How the Student Voice Can Make Education Better

Young Couple Sitting with a Pile of BooksHow can school be better?  Student answers: “More practical courses (like consumer math, finances, life skills)“, “Internships and real-world experiences“, “Students grouped not by age, but ability and interest“, “High expectations but more freedom” and “Meaningful work [with a] purpose; no more busy work; students need to be able to make connections (esp[ecially] to real-world)”. Student responses in class, IB Theory of Knowledge, as recorded in a teacher’s blog post, FutureSchool: A Teen’s Perspective.

I wrote in my last post about a vision for the future of education—Sal Khan’s vision of a One World Schoolhouse. It seems the education community didn’t take him seriously, reviews were mixed on his idea for reforming K-12 and higher education. Khan proposes K-12 classrooms not be formed on ages or grades, but a mix of students working collaboratively, with opportunities for hands-on [practical] learning. Khan’s view includes setting the bar high for all students, and giving college students real world experience through meaningful internships. Which is why when I read the student comments in the blog post mentioned above, I was intrigued—what students want in education was almost identical to Khan’s vision for education. This got me thinking about the voice of students. Students are perceptive and intelligent. Yet in discussions about education reform, students are often overlooked, not included, or at least not integrated in the process. Their voices are muffled, perhaps even moderated. Furthermore, students rarely have the opportunity to identify factors contributing to real-world problems, to explore and analyze solutions.

Value of the Student Voice
The student voice as mentioned, is garbled at best, which is [unfortunately] a sign of an institution-focused education system. Which brings me to the purpose of this post, to highlight the value of the ‘student voice’ and provide suggestions on how to include students in the reform process. I’ll also share recent sound bites of student voices from recent events in higher education venues.

Stakeholders in Education
Students have a significant stake in the education system, in terms of their time, energy, intellectual development and money. They are primary stakeholders, where stakeholders are defined as individuals or entities who stand to gain or lose from the success or failure of a system or an organization. Other primary stakeholders include faculty, administrators, and government bodies, depending upon the type of institution. There is an outer circle of stakeholders in higher education that includes its surrounding community, businesses, and the vendors and suppliers of products and services that support the institution. K-12 institutions have another unique set of primary and secondary stakeholders that differs from higher education, though the student is still central.

Group of teenage students enjoying outside.The Problem Solving Process
As stakeholders, students have the potential to be a valuable resource in all phases of the reform process. The process, ideally should include not just solutions but steps to address the problem in its entirety:

1) identifying the purpose of  education in the 21st Century.
2) determining the current problem(s) and barriers to achieving the identified purpose.
3) developing alternatives and finding solutions.

Who better than students to describe the school experience, identify what doesn’t work and why, describe what they need to learn and aren’t, explore options for a revised experience, and evaluate alternatives.  I’m speaking here of high school and young adult college students. It is these stakeholders who are experiencing first hand the education provided, and are the ones that are failing, frustrated, dropping out of college and high school, are not prepared for college, are bored, and/or can’t find a job. However, even successful students are perceptive enough to identify with the challenges many of their peers are facing.

The Student Voice in Higher Ed
Granted, some organizations do try to include students in the reform process. Just last month for instance, the Twenty Million Minds Foundation, whose mission is to ‘grow access and success by eliminating unnecessary hurdles to affordability in higher education‘, hosted a day long event with key players [terminology from their website] in California’s higher education system. The event, Re:boot California Higher Education purpose was to bring together a group of stakeholders [policymakers, faculty, politicians, students and representatives from Coursera and Udacity] and discuss key issues regarding the potential for online education and lower the costs for higher education.

Screen Shot 2013-02-13 at 1.46.36 PM
Image from Twenty Million Minds website featuring the Key Players at the event

However, student contribution was minimal. The agenda devoted fifteen minutes to three students speaking of their school experience. The fifteen minutes represented 5% of time allocated to discussion on these issues. Hillary Hill one of the three, spoke as the voice of thousands of students in the California public higher ed system. Hill spoke of the online course she took from a local community college, which apparently was the only way she could get the prerequisite needed to transfer into her major (Selingo, 2013). Hill shed light on the fact that classes are over-crowded, which is delaying time to graduation. I’m not sure this was the most effective use of students time or talent, to state the obvious. Alas, this symposium, like many similar events, featured much discussion, and no action (Watters, 2013).

Another significant event, which occurred recently, the meeting to create a Learner Bill of Rights for Learning in a Digital Age, was most irksome in that it included not one student, but a group of twelve: educators, technologists and journalists including Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity and instigator of the event. The goal of the meeting was quite noble “to inspire an open, learner-centered dialogue around the rights, responsibilities, and possibilities for education in the globally connected world of the present and beyond” (Lederman, 2013.)  It was a significant omission [bordering on arrogance] not to include any students in the discussion, which negates the value of this document altogether.

Suggestions for Integrating Students in Problem Solving
I don’t have the answers for transforming education, though I see the potential that lies in student voices that is going unheeded for the most part. This post is meant to encourage readers to consider how students might be part of the bigger picture of education transformation, and problem solving in general. Perhaps strategic analysis and planning skill development needs to be integrated into the curriculum that will teach students to be effective problem solvers. Students would benefit from learning how to identify and analyze  problems and the effects. Perhaps even engage students in real world problems, create teams that work with businesses or organizations where students work together to develop and implement viable solutions. An example of a real-world, hands-on team approach was in the course Designing a New Learning Environment. Though team participants represented a spectrum of ages and professions, college-age students were among the many who contributed.

Students can be part of the solution to transform education, they can identify and analyze problems, provide alternatives and explore solutions. All too often the voice of the student goes unheeded. My hope is that students don’t give up on higher education institutions, will contribute to finding a way to keep education relevant and meaningful for the 21st century, but that goes both ways.


Can We Transform Education with Sal Khan’s One World Schoolhouse?

As our world grows smaller and the people in it more inextricably connected, the world itself comes to resemble one vast, inclusive schoolhouse”  Sal Khan.

globe_mouseI am a big fan of Khan Academy. I turned my youngest two teenagers onto Khan’s videos when they were struggling with their Calculus homework, which they shared with their friends, then their classmates and finally their teachers. That is when I knew Khan Academy was going to be big—when an online platform that I thought was useful and ‘cool’, was good enough to be endorsed by my kids.

Which is why I read the book The One World School House: Education Reimagined written by the founder himself, Sal Khan. Khan shares how Khan Academy came to be by tutoring his niece, and how he eventually quit his job as hedge fund analyst to launch Khan Academy and filmed hundreds of videos in his closet. What comes through the pages is the passion Khan has for education, his drive to transform, and provide “a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere” (Khan, p 4).  In this post I’ll provide a brief overview of the book, but I focus on Khan’s vision for classrooms of the future, for an education system that is almost a utopian one, featuring the ‘ideal’ where students learn and grow at their own pace, at no cost, anywhere in the world.

I’ll outline Khan’s vision for K-12 and higher education, which is based on the Khan Academy philosophy, and I’ll examine why it is a worthwhile to consider his vision, even if unrealistic. A utopian view, which assumes that digital technology [in this case the Internet], can provide a near perfect, or ideal education scenario for K-12 and college students, happens to be this week’s topic in, e-Learning and Digital Cultures, at Coursera’s #edcmooc. In the course we are examining technology and its impact on cultures, societies and communities, and specifically what education looks like from a utopian (creating highly desirable social, educational, or cultural effects) and dystopian (creating extremely negative effects for society, education or culture) viewpoint. Khan does present a utopian vision which has come under criticism, (Coulson, 2012), (Wan, 2012), and though I agree that Khan’s strategy is far-fetched, there is value in considering what ‘perfect’ conditions look like in a classroom.

Screen Shot 2013-02-09 at 4.23.40 PMSnapshot of the One World Schoolhouse
Before I analyze Khan’s vision of the one world schoolhouse, I’ll review Khan’s journey to the Academy. What Sal Khan is promoting is more than a library of videos, which at this point holds 3,900 lessons on subjects of math, science, economics, computer science and the humanities; Sal is promoting a pedagogy where  the learner is self-directed, in the center of the learning paradigm, and teachers, act as mentors and guides rather than directors of learning (p 242).  Sal also believes that students can be inherently motivated when the conditions of learning are right, where they can work at their own pace, experience success and are not grouped by ability or age.

Classrooms of the Future: Utopia?
One cannot help but get caught up in the enthusiasm of Khan’s vision of education. Students of all ages combined in class, spending only one or two hours on lessons, and spending the rest of the school day with hands-on learning and projects. Standardized tests would be few, and transcripts a thing of the past.

In Khan’s vision of a K-12 classroom, learning is active. Students progress at their own pace, only moving ahead when they have mastered the concepts. In this model, older students assume more responsibility, mentor and help younger students. This idea has considerable merits, as teaching others a concept helps to reinforce one’s own learning. It removes the focus from self to others, in this case older to younger students, which can foster leadership and confidence.

The classes are large, with 100 students, yet there are five teachers that mentor and support, guide and provide feedback to small groups of students. Other characteristics of Khan’s classroom:

  • No transcripts, or letter grades but instead “two things: a running, multi-year narrative not only of what a student has learned by how she learned it, and a portfolio of a student’s work” (p 137).
  • At any given time in the school day: 1/5 of students doing computer-based lessons, 1/5 of students playing games that reinforce concepts, 1/5 students building robots, or constructing structures with Lego, (making something), 1/5 art or creative writing, and 1/5 on music.

Vision for Higher Education
Khan’s vision of higher education is grounded not in grades and transcripts, but in work experience, hands-on experience with lengthy internships of five or six months where students work in meaningful positions where skills are learned and applied alongside experts in the field. These are not summer, make-work projects, but paid positions. Between internships, students don’t attend lectures but study, learn, and collaborate, yet take rigorous assessments to show that they can go deep in certain academic areas (p 152).

“End”, by mrjoro, on Flickr.

Utopia and Dystopia Explored in Education
Are these utopian vision of education? Impossible ideals, where technology is not the focus, but the vehicle for bringing education to everyone, yet still with face-to-face interaction? I refer to utopia here in the context of perfect K-12 and higher education systems, in contrast to dystopia, which some would say is where education systems in the US are heading. Clay Shirky, a writer and journalist who writes frequently about the effects of the Internet on society and culture, calls the current higher education system “broken, expensive, (he calls it a ‘cost disease’), elitist and ineffective in developing an intellectual community” (Shirky, 2012), which does lean towards a dystopian view. Dystopia, according to the definition provided Hand & Sandywell’s paper, is one that includes anti-democratic properties, is corrupt, and would be controlled for purposes other than providing a sound and comprehensive education for students (Hand & Sandywell, 2002). However, it is the concept of utopia that might be exactly what we need when aiming to transform education—what could it be? How can technology enhance education for all? What if there were no constraints, how would we create a new system with the technology we have?

Why we Need a Utopian View
Which is why I support the vision—the ideal, such as the one that Khan proposes, because we need creative solutions and thinkers to construct new models for education–visions that inspire and make us think differently. It is the bold thinkers; the ones with seemingly crazy ideas, that most say will never work, that do create change and provide solutions. I think of William Murdoch and his prototype for a locomotive steam engine in 1784, and the Wright brothers with their flying machines. These visionaries had utopian-like views of people moving around the country in matter of hours rather than weeks or months. Crazy ideas? At the time yes.

Closing Thoughts
While Khan’s views may be considered impossible, radical, or completely unrealistic, I believe we need these visionaries. Though realistically we know utopia is a fictitious concept we create, but it helps build a new and fresh perspective on problems that need solving. It is visionaries like Khan that can help get us there. I’ll leave you with two other visions, the first an advertisement on YouTube video, created by Corning, A Day Made of Glass. This is a must see for the ‘vision’ of education (5 minute video below).

The second is an open, online class called Designing a New Learning Environment, led last year by Stanford professor, Dr. Paul Kim is Chief Technology Officer and Assistant Dean for Stanford University School of Education, “The ultimate goal of this project-based course is to promote systematic design thinking that will cause a paradigm shift in the learning environments of today and tomorrow.”  Click here to go to the web page and view the completed [and inspiring] video projects created by participants.

View Corning’s video for a glimpse of the Future of Education


  • Hand, M. and B. Sandywell. 2002. E-topia as cosmopolis or citadel: On the democratizing and de-democratizing logics of the Internet, or, toward a critique of the new technological fetishism. Theory, Culture & Society 19, no. 1-2: 197-225. (p.205-6)
  • Designing a New Learning Environment 2012, Open, Online Course, Stanford University, Dr. Kim
  • Napster, Udacity, and the Academy, (2012),  Blog post: Clay Shirky