This story starts with a series of failures—my failures, marked neatly on a college transcript: Spring semester 2012, sophomore year, R R P R W A C A. I had failed my core mechanical engineering courses and barely skimmed by in my music classes. I had been too ambitious, turned into a robot by a regimented high school education, with that naive freshman knack for spewing half-baked ideas and expecting the world. Failure was a slap in the face. The transformation had been sudden in my mind—full of purpose during the first year and a half, and suddenly stripped of all direction in one black hole of a semester; no proverbial compass for guidance. I could feel myself sinking into silence, stubbornly refusing to seek help or even acknowledge that things were spinning out beyond my control.
The recovery was a slow process. I gradually crawled out of the space where my bad grades haunted me and learned to work the college grading system to my benefit, finally graduating with a degree. The startup world intrigued me then because it seemed like the perfect place for someone who fit the old ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ proverb—someone like me. I was a lost soul in a thrift store of professions. I tried on a little bit of everything: sports writer intern, freelance writer, medical device engineer intern, bakery coordinator, management consulting case study interviews, freelance web designer and developer, UI/UX design intern. I wasn’t sure where I would end up—maybe a stuffed suit in NYC or a full-time freelancer working from home in my pajamas.
I came across a young Philly-based startup through luck. They were Yellowdig, pitching themselves as Facebook meets Pinterest meets Twitter for college courses. Their team being less than a dozen, I was tasked with a joint user-research and marketing initiative during my first month as an intern, which turned into an introduction to machine learning data analytics and management. It led to what became compulsive, obsessive education research as I began to discover the good, the bad, and the ugly truths about the present-day American education system.
My main goal was to analyze student engagement for universities piloting the platform and interview the professors who really loved Yellowdig as part of their courses. I spoke with around 30 professors during my first month with the company—they taught at everywhere from Florida to California. They taught Arabic and Precalculus and Entrepreneurship and Organizational Change and Women’s History and Literature and Big Data to classes of several hundred students, or for some it was 50, or maybe just a dozen. All of a sudden, I was listening to personalized lectures on virtual learning and virtual learning analytics and gamification and student conversations and life. I had dreaded all professors during my college years, skulking in the background of large lectures, hiding behind rows of other students for particularly painful recitations. But these professors seemed friendly and dedicated to ensuring that their students conquered the course material. They were our company’s bread and butter, the pioneers of virtual learning who were willing to seriously consider our Slack-ish, Facebook-like, Twittery platform as a way to educate the next tech-savvy generation.
There was a current of energy that seemed to pervade these conversations, an inherent understanding that the current education system has to be re-envisioned in order to keep up with the evolving landscape of the job market and a globalized economy. What will the education system look like 20 years from now, or even 50 years from now? Will it be virtual? These were the questions I wanted to answer as I began compiling articles and lectures and podcasts and videos on innovative teaching styles and futuristic education initiatives. I couldn’t help but feel that there was a certain irony to my job of understanding student engagement as somebody who had once disengaged so completely.
understanding that the current education system has to be re-envisioned
I listened as Sugata Mitra spoke about building a school in the cloud as part of his learning initiative, discussing the 300-year-old British Empire origins of the world’s present day (but clearly outdated) education system. He also discussed the growing importance of virtual learning hubs to inspire and engage new learners. His vision actually started at the center of a Delhi slum, where he installed a computer for children in the area. He gave them no guidance, no specific instructions. They taught themselves to use the internet and they taught each other with unaffected camaraderie. He found that, with some positive encouragement from adults online, the slum children of Delhi and other Indian children with limited access to schooling, began to understand class concepts similarly to their counterparts with a formal education.
It became increasingly evident through my research that education is no longer the great equalizer it once was—it’s technology and the access to technology instead, as well as the literacy to understand code, the stuff that makes our virtual existence possible. Dope (2015) is a pop culture expression of American educational disparities, a film at once ridiculous and hilarious that also delicately addresses modern racism, bias, and stereotyping. High schoolers Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy become entangled in a local gang’s drug distribution system and Malcolm finds himself threatened by the Harvard interviewer from his community to sell all the drugs in three weeks time as a small ‘side-business’ so that he might attain a great recommendation. Instead of using traditional dealing methods, the three friends create an online system that lets them get in touch with potential buyers and mail the drugs, all while collecting bitcoins instead of drug money. In the words of Donovan Livingston, whose Harvard graduation speech recently went viral, “‘Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men.’ – Horace Mann, 1848. At the time of his remarks I couldn’t read—couldn’t write. Any attempt to do so, punishable by death. For generations we have known of knowledge’s infinite power. Yet somehow, we’ve never questioned the keeper of the keys—the guardians of information.”
I, myself, wouldn’t have been granted an education in Horace Mann’s day, both as a woman and as a woman of color. The time is ripe to really question the ‘guardians of information’ in order to truly understand the legacy of inequalities and inadequacies that infect the entire American education system 2016. Why is it that a recent New York Times article titled “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City” should still be relevant, some 60-or-so years after the legalized end to segregation in American schools? Perhaps the collective we, as a society, have become so insensitive to these issues that we fail to address the stark imbalances that still plague today’s system. It has been well-established that “the socioeconomic makeup of a school can play a larger role in achievement than the poverty of an individual student’s family.” The desegregation programs after the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954 were gradually reduced to nothingness by the Nixon and Reagan campaigns. These former presidents led with the argument that forcing integration was just as bad as forcing segregation.
Perhaps a virtual learning school system built around equality and inclusion might solve a part of this problem and undo the damage of Reagan and Nixon. Perhaps a small startup like Yellowdig could promote virtual communication between today’s segregated school districts, thereby distributing access to the proper resources and creating an environment where students learn from themselves, as well as from their teachers. Then, perhaps, the dream of an equal system might no longer be a dream deferred. It’s all about creating the right mindset for the next student generation. Recent years have spurred campus protests across the nation as the Black Lives Matter movement and other initiatives for minority students—based on race, religion, and gender identity—spread like wildfire and ignited the stunted dialogue between student leaders and slow, bureaucratic college administrations. The Economist recently chronicled this revolutionary phenomenon, stating that “sometimes, when they identify injustices that society has blithely tolerated, or opportunities for progress it has missed, angry students can turn out to be right.”
It’s all about creating the right mindset for the next student generation
I was a part of two Black Lives Matter protests that took place during my final semester at Carnegie Mellon, though fortunately, our student organizations received the full support of our university administrations. I very vividly remember the 2014 Die-In protest that was organized at the University Center in December, honoring both Eric Garner and Tamir Rice. We lay in clusters on the floor for 45 minutes like dead bodies, sprawled everywhere and making it nearly impossible for anyone passing by to walk directly out of the building. They would have to maneuver past our strewn, supposedly dead corpses first. It’s moments like these that made me realize that no issue is black and white—the protesters gathered there that day were young and idealistic, a melting pot of all races from all sorts of backgrounds with the single goal of raising awareness.
And so here is my case against formal education, based solely on my experiences and the evidence I have gathered as an education detective of sorts: all these issues with the current system can be watered down to just one thing—a lack of proper communication between various communities. Virtual learning platforms like Yellowdig can at least provide an engaging and secure space in a private network for academic yet informal conversations to bloom and flower to fruition—perhaps talks between student protesters and university administrations, or virtual learning between richer and poorer school districts, or emotional recovery from the #rapeculture that is statistically rampant on today’s campuses, or networking between company recruiters and student prospects, or global learning forums for students from all over the world. It is crucial that all conversations on the confusing, controversial, and uncomfortable take place in a respectful manner while also remaining easily accessible to everyone within the community. And all this can be done virtually.
And it all starts with forward-thinking, visionary professors and administrators who are willing to take a chance on something bold and new. Like the teachers who are so dedicated and committed to student engagement that they are helping to enhance Yellowdig’s existing platform with data visualizations and machine learning algorithms to better and understand how students learn—and how they can be helped before their grades slip. In the words of Donovan Livingston, “For some, the only difference between a classroom and a plantation is time. How many times must we be made to feel like quotas—like tokens in coined phrases? ‘Diversity, Inclusion.’ There are days I feel like one, like only—a lonely blossom in a briar patch of broken promises. But I’ve always been a thorn in the side of injustice. Disruptive. Talkative. A distraction. With a passion that transcends the confines of my consciousness—beyond your curriculum, beyond your standards.”