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5 Disruptive Education Trends That Address American Inequality

Fixing how we teach our children is of paramount importance. What if the solution also started to fix America’s broader socioeconomic problems? New ways of thinking about edtech just might start that process.

At the root of many American problems lies an ineffective and outdated education system that is failing our students. Inequality and education have always been inextricably linked, and if we don’t fix education, we don’t fix inequality.

Simply put, our citizens are not being prepared to compete in today’s global, hyper-connected economy, and, for low-income students, the outlook is especially grim. A recent Boston College study of 57 countries showed, among other unflattering comparisons, that only 7% of U.S. students (versus 48% of students in Singapore) reached the advanced level in eighth-grade math. Meanwhile, a 2012 Brookings study showed that "a whopping 43% of job openings require a bachelor’s degree or more." Yet, only 30% of Americans and 15% of Latinos, our nation’s fastest growing demographic, have the credentials.

Yet amidst all these gloomy statistics are rays of light. Five disruptive trends are breaking old educational habits and making way for a system that will better prepare our young people for the future while leveling the socioeconomic playing field.

1: Creating adaptive and optimized learning environments

If Google search results and Pandora music recommendations can learn our patterns and preferences, why not education software? This question led the founders of Knewton to develop adaptive learning software that uses algorithms to provide personalized content for each student that shifts according to his or her personal strengths and weaknesses. Founded in 2008, Knewton is employed in schools spanning 190 countries, and they recently raised $33M for further expansion.

"Optimized learning" adapts not only the content, but also the format, according to a student’s learning style. For example, when learning to read, some students respond better to visuals, while others decode words through phonics. The implications of adaptive and optimized learning are huge. Currently K-12 teachers can only teach at a speed suitable for one third of the class, and the pace is either too fast or too slow for the students at opposing ends of the bell curve. With adaptive learning, each student receives a tailored lesson. Access to this type of customized education may have the greatest impact on low-income schools, where classes are often overcrowded and teachers under-resourced.

By using education optimization, students can benefit from a "blended classroom" experience that would allow them to alternate between adaptive software and small-group learning. The Bloomberg- funded School of One, operating inside three New York City public middle schools, and Rocketship Education, a small network of charter schools serving a primarily low-income immigrant community in San Jose, California, are already adapting "blended classroom" learning. Teachers are more capable of focusing their energy on fostering critical thinking skills and providing extra help to struggling students.

The technology used in these classrooms also creates a wealth of data about each student so that teachers can easily track a child’s progress across classrooms and schools, which could potentially help level the educational playing field.

2: Bringing education everywhere through distance learning and massive open online courses (MOOCs)

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) take the best professors at the best universities and make their courses available online around the world. The movement was launched when two Stanford professors took their famous Artificial Intelligence class public. While 23,000 students completed the course’s requirements, just 50 students actually sat in the classroom. The professors recognized the power of this idea and left Stanford last year to start Udacity, which delivers free, non-credit online classes.

They aren’t alone. Coursera was created in 2012 to align elite institutions like Stanford, Princeton, Penn, Caltech, and others to offer free-of-charge courses online. Forbes recently named 2tor, another online higher education company, the number two startup changing the world, after Instagram..

But only with for-credit courses can we address the preparation and income gap. Less than a year after Udacity’s founding, MOOCs for credit is becoming a reality. In an arrangement with a commercial company, dozens of public universities plan to offer MOOC2Degree—free introductory for-credit courses open to students worldwide. The hope is that those who pass will eventually pay tuition to complete a degree-granting program. There is hope in this model for even more free or low cost access in the future.

3: Flipping the classroom to better utilize resources

"Flipped classrooms" rethink traditional models of classwork and homework. Teachers are valuable and need to be better utilized. In a "flipped classroom," passive activities, like lectures, are reserved for homework, while in-class time is used for collaborative and personal interactions between teachers and students. Teachers can post their own lectures online and direct students to other online resources, such as those provided by Khan Academy, which offers more than 2800 educational videos covering a multitude of disciplines. Students can pause, rewind, and re-watch as needed. Any questions can be noted and addressed the following day.

Since students learn the basics outside the classroom and focus on application while in class. Teachers can concentrate on developing "soft skills," such as critical thinking and problem solving, which are in high demand by 21st century employers. Teachers can also spend more one-on-one time with struggling students and assign students who have grasped concepts to work as in-class 'tutors’. In addition, this approach enables parents to engage in their child’s education at home, making the more equipped to track their child’s progress.

This model benefits students of lower socio-economic backgrounds. Students with parents who are unable, because of night jobs or low-levels of education, to help with homework can access supportive online materials. Students in flipped classrooms don’t have to miss lectures when they can’t physically attend school—a problem that disproportionately correlates with low-income families.

4: Using interactive content and gaming to engage students

The textbook will soon be dead. Interactive multimedia materials are the future. As part of this shift from passive to active learning, many education technology products are becoming increasingly "gamified" to present curriculum in more dynamic, engaging, and familiar ways.

Acknowledging the potential of this trend, the Gates Foundation gave the MIT Education Arcade $3 million to work with Filament Games to create an online role-playing video game in which a large number of players interact in a virtual world. Think: World of Warcraft. According to the director of the program, Professor Eric Klopfer, "This genre of games is uniquely suited to teaching the nature of science inquiry because they provide collaborative, self-directed learning situations. Players take on the roles of scientists, engineers, mathematicians to explore and explain a robust virtual world." In so doing, they deepen their subject matter knowledge and build 21st century skills.

5: Connecting with tutors and sharing skills online

The Internet allows anyone to be a teacher, any place to be a classroom, and anybody to be a student. One can see this with the rise of peer-to-peer learning through the millions of YouTube videos of amateur cooks imparting their favorite recipes, kids teaching each other dance moves, and tech geeks demonstrating how to fix your own iPhone screen. Companies such as Skillshare and EduFire are popping up to formalize this peer-to-peer learning.

The Digital Age has also led to the rise of online, on-demand tutoring—often for free. Any struggling student (or non-student, for that matter) now has resources at his disposal. Quizlet was founded in 2005 by 15-year-old Andrew Sutherland when he needed to learn vocabulary for his high-school French class. Sutherland built Quizlet and shared it with his friends. Its popularity spread rapidly, and it is now one of the world’s largest educational websites with 1.3 study sessions daily.

Education has long been the driver of America’s shared prosperity. Often spotlighted are educational programs that seek to alter the status quo, but there is no silver bullet that can instantly fix what has been more than four decades of growing income inequality. However, these five trends and technologies are tools that we can use to effect much-needed change. They hold great promise for re-establishing education as the "great equalizer."

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  • Mirjam Sulger

    I'd like to add a n° 6: make higher education accessible and affordable for everyone. There ought to be no difference whether a child comes from a wealthy or a poverty-stricken family!

    And n° 7: promote starting to save for higher education early. Via 529 plans (, additionally using tools like Instagrad ( to make it easier and faster.

  • Stephanie Lowder

    I think I have 1 Very Good Idea to dramatically/quickly improve the U.S. educational system >>
    all Publicly Elected Representatives—local, state, county, national—must enroll their children in a public school. Period. (And not some neighborhood wonder school, but one that ranks mid-to-lower in their county.)

    I don't know If or How this could be mandated??, and I know it sounds drastic – but I am certain it would fix our system in short order. 

    What do you think?

  • Whttl_thms

    Stephanie, you are right.  The main problem with education is we are trying to out source it to charter schools when their pass or failure rate is not better than the public schools.  In charter schools teachers don't have to be certified and if students give them a discipline issue they remove him or her from the system.  In the public school no such luck, in fact those same students are allowed to return to the public system.  In DC this past year, the charter schools kicked out 624 students after receiving $9340 per-student; those students returned to the public system with any dollars following.

  • Asdasd

    By suggesting that Pandora has good pattern learning modeling capabilities, you have lost my confidence at the introductory stage.

  • TakeASecondLook

    Well if you are going to compare the US education system to Singapore Math results, no surprise - just don't expect Singaporean kids to know anything of art, literature, history, politics, geography.

  • Wallace John27

    It would be better if we'd simply stop catering to the lowest common denominator.

  • calm

    Wonderful reflections!  I'd emphasize regarding Trend #1 - while learning should be adapted to individual learning styles (it's not just right brain - left brain) and the recognition of this is having a profound impact in many classrooms, there is a risk of being too adaptive.  Students should be challenged to learn in a manner that ISN'T easy, as well.  Research is showing that visual learners can strengthen their ability to learn phonetically, for example.  If tech makes learning too adaptive... well, I think my point is made. A blend of both is, perhaps, the strongest option. 
    I would also reiterate the point made by K8mouse42 that teachers often make a judgement call that "decides" a student's future path - using tech could balance the prejudice that comes with being human.  
    A similar point could be made for #4 - learning doesn't need to be a game to be fun, learning IS fun if it's engaging. But that doesn't mean a format like online gaming as a tool among many can't enhance learning.

  • calm

    @ GretschProf: Sorry I should give you credit for my last remark as it relates to your point that "(a student's) sudden entry into the job market is extremely difficult when most of the day's activities are NOT fun and games."

  • Alyson King

    Interesting article on pedagogical strategies. All of them, however, require commitment from the students to do the work. Some will, some won't - student engagement is always a challenge, often no matter what the instructor does or doesn't do. Interesting ideas, but not a magic bullet.

  • Alyson King

    I should add that the amount the students work in order to pay for school does impact on their ability to be engaged, attend class, do homework (no matter whether it is videos of lectures, readings, essays, etc.), which speaks to class issues and poverty among students.

  • Guest

    One thing to consider is that in a flipped classroom students do the lecture and notes for homework then adaptive/remedial strategies in class.  The students that have low achievement are usually the students who do not (or refuse) to complete homework.

  • Nihal Parthasarathi

    There's another important trend worth noting, that's not quite technology related: the disaggregation of in-person education. Rather than paying a vast sum upfront for a four year (or even two year) university degree, more students are discovering specialized schools with courses that build the specific skills needed to enter the workforce. General Assembly, DevBootCamp, and Launch Academy are leading examples in the tech world of niche schools designed to teach coding so students can get jobs. Parallel schools in other fields are quickly following suit, and this explosion of in-person and online options will offer students a new flexible, affordable way to build the skills required of tomorrow's workforce.

  • kdowner

    No matter the method, learning begins at home with parents and how important it is to have their children educated. Also, no one never learns anything without being self-motivated to do so regardless of subject matter or teaching method. Oh and there is something called reading. No one is interested in this any more because it takes so much time, particularly time away from loafing, playing video games, partying, and texting.  

  • Tracey Powers

    So very true.  I am aware of, and am trying, many of these strategies, but they all still require students to value education and self-motivation.  I'd take one item off the list entirely - MOOCs.  They use online pedagogy from 10 years ago.  What is the real value of a MOOC if it has a 99% failure rate?  These "famous professors" may know their subject, but the courses are not well-suited to the type of student who would fail a traditional course, online or face-to-face.  The design teams appear to be oblivious to what has been going on in online education recently. 

  • Adrienne Heger Luke

    Regarding flipped classrooms: I agree with EDG. I also wonder about the value of education in homes. For instance, I recently met a young high schooler that no longer lives with her mother. This young girl lives with her aunt because her mother decided she didn't want her in her house any more (despite keeping some of the girl's other siblings in her house). The girl's aunt is regularly threatening to kick her out, but won't because then she won't get paid if she does so. I do not want this to be a discussion on "entitlements" by any means, though I did want to mention that there seems to be a deeper, fundamental problem besides the undervaluing of education going on.

    Thanks, Ben, for showing how our culture is moving toward addressing inequality.

  • Jeff Clough

    Honestly, I thought your "only 30% of Americans ... have [bachelor's degrees]" statement was too outrageous to be true, so I went straight to the data trough:

    It turns out that 32.6% of civilians from age 25 to 65 have at least a bachelor's degree, so I find myself mostly agreeing with your figure, but this includes both employed and unemployed. It's much worse if you consider only job seekers (unemployed, as opposed to employed or "not in labor force"). Now that I've seen the numbers for myself, I realize that I shouldn't be surprised that only 20.2% of job seekers have at least a bachelor's degree.That the 1 job seeker in 5 who does have at least a bachelor's degree still can't find work is something I'm still trying to get my head around. I don't know how to tell how much of this is due to a still-recovering job supply and how much might be due to other influences that keep people from finding suitable jobs. That kind of nuanced analysis is beyond my simple spreadsheet skills.

  • EDG

    I'm a huge supporter of most of these ideas, however one big stumbling block always comes up in discussions about this topic - if this is really going to help students from low-income families, they will need access to the material, namely, internet access and computers/internet capable devices. Thus accessing these wonderful tools is quickly out of their price range (at least in my state where the vast majority of schools can't afford to give/rent/check-out ipads or laptops to all their students). 

    My other concern is that not every student learns best from a computer screen. Some really need to be hearing/seeing/experiencing the information in person. 

    All this being said, I do really like the ideas posed.

  • GretschProf

    These are all certainly things worth of consideration.  As a faculty in higher ed for 30 years, I certainly see the value in a mix of new technology and old school technique.  I have a brother and sister in elementary and 2ndary education.  We have long discussed issues in education.  I believe it's an unfortunate circumstance, that many of our "problems" result from well meaning, but poorly informed elected officials who pass laws that often hurt those the laws are suppose to be helping.  We also seem to be ignoring the fact that all students are not equal in ability to comprehend.  No matter how much we would like to avoid some of them being "left behind", it's simply not possible.  However, we can certainly spend huge amounts of money trying.  Point being, we need people in traditional trades, and we need a mechanism to train and supply people in those areas.  A negative stigma associated with that recognition is hurting our education system and country.
    Of course we can argue the merits of low income verses more affluent, but that is so subjective and strikes at the very heart of a society who's basis is driven by opportunity.  On a more personal point I consider a major issue with students arriving in higher ed, and a direct result of elementary education concepts, I've noticed attention span is declining significantly.  I believe this is primarily a result of what I call "entertained learning".  If education isn't a game, or associated with some kind of fun activity, students can't seem to focus or stay interested.  Their sudden entry into the job market is extremely difficult when most of the day's activities are NOT fun and games.