His dream, a school run by a limited number of humans with a huge machine super-structure, is the ultimate techno-libertarian fantasy (from a TED Talk? no way!), where you eliminate all costs and somehow, magically, computers solve everything. His idea is a common one among utopian technologists of all fields: social institutions are a Victorian relic and that we can just put a bunch of technology down for people to use and let the market take its course.
The idea of loose constructivist learning (where you give the kids the materials and let them construct meaning for themselves) and intelligent tutoring software (where you let an AI do the work of a teacher) have a pretty storied history in education literature over the past 50 years or so, and there are major problems with each. Nothing he's doing here is really groundbreaking, and I don't see how any of the poorly defined results from his experiments actually point to an exciting new direction for education. Kids will learn some parts of an exciting new technology that's introduced to them? Well... ok. What are they learning? Can they put any of that in to practice? Are they learning the actual content, or are they instead learning their own version of it with misconceptions baked in? These questions go beyond what a "granny" (and let me say how much I hate that idea) in some distant country who doesn't speak the language and isn't a part of the local culture could be expected to field.
This seems like a sales pitch for his SOLE technology, which will probably go on an incredibly large pile of stuff labeled "failed technological saviors claiming to revolutionize education".
Pierson, now 50, unveiled a technology company called Declara. The year-old startup, based in Palo Alto, has essentially built [...] a type of social network that links everyone in a company or an organization. With the help of algorithms developed by Pierson and others, including top engineers from Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT), Declara’s system learns how people interact, what types of questions they’re looking to answer, and who can best answer them. The company has raised more than $5 million in funding from investors, including Peter Thiel, the billionaire who first backed Facebook (FB).
A flurry of business-oriented social networks have appeared in recent years with a similar pitch. Microsoft, for example, spent $1.2 billion last year to acquire Yammer, which lets companies create private networks among their employees through an interface that looks almost exactly like Facebook. Box, Dropbox, and Jive Software (JIVE) are among the dozens of other companies that have received billions of dollars in funding to become the “collaboration platform” of choice for modern companies.
Declara does something different, say Pierson and Nelson González, the startup’s co-founder. Declara’s software flags people who seem to excel at certain tasks. Someone at a biotech company, for example, might want to know which enzymes seem promising for curing a particular disease. Declara will scour the company’s social network to identify the people others turn to most for information about that disease and who have the most up-to-date research at hand. Pierson and González describe Declara as a kind of automated consulting firm—except that, where the fees from a McKinsey or Bain can run into the millions, Declara charges $15 per employee per year. “We’re flipping the equation so that people can become their own consultants,” says González, who used to work as a consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH). “And we help people keep on learning, instead of leaving them with little more than a pretty-looking PowerPoint deck.”
The Declara team is a mix of engineers and designers who’ve spent the past year working in relative secrecy with governments and companies to refine the startup’s technology. Chrapaty, who’s worked at Cisco (CSCO) and Microsoft, is about to join the company. Pierson says large banks and biotech companies such as Genentech (RHHBY) have signed on as customers. The agreements she talks most freely about, though, are with the Australian and Mexican governments.
In Australia, which has recently moved to have a single nationwide public school curriculum, educators from Sydney to Perth have digital access to the same lesson plans, tests, and all other classroom materials. Thousands of the country’s teachers have been given early access to a private network built by Declara called the Scootle Community. It’s a social network that will eventually link all 280,000 teachers in Australia and allow them to form groups around topics. “In one week, we saw about 50 groups set up, and the discussions amazed us,” says Susan Mann, the chief executive officer of Education Services Australia, a nonprofit owned by the Australian education system. “They were all about developing curriculum, teaching new technologies, working with disadvantaged students—and on this very serious, professional level.” Using Declara, teachers can pull up graphical displays that show hot topics among their colleagues, click on something like “8th grade math” and find tests and videos that other teachers have recommended, and, most important, reach out directly to their peers all over the country. “It’s like having a huge staff room,” says Mann. “People are getting answers to things that the other teachers in their school didn’t know.”
Declara’s technology watches all these interactions. It learns whom people tend to turn to for, say, complex physics questions, and which teachers seem to produce high test scores quarter after quarter. The software can search and catalog all the digital material collected during the past 15 years by the Australian school system. So, if you need to find advice on teaching gifted children, you type “gifted children” in a search box, and up pops all the available documents on the subject, along with some guesses about the experts in the area you might want to contact.
Declara makes it possible for these organizations and companies to operate in two modes—private and public. The Australian teachers, for example, can keep chats within their own network to themselves but also have an open area where companies with interesting technology or specialists in certain fields can participate. Pierson describes this as a kind of permeable membrane. “There are countries in Latin America and the Middle East that are industrializing and improving their judicial systems and moving into spaces they have never been before,” Pierson says. “They need to seek experts among themselves and outsiders.”
It’s on this last point that Declara can challenge the big consulting firms, she says. The software studies interactions on Twitter, can see which people have frequently cited academic papers, and, with permission, scans chat sessions for verbal clues about people who know what they’re talking about. (Companies such as IBM (IBM) have released similar software for finding internal experts.) “In Australia, there is no McKinsey team or Harvard school telling the teachers how to develop the world’s most innovative curriculum,” says co-founder González. “They’re doing it themselves by learning from their peers.”
So-called noncognitive skills — attributes like self-restraint, persistence and self-awareness — might actually be better predictors of a person’s life trajectory than standard academic measures. A 2011 study using data collected on 17,000 British infants followed over 50 years found that a child’s level of mental well-being correlated strongly with future success. Similar studies have found that kids who develop these skills are not only more likely to do well at work but also to have longer marriages and to suffer less from depression and anxiety. Some evidence even shows that they will be physically healthier...
Should social-emotional learning prove successful, in other words, it could generate a string of benefits that far exceeds a mere bump in test scores. This prospect has led to some giddiness among researchers. Maurice Elias, a psychology professor at Rutgers University and the director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, has lauded emotional literacy as “the missing piece” in American education.
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