instructors onboarded. It can be tough to introduce a new way of communicating for thousands of people. From a technical perspective, however, this is an incredibly easy problem to solve. Build an LTI integration that hooks whatever tool we build into the existing tech at the campus, such as the LMS or registration system. Then auto-create a “channel” for every class on campus to chat within and auto-add the students and instructors so nobody has to go searching for it. Each class simply comes pre-loaded with a virtual community space where anyone can ask or answer questions for their peers and read through existing messages to get the help they need themselves without having to email their instructor or ask the internet. Students even reinforce their own knowledge of the topics every time they answer someone else’s question. Essentially take exactly what companies everywhere are already doing with Slack or Microsoft Teams and apply that same community chat tool principal into colleges and universities. Is it just me or does this not seem like a no-brainer solution? In actual application, this solution has worked like a charm. We got our entire university of 27,000 students onboarded within the first year, and the instructors were actually the ones who championed it the hardest because they reaped major rewards in terms of time saved. The results in classes that relied on our tool as their primary method of communication were nothing short of a miracle. We saw classes of up to 700 students sending thousands of messages to each other each day, all joining in to help one another learn the concepts. The cherry on top was the social camaraderie that emerged in these classes. Students began to use these spaces as support mechanisms for non-school related topics as well, and that’s where you really get the community feeling to emerge. The effects of community support have been documented for decades in assisting with graduation rates. It’s very apparent that students who feel supported are more likely to complete their degree.
The result we didn’t expect, however, was the fact that cross-campus communities began to emerge in this workspace. Teachers and TA’s began to create channels for themselves to share helpful teaching info, provide technical support, and build bonds between staff who had previously never spoken to one another. This even became the case with students who began to create chat spaces for communities like international students, transfer students, and other cohorts that always felt inherently connected to one another but never had a space to chat before. This was the proof we needed to see to understand just how salient community can be to the entire learning experience. We are all searching for it unknowingly, and with the correct tools we can make the task of finding your community easier than ever before. We’ve begun to call this phenomenon ‘social education’.
Now that we’ve found a very clear solution to start the process of evolving the US education system, it’s time to implement it everywhere. Every single student and instructor in this country deserves access to a community that supports their individual learning and teaching outcomes. When it’s this easy to provide it to them, what reason do we have not to? If you’re an educator, an administrator, a student, or even a parent who is reading this, please encourage your campus to adopt community-building technologies. We all need to push for real change within this system, and we’ve got to start with realistic and informed alterations that are built specifically for modern education. I truly believe that the solution to the majority of the problems that we face as a society begins with creating the most equitable, accessible, and thoughtful classrooms that we can. Let’s reinvest in the next generation of this country while we still can.