Wonderful reflections on this summer’s Civil Rights trip by faculty and students of Phillips Academy.
Below is a letter I sent to students and parents of Phillips Academy in response to an unfortunate incident involving a group of our recent graduates.
On Sunday, we celebrated Commencement in our 237th year under blue skies. We graduated 328 exceptional students, capping a fine year at Andover across the board—in the arts, athletics, community service, and academics. These students and their families as well as our faculty and staff have every reason to be proud of the community’s accomplishments this year.
A few hours later, 74 of our new graduates found themselves in protective custody in Sunapee, New Hampshire, for alleged acts at a party in a rented home. According to police reports, 51 of our graduates passed a breathalyzer test; 23 of our graduates did not and, as a result, face a court date in August for underage consumption of alcohol. Fortunately none of our graduates was hurt. All were released to responsible parents and guardians.
The long flights to and from East Asia this Spring Break afforded time to catch up on a stack of books I’ve been meaning to read for a while. For this Spring’s Head of School bookshelf, I’ve selected a series of titles focused on psychology and policy relevant to the secondary school field in education. There’s a lot of great work that’s been done in the recent past and some new books highly worth reading.
Spring 2015 List: Teaching, Talent, and Testing
Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. (Bantam, 2009). Published a few years ago, this book examines the question of how to develop talent. Coyle considers the question that has probably occurred to most everyone at some point: how is it that some communities, at some moments of time, produce a disproportionate number of geniuses or other types of extremely high performers? Coyle examines the conditions necessary to produce “greatness” at a collective level (or “hotbeds”, including in schools, as he calls them). He also considers the specific commitments of individuals necessary to reach high potential and to help others reach high potential. This book considers academic success of the ordinary sort, but also athletic, musical, and artistic prowess, among other areas of growth. Coyle also keeps up a website with lots of good examples — such as the practice routine of Odell Beckham Jr. — that illustrate his point.
Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (Random House, 2014). Along similar lines to Coyle’s book, Duhigg takes up the question of how habits are formed, broken, and reformed. Though perhaps more geared toward a business audience than toward educators per se, the premise is highly relevant to us at teachers. How do students (or adults) learn to learn? What is the cycle by which habits are formed, which lead to effective learning? There’s a good section on Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott (chapter 8), which leads to a discussion of how movements come about (relevant to the section of US History I am teaching this year!).
Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Ballantine, 2007). Prof. Dweck’s crucial book on the growth mindset is not new, but it is as good and relevant as ever. At Andover, many of our faculty are focused on how we can promote and develop a growth mindset among our students. Prof. Dweck is joining us in early May, 2015, as a guest of the new Tang Institute and to speak to our faculty. Prof. Dweck also posts more information on mindsets on a helpful website. The book and the website are both very clear and well-written, with loads of specific examples for how to understand and deploy her findings.
Dana Goldstein, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession (Doubleday, 2014). This book, which came out last year, is a terrific history of 175 years of the teaching profession. (If we do not learn our history, we are bound to repeat it, right?) Journalist and author Goldstein gives a strong sense of who has gone into the teaching profession, especially in America, and why; what has happened to teachers and the teaching profession during several key periods in American history; and how we might empower teachers in the future. (Side-note: Goldstein includes some interesting observations of the role of faith and gender in education, both of which are important, much-debated topics on our campus today.)
Anya Kamenetz, The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed With Standardized Testing — But You Don’t Have To Be (Public Affairs, 2015). Everyone is talking about testing these days. It’s a great blessing at Andover not to worry about “teaching to the test,” but our society at large seems testing-obsessed — and our students, of course, take plenty of standardized tests along the way. This account, by NPR journalist and author Anya Kamenetz, takes both an historical view and one that points us to a future that doesn’t have to be all about high-stakes testing. It’s a very timely and interesting book, and we have an invitation out to the author to encourage her to come to campus soon, too.
Special Mentions: Other Fascinating New Books — not all exactly on the topic of the list, but included as recommendations:
Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (Norton, 2015). Prof. Foner, of Columbia University, is a truly great US historian of Reconstruction and other 19th century themes. I’ve been teaching from his college-level textbook (“Give Me Liberty!”) for my section of US history at Andover this year; it’s very good. This new history of the Underground Railroad includes several stories never before told in a major book, and draws on archival material that was certainly new to me, and will be to virtually all readers.
Martin Ford, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (Basic Books, 2015). Written by a computer software developer, this book examines the question of the effect of Moore’s Law (the premise that computing power doubles every 18 to 24 months) on the labor market. What kinds of jobs might our kids expect to have during their lifetimes? How much skill will be required for various tasks in a world where artificial intelligence has continued to increase at an exponential rate each year? As educators, it is worth our giving these hard questions some thought.
Susan Greenfield: Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains (Random House, 2015). A renowed UK neuroscientist, Dr. Greenfield explores whether our “minds” (not our “brains”, as she stresses at the start of chapter 12) are changing as a result of our vast social media usage and other digital stimuli. The answer is surely “yes,” but with an important call to all of us to define what we want out of the digital revolution and to aim ourselves toward it. I like her “balanced and comprehensive overview of the scientific research” (Preface, XV) into this important area.
Carrie James, Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap (MIT Press, 2014). From Carrie James, the Good Play Project, and the excellent Digital Media and Learning series at MIT Press comes this new book on kids and their development with respect to ethics in the digital world. James draws on her deep research experience as well as new conversations with kids aged 10 to 25 to bring us up to speed on their thinking about privacy, property, and participation online. She covers important well-known cases (e.g., Tyler Clementi) as well as examples of the “ethics gap” that have been less extensively covered.
Ron Lieber, The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money (Harper Collins, 2015). I loved this book: it’s filled with super-practical, serious advice for how to raise our kids with respect to their relationship with money. My own kids have already started the system that Lieber recommends (jars for “Give,” “Save,” and “Spend”) and the advice from him and other parents on his Facebook page is terrific. Lieber is a journalist with the New York Times who covers personal finance. He’s agreed to join us in the fall at Andover as a guest speaker.
Please consider buying each of these titles at your local independent bookstore. I bought the copies for the Head of School bookshelf, (in my office, where faculty can come get them anytime), from the Andover Bookstore in Andover, MA.
P.S.: Pointers to previous Head of School bookshelves: Adolescence, Technology and Sexuality; a set geared toward Secondary School Teachers interested in Learning and Technology; and The Innovation Edition.
Today marks a special day in our academic calendar: it is End of Tuition Day. From this day forward in the school year, everything is free for every student.
What exactly do I mean by “free”? And what do I mean for “every” student?
As a need-blind school, we are enormously fortunate that we are able to read every admissions application without regard to whether the student’s family can afford the tuition that our school charges. This hallmark, in one form or another, dates back to the founding of our school in 1778, when Samuel Phillips and his family and friends decided to open an academy for “Youth from Every Quarter.” We ensure that no family has to take out loans to send a student to high school. And we are able to admit the most extraordinary, diverse, nice, talented group of 1,100 students we can find. And once we are all here, we work very hard to honor everyone equally, regardless of whether one’s family happens to pay the full tuition, a part of the tuition, or none of the tuition. It is our privilege to have every one of you here, absolutely regardless.
At this point in the year — March 25, this year — something magical happens. From this point out, we rely not at all on anyone’s tuition. For everyone, the rest of the school year is free. The full cost, you see, of educating an Andover student is more than $80,000. (That doesn’t even count some of the amazing benefits that you can take advantage of, like the Addison and the Peabody museums.) The full tuition price for a day student is $38,000 and for boarding, $50,000. So from here on out, every meal: free. Every class: free. Every sports practice and game: free. Every community service trip to a neighboring town: free.
Where does it come from? Two crucial sources. One is the school’s endowment, which means all the money contributed to the school in perpetuity over hundreds of years. We have a very large endowment for a high school, and we rely on income from it to make Andover as special today as we possibly can. The other source is our Annual Fund. Each year, our alumni, parents, faculty, and staff contribute about $10 million per year to make “End of Tuition Day” possible. We are enormously proud of and grateful for this Annual Fund. It makes an enormous number of great things possible in the lives of our students.
So today, I urge you to join me in giving thanks to all those who have been generous to this school, over so many generations — this year, and in years past. Just as we look to the future at Andover — your future — we ought to honor and thank those who have gotten us here. We give thanks for all those who have make philanthropy a big part of their lives — and acknowledge how important they have been to making Andover what it is today.
And soon it will be your turn. I trust that each of you will be as generous as your forebears have, when the time comes. The reason we can celebrate End of Tuition Day is because others have given back to their school. In fact, the Class of 2013 had a 98% participation rate for the senior class gift. This year, the Class of 2015 is already at a 50% level — the highest ever on record as of this date. I challenge you all to meet or exceed the participation rate of your preceding class — and make “End of Tuition Day” come earlier and earlier with every passing year. Thank you!
Fun to see our welcome video to admitted students alongside other, similar eforts (at colleges/universities).
Check out this week’s advancement news worldwide, the latest CASE news, trending discussions on CASE communities and content shared by member institutions. Have something to share? Add it in the comments.
- Mobile students earn more, study finds—Those who spend part of their degree overseas tend to earn more in their first job and are less likely to be unemployed six months after graduating.
- Can online degrees finally revolutionize higher education?—In 2012, when the concept of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) first hit the internet, we the consumers/students heard all about how they were going to change higher education and accessibility forever. Yet, three years later, relatively little has changed in the world of higher education — at least when it comes to the continuing necessity of a paper diploma.
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Good morning, Andover!
Over the Thanksgiving break, I wrote to you all an email, asking that you take some time to understand what was happening in Ferguson, Missouri. A few members of the community — a student and a parent, in particular — wrote me back, respectfully, with deep concerns about what I had written, along with Dean Murphy [our Dean of Students] and LCG [Dean Linda Carter Griffith, our Dean of Community and Multicultural Development]. I wanted to respond to those concerns and also to explain why I think this attention and this discourse are so important. [The original email is here.]
I asked you to pay attention to what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, not because I want you to think something in particular. In fact, while I do have a point of view on this issue, and I’m happy to share that view with any of you anytime, I very much do not want for 1129 young people to think what I think – what a disaster that would be! In fact, let’s agree to start from a perspective of valuing intellectual freedom and the importance of being open to hear every voice in our academic community.
I asked you to pay attention for two reasons. One is that, despite the common phrase, we do not live in a “bubble” in Andover. We live in a community that is deeply connected to the world outside our beautiful campus. We live in a world where students are required to go off-campus – whether home or elsewhere – during breaks. We live in a world in which all students have friends and family who live outside of our little world here. And we live in a world that is increasingly complex – more global, more interconnected, more diverse, and moving ever more quickly.
The other reason I asked you to pay attention to what happened in Ferguson is because I think it matters a great deal in an historic sense. It matters to every single one of us – Latino/a, Asian, Black, White, regardless of the race, or races, or ethnicity or ethnicities, that you claim. It matters to each person, perhaps in a different way. But it matters to all of us because it stands for a few important things. It stands for the difficulty we continue to have in talking about race and difference in the world. I know, in what I will say to you today, I will offend one or more of you; or perhaps I will stumble badly over my words. We must each run that risk — of offending one another, of saying the wrong thing, on the way to the truth and to productive dialogue. This issue also stands for the very real challenge of effective law enforcement and global security — which we must accomplish with real effectiveness — and to do so in a world in which it is not possible to ignore the inequities between people in our society.
I would not have wanted for the world to be in the position that faced the policeman, Darren Wilson that night. I would not have wanted for the world to be in the position that faced Michael Brown that night — and I know, because of the color of my skin and other factors, that I am highly unlikely ever to be. I would not wish on anyone the job of being on that Grand Jury. My heart breaks for every one of their families and friends. Ditto for what happened in Staten Island, in the death of Eric Garner. Ditto for hundreds, if not thousands, of similar cases in recent years. This is hard, and this is heart-breaking. These events happen all too often in this country and in countries around the world.
We need to be better – and it starts here, in this august high school. We need to do better – and we can. We can prove that we can be empathetic toward one another. We can prove that such a diverse community can work, that we can listen and learn from one another, and that we can work toward a more just and sustainable world.
More broadly, these matters speak to more than race. These matters call the question: What does it mean to be a citizen in a republic? What it means to me is that you must have a point of view. There is a cost of freedom; there is a cost to having a say in who governs and how they do it. That cost is that you must engage. You must learn. You must listen. You must come to have a point of view on issues that matter; we cannot govern ourselves if we do not. And you must act upon it. You have no choice. That might mean that you start a new journal, as some of your colleagues have recently done, on matters of fiscal policy; it might mean that you organize a forum and a candlelight vigil; it might mean that you put yourself into the public arena with a point of view on something else that matters to you. But to make democracy work, you must find your path toward being a true citizen.
It may be that one of us in this room will be in the position of Darren Wilson one day; maybe one of us will be in Michael Brown’s shoes; in America, we will all be on that Grand Jury; we will all be their friends and family. Not in exactly the same way, and – we pray – not with the same outcome. But when we sign up for life in a republic, we sign up to do the work of being a citizen — to being on that jury, to making those hard decisions, to figuring out how we can have effective law enforcement and global security in a way that is consonant with the Constitution and with international norms of human rights. That work is hard; it matters; and it is all of our work.
I could not be more proud to live in this country; I could not be more proud to be an American. I could not be more proud to live and work at Andover; I could not be more proud to be your head of school. Neither America nor Andover is perfect. Neither one is completely exceptional. But on their best days, they are both completely wonderful. We can and must make both of them better – and with them, the world at large. Andover, it starts here – it starts with each of us and with our community. We can show that democracy works in the context of free, open, orderly discussion on topics that matter — whether they relate to what is right in front of us or what is occurring in the world at large.
I will end with a quote that I love. I know that there are valid critiques of this quote, but I love it – for its spirit and for what it calls on each of us to do. It is a quote from Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States. He almost certainly did not have in mind as inclusive a community as I do today, but he got the call to engaged citizenship just right. Where I say “man”, you can choose to hear “person.” Otherwise, please just listen to it for the spirit and the challenge it presents:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
All School Meeting dismissed.
On October 17, 2014, we are launching the Andover Institute at Phillips Academy. The Institute will be a hub for innovation at PA, where our students, faculty, and others come together to explore new ideas in teaching and learning at the secondary school level. The idea is to have a “Bell Labs” here at Andover that will help improve learning on our campus and beyond. Congratulations to Caroline Nolan, Trish Russell, Eric Roland, and all those who have worked very hard to prepare this new initiative.
Inspired by this upcoming launch, I devote this fall’s Head of School Bookshelf to recent books on innovation and its application to how we learn. As with previous versions of this list, it’s not meant to be exhaustive, but instead a series of pointers to books I’ve read recently and especially enjoyed. (On campus, for faculty at PA, I make a stack of copies of each book available outside my office; also, we partner with our friends at the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library to make multiple copies available to everyone in the community. As ever, I encourage trips to your local independent bookstore to buy copies, too!)
We revere innovation. And today, there’s great promise for innovations in teaching and learning. But do we really know how it comes about? These five authors take a crack at explaining how innovation works, from various angles. Three of the books are about innovation, fairly broadly conceived (Isaacson, Gertner, and Shenk). The other two are focused on learning and how the brain works (Carey and Brown et al.).
Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 2014). There is no one writing today who understands the human side of the technology revolution better than Walter Isaacson (author of the epic, blockbuster Steve Jobs biography and president of the Aspen Institute, among many other accomplishments). His sweeping history of the digital revolution is packed with insights about how we got to the digital present and who deserves the credit along the way. For purposes of this list, Isaacson also reveals many lessons about how these innovations took place at such a break-neck speed, which continues unabated today. To his credit, Isaacson also goes out of his way to unearth untold stories about the female pioneers of the too-often-male-dominated field of information and communications technologies (something I have not done well in assembling this list, I admit).
Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (Penguin, 2012). Gertner’s book tells a story parallel to Isaacson’s, but its emphasis falls in an earlier era of innovation and on a limited set of actors within a single firm. Bell Labs is often held out as the best example of industrial research and development in the United States during the 20th century; Gertner helps to make that case plain. There are many interesting contrasts to Isaacson’s new book: consider how they each treat William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor and winner of the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Joshua Wolf Shenk, Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014). The story of innovation, at least in the case of the digital revolution, has in the past often been reduced to the image of solo inventor in his or her garage, paradigmatically in Silicon Valley. Shenk takes aim at this truism and highlights the power to be found in creative pairs working together toward breakthrough innovation. Think Marie and Pierre Curie; Lennon and McCartney; Jobs and Wozniak and you get the idea. (Not surprisingly, Walter Isaacson wrote one of the blurbs: “We sometimes think of creativity as coming from brilliant loners. In fact, it more often happens when bright people pair up and complement each other. Shenk’s fascinating book shows how to spark the power of this phenomenon.” I agree.)
Benedict Carey, How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why it Happens (Random House, 2014). There is a great outpouring of research about education and how the brain works these days. Carey, who has covered the topic for many years as a journalist, brings us some of the best of that research. He is particularly struck by surprising findings about how to make learning more effective. The New York Times Magazine ran an excerpt recently, under the provocative title: “Why Flunking Exams is Actually a Good Thing.” Carey refers here to the notion that taking an exam at the outset of a course that students are unprepared for can lead to better learning outcomes over the course of a term. The book brings forward a series of similar findings in compelling ways.
Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel, Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Harvard University/Belknap Press, 2014). In a similar vein, these three authors introduce a whole pile of interesting findings about how the brain works and how learners and teachers can put this science to work day-to-day. I’ve long been a fan of the work of one of the authors — Roddy Roediger — who has been investigating the powers of frequent testing for the purpose of formative, rather than summative, assessment. (Basic idea: it’s a good idea to quiz students frequently, to prompt recall and retention, rather than to rely upon heavyweight, high stakes tests at the end of the term or the year.) This book build out findings of this sort in a highly readable style. I think parents, students, and teachers all might find this book fun and worthwhile.
Though not formally on the list for this fall, a few other things — an eclectic bunch — from my summer reading that I loved and highly recommend:
Benoit Mandelbrot, The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick (Pantheon, 2012). I loved this first-person account of an extraordinary life in science. Mandelbrot’s many breakthrough concepts tended to fall between fields — mathematics, physics, biology, art. His experience in academia, in and out of university settings and corporate R&D labs, points to the risks inherent in a purely discipline-based view of organizing intellectual inquiry. Mandelbrot’s mode of innovation is somewhat in contrast to the team-based approach highlighted in the books above. The New York Times published this review a few years ago, which provides the gist of the book, if you are tempted. Kudos to Doron Weber at the Sloan Foundation who funded the book’s production.
Robert Darnton, Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature (Norton, 2014). Robert Darnton is one of the foremost historians working today. He makes stories from the past come alive in extraordinary ways. In his most recent books, he explores the history of the censor and how he and she has gone about his or her work. Darnton employs the methodology of a comparative historian (easier said than done, as he points out in his introduction), going deep on three case studies of censorship regimes. Darnton’s primary cases are Bourbon France; British India; and Communist East Germany. He frames the entire work in bookends about the current censorship regimes of the Internet era. (In full disclosure: I co-taught a seminar with Professor Darnton on this topic at Harvard University a few years ago. I was far more a student than a teacher for that term, which was both a privilege and a wonderful treat.)
Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press, 2014). I devoted several weeks of reading time this summer to Piketty’s huge book, and I’m glad I did. Throughout the spring, it was hard to avoid the many reviews of Capital and the firestorm of debate it provoked. I figured I should read it so that I could have an informed view on the debate. I found myself agreeing much more than disagreeing with Piketty’s careful, serious look at the perils of the growing gap in income and capital assets in wealthy societies. I am not yet convinced about his primary proposed fix — a global tax on wealth — but, even a few months after finishing the book, I am still trying to work out if I disagree because it’s impractical or because it would in fact be a bad idea for society at large. We ignore the trends to which Piketty directs our attention at our peril. (One clear lesson from his impressive volume of research: world wars matter, a lot.) There’s a terrific Wikipedia entry already about the book.
Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (Little, Brown, 2013). Also long, also quite wonderful. It’s a beautiful story (one of two works of fiction on my list) of a familiar modern tragedy, a lost work of art, and the lives of a few young people growing up mostly on their own. Worthy of all the attention and awards. Once every ten years, Ms. Tartt seems to come out with a new book, and I’m always glad to see it.
Ian McEwan, The Children Act (Doubleday, 2014). As in the case of Donna Tartt, I find myself reading everything McEwan writes as soon as it comes out, which I suppose I should admit before going further. The Children Act, also a work of fiction, proved to be timely: it explores the journey that adolescents must travel with respect to their faith, something that we are discussing at great length at Phillips Academy. The book touches on many other themes (the role and limits of the law; aging; sex and relationships), but the exploration of faith and its connection to life and death stood out for me.
Zephyr Teachout, Corruption in America (Harvard University Press, 2014). Zephyr Teachout — a law professor and activist I much admire — just ran a spirited and important campaign for Governor of New York. Though she came up short in the primary, she attracted enormous attention and raised central issues of institutional corruption in her run against incumbent Andrew Cuomo. Her book echoes, and builds out, the themes she developed with such skill and resonance during the campaign. One tiny excerpt: “I am trying to bring corruption back. Not as a societal ill. As you have read, we have enough of that already. But as an idea, something we fight and worry about.” That’s how she starts Chapter 16, “The Anticorruption Principle,” p. 276. One of the blurbs is from Lawrence Lessig, whose Republic, Lost is a crucial text in much the same spirit: “Teachout’s beautifully written and powerful book exposes a simple but profound error at the core of the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. FEC decision. The originalists on the Court forgot their history. This is that history — and eventually it will provide the basis for reversing the Court’s critical error.” I’m thinking hard about how to introduce this concept and text into my History 300 course this year, US History for Andover students.
I hope one or more of these books might appeal. (As an aside: as I reflect on this list, I note the several great books published recently by Harvard University Press — bravo!)
P.S.: Pointers to a couple of previous lists in the Head of School Bookshelf: Adolescence, Technology and Sexuality and a set geared toward Secondary School Teachers interested in Learning and Technology.
Video conversation between dean of studies Trish Russell and dean of students Paul Murphy about academic excellence at Andover.
The Web turns 25 years old this year. What has changed since Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist at CERN in Switzerland, released this gift to the world in 1989? The easier question to answer might be to ask what hasn’t changed. The widespread use of the Web in communities all around the world has touched virtually every aspect of human existence, mostly for good and sometimes for ill. The way that we operate our businesses, the functioning of our democracies, how we relate to other human beings – fundamental aspects of society and welfare are different than they were a quarter-century ago for those people who have access to the Web. To create an exhaustive list of these changes would be nearly impossible – a testament to the extraordinary power of this invention.
Before we go any further, let’s clarify one thing: the “Web” is not the same as the “Internet.” Allow me please to retreat a few decades in time, to share a bit of history. Communications networks long predate the advent of the World Wide Web. One could begin the story in many places; the invention of the transistor at Bell Labs in 1947 is a plausible starting point. The development of packet-switching networks in the late 1950s led to breakthrough work by the academic and government researchers who developed ARPANET and related designs in the late 1960s and 1970s. These networks led to the Internet as we know it. On this firm technical foundation, Berners-Lee developed the Web: a system to link hypertext documents that can in turn be accessed via the Internet.
There are many ways the invention of the Web could have gone. Those who worked with it early on might have imagined the Web merely as a way to organize and share information within an organization, an advanced document management system. Or, the invention of the Web might have been patented, with a goal toward creating a massive business and long-term revenue stream for Berners-Lee and perhaps for CERN.
Neither of these things happened. In the spirit of a true scientist, Berners-Lee described and released his work publicly. He did not seek intellectual property protection for his ideas with a goal of monetizing whatever came next. He – and others who helped to promote the Web early on, including Robert Cailliau – recognized it as an invention that could help connect people well beyond the researchers at CERN. A global system of hypertext links could connect people as well as information in the form of text, video, audio, and plausibly any other format we might dream up. This open, public conception of the Web, as opposed to a narrow and proprietary view, has had enormous consequences
The impact of the Web is felt so broadly today because of the capacious, open vision that Berners-Lee brought to his work — and to the way he released the invention to the world. Its impact is a consequence of the brilliance of the design, how it builds upon other networks, and how it allows for others to build on top of it through new ideas.
As we celebrate twenty five years of the Web and what it has meant to societies around the world, we ought also to consider what we might accomplish in the next twenty-five years. Consider three institutions that have already been changed by the Web and which will no doubt change more in the coming two and a half decades: education, libraries, and journalism. Each of these institutions is essential to healthy democracies and relies upon a web that remains free, open, and interoperable. In an increasingly digital world, the importance of these institutions is going up, not down. And yet, in each case, the Web is too often perceived as a threat, rather than as an opportunity, to these institutions and those who work in them. And if the Web itself becomes closed down, controlled by private parties or by government censorship, we will curtail opportunities for extraordinarily positive social change. With great imagination, compelling design, sound policy, and effective implementation, each of these institutions might emerge stronger and better able to serve democracies than before the advent of the Web.
In many countries around the world – certainly in the United States – to bring up “the current state of education” is to bring on a conversation characterized by a lot of sighing and hand-wringing. If you mention the Web in this context, it tends to grow more negative still. We fear declension: this generation of students is “dumber” than previous generations, if Emory professor Mark Bauerlein is to be believed. We tend to fear that students have shorter attention spans than they did when they tended to read longer-format works (mostly, books, but perhaps even essays such as this one that go on for more than a page or two). If the Web comes up in such a conversation, it is commonly blamed for one or more of these problems.
Certainly, we do need to teach students to sustain their attention beyond Tweets and Facebook status posts; certainly, we need to do a better job of helping them to learn to discern credible information from less credible information on the Web. But instead of just worrying about what we are losing, we ought to consider what is newly possible. In a world characterized by the Web, there is no shortage of interesting, important, and fun things that we can do to improve education.
The future of education will come about through the application of new technologies to the very old art of teaching and learning. Since the days of Socrates and Plato, teachers have debated the best way to convey ideas and skills to the next generation. What, in a way, could be more important than a society’s ability to prepare its young people to create a bright future for themselves and for the world at large?
As a field, education has not been especially threatened by technology so far. Nor has it been transformed radically. Consider what has happened to the business of recorded entertainment such as music and movies, and most recently the field of book publishing, book stores, and libraries in the era of the Web. The change in related fields is coming on fast and furious. Education is about to get its share of this kind of transformative change.
The easiest place to see this transformation is in higher education. The Web is today often associated with the explosion of free, online courses being offered by top-tier universities. Call this phenomenon “MOOC Mania.” MOOC stands for Massive, Open, Online Courses. The most famous of these initiatives are spin-outs from Stanford – Coursera and Udacity – which are for-profits, funded by venture capitalists, and edX, a project started by MIT and Harvard, as a non-profit. These ventures offer hundreds of courses to millions of students around the world – so far, largely for free – via the Web. Just to be clear, there is no way that interactive courses of this sort could be made so freely available, at relatively little cost, without the advent of the Web.
There is raging, global debate about whether these MOOCs are a good idea. Some think that these courses can solve the vexing problem of rising tuitions – making education much more affordable for students in the process. All of us who run educational institutions know that the rate of increase in tuitions outstrips inflation each year. Why? We are essentially businesses comprised of people. Even if we increase pay in line with inflation, the rate of increase in benefits is much higher than the ordinary rate of inflation. (Other problems, including bad management decisions, contribute to rising costs of tuition, too, to be sure.) Some people think a world in which MOOCs proliferate can help us to reset our models in a more sustainable manner. It’s possible – but it won’t happen without reducing the number of people we employ or how much we pay them. Hence, the controversy.
In some fields, MOOCs offer enormous potential for improving the quality of education. Set aside the business model implications for education for a moment. If we can replace less-good lectures with better, more engaging lectures; if we can replace less good text books with better, more engaging, interactive ones; and if we can put classroom time to better use, the net effect for learning can be fantastic. Here, data can be our friend: we can use analytics to understand better what’s working and what isn’t. Student mastery can rise as teaching methods improve across the board. These gains are much easier to see in some fields – such as math, science, computer science, statistics, and economics – than it is in others, like the visual arts, performing arts, and much of the humanities. But there is very interesting work underway across the academy to understand how we can improve our work as teachers and learners through these models.
There’s another model of online education that holds special promise, which involves an extraordinary teacher named Sal Khan and his web-based service, Khan Academy. Sal Khan is without a doubt the most popular educator in the world right now. Every month, he and his team of a few dozen people reach many millions of students, of all ages, from around the world. Through online videos on a wide array of topics, from computer science to history to art, Sal Khan has reached hundreds of millions of people. These learners have completed over a billion exercises at Khan Academy, on the Web, to test their mastery. They can practice what they learned on the videos, often over and over again. Khan Academy is free and open to anyone.
There’s a big difference between the kind of education someone can get free, online, from the Khan Academy (or on Wikipedia, for that matter), and the kind of education one can get at a great public or private residential school. There are enormous benefits to residential education and to face-to-face encounters with teachers. But there is also a benefit to the ability to watch a well-taught lesson over and over again when you didn’t really understand what your algebra teacher was explaining to you. There’s great value in having exercises to check yourself as you do your homework or as a class is proceeding on a hard topic.
What’s exciting to me is the connection between the experimental, innovative online teaching and learning work being done at places like Khan Academy and the classic, time-proven approaches at our traditional schools. A successful approach to education reform, I believe, will bring together the best of the “classical” with the best of the new “jazz” in education.
One of the knock-on effects of this change is the development of new systems, some technological, that offer a way to understand much better what is working and what is not working well in education. It is exciting to see projects that bring technology into the classroom that can collect a great deal more data about how kids learn and allow us to test various approaches, refining them over time. Think of it as the concept of “big data” supporting education in a promising way. One of the things that education can learn from the Web is the spirit of innovation and experimentation. Through the growing field of educational assessment, we are better able to test approaches, improve upon those that seem to be working, discard those that are a failure, and scale the best of them.
The connection between what young people are learning in formal educational settings and outside the classroom holds enormous untapped potential. Consider a student who can benefit from the energy and enthusiasm of a great teacher, both in the classroom and when they are at home doing their homework. Think of the possibilities of figuring out which forms of teaching work the best for that student in any given course and being able to personalize her education. Think about our ability to connect her passion with the resources that we have all around us – in libraries, museums, and cultural centers of all types, all around the world, some of which are increasingly digitizing their holdings for anyone to use, anywhere, for free.
Students are increasingly exposed to interdisciplinary courses and projects during their schooling and are asked to combine the things that they have been learning. Sometimes these activities take place at a young age, (say 6 or 8); other times, these activities take the form of a capstone experience at the end of high school (age 17 or 18). These experiences teach problem-solving, deep research, teamwork, presentation skills, the building of lateral connections between and among ideas, and the ability to think creatively. Think of courses not called Biology but focused instead on water resources or the ecology of the city or town in which the student lives; think of courses not in just one aspect of the arts but on the importance of cities as cultural centers; think of experiences that bring students into settings where they can hone skills as entrepreneurs and as community servants. These learning experiences are deeply connected to the classroom, but they extend far beyond them – into communities, museums, libraries, businesses, into the “real world.” These ways of teaching and learning mirror the hypertext quality of the Web itself.
Put another way: think of what we could do if we were to apply to the world of education the same energy, the same innovative spirit, and the positive collaboration that we’ve brought to creating the Web and all that rides on top of it, from Google and YouTube to Twitter and Facebook. We should bring together the people, the science, and the expertise from the private sector with the public sector to improve our systems, our methods, and our results. We should hold ourselves to the standards that we have for the highest performing enterprises in our country. The possibilities for schools at all levels could be astonishing. Our children and grandchildren deserve no less.
The world of the digital – often characterized by the existence of the Web itself – exacerbates a sense of uncertainty that hangs over libraries. Why do we need libraries, many people ask, when we have the Web? What good is a librarian when we can just ask Google or Apple’s Siri from our handheld device?
For a child born today, the first experience of a broader world of knowledge than she has known before, is increasingly likely to be mediated by a screen of some kind. Over the past two and a half decades, access to the Web, mobile devices, and digital media has increased at a rate far more rapid than the spread of any major information or communications technology in the history of the world. While it took centuries for Gutenberg’s books to reach masses of Europeans, the spread of the Internet and digital media has taken only a few short decades to spread across the globe. Nearly two billion of the world’s 6.8 billion people have access to the Internet. Through mobile devices, well over three billion people can connect to the World Wide Web.
The expansion of the mind can be experienced by a child through a computer screen or through the tiny interface of a mobile phone or in a game, now that we have the Web. But she may also walk into that same library that her mother entered and gain insight and special memories in an inspiring physical space. In today’s world, these digitally-mediated experiences are interwoven with experiences in physical space that complement, confirm, and sometimes challenge what they are learning online. The Web is not a competitor to libraries; it is a complement. The Web should be part and parcel of the future of libraries, not the killer of libraries.
The spread of the Web brings with it many wonderful possibilities for library patrons of all ages. Unprecedented access to knowledge and written material is perhaps the most important benefit. For the first time in human history, people anywhere in the world—including those without access to physical libraries—can access an extraordinary array of knowledge virtually without cost. Schools and universities can make available knowledge and information to their students in ways that were not possible just a few decades ago. The world can open up to children through new interfaces and experiences that will expand their minds, connect them to people elsewhere around the world, and offer them a chance to participate in the making and sharing of knowledge.
Via their patrons, libraries can be drivers of economic development and social innovation. The benefits of far-reaching digital technologies extend beyond learning to aspects of life like creativity, entrepreneurship, and activism. In communities around the world, children are using Web-based technologies to create identities, videos, audio recordings, games, and media of all stripes as they learn and express themselves. As they become teens and young adults, some create inspiring political movements, watchdog groups, and new modes of organizing, and others invent new businesses and technologies that create jobs and opportunities. They teach one another as they build out into the global environment made possible by the Web. Libraries are central to each of these activities, in small towns and large cities. Without libraries as access points and educational settings, these positive aspects of the digital age are unavailable to many kids whose parents cannot afford broadband or personal computers, even in the richest parts of the world.
The Web also makes possible new kinds of libraries. One major new direction for the Web has been advanced by Berners-Lee himself: the notion of the semantic web. In countries around the world, communities are building national digital libraries. In Europe, the collaborative project Europeana is making digitized collections from dozens of nations available freely online. In the United States, the Digital Public Library of America is making the scientific, historical, and cultural record available, free to all, via the Web. In the era of the Web, libraries can take the form of platforms, on which all manner of innovation and learning can flourish.
Alongside education and libraries, journalism is a field in crisis in the world of the Web. The driving forces behind the crisis in journalism are not precisely the same as those in the library environment, but they are related. The increase in readers who come by their news and information on the Web has led to a challenging environment for journalists across the board. The advertising revenue that has made print newspapers and magazines good businesses to own in the past has been declining as attention shifts to the web and to mobile environments. It might seem easy just to switch over to a digital publishing environment, but it isn’t. First, the skills required of journalists are different online than they are offline, in respects that parallel the shifts in skills needed for librarians. More troubling, the “analog dollars” that paid for advertising in the print world are being traded for “digital pennies.” Put another way, the amounts that can be charged for advertising by a digital publication are lower, so far, than the amounts that can be charged for similar exposure online.
The culprits for these threats to journalism will sound familiar: they are services built upon the Web. Many of those advertising dollars have gone not to competing journalism outfits, but to the new intermediaries of the Web. In classified ads, much of the revenue has flowed to start-ups like Craig’s List. In the world of news, Google has found ways to profit from highly targeted advertisements to people who begin their searches online or via a mobile device. Social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook, are getting a growing cut of the revenues that once sustained newsrooms, foreign bureaus, and the many expenses associated with running first-rate journalism outfits.
A comparison of the crises facing schools, libraries and journalism in a digital age makes for an interesting analogy, but it’s more than that. Yes, journalists, like teachers and librarians, are figuring out what it means to operate in a networked environment. Each of these institutions needs to answer the question of the role that they serve in a world where the Web – often, Google – is a first port of call for those seeking to become informed about something.
The more important connection among them is that schools, journalism and libraries are bedrock institutions in democracies. We need to support these institutions more in an era of the Web, not less, than we did before. We rely upon journalists to unearth and to contextualize stories that matter to our lives in a free and open society. High quality journalism is essential to our ability to choose those who represent us or to vote on a direct referendum. The work of journalists helps to inform social movements, protest actions, and groundbreaking research. The work of the beat reporter covering City Hall keeps those in power (at least somewhat) honest. The months and months that an investigative reporter devotes to an in-depth story on the impact of fracking is as important as the months and months that a policy-maker might spend wrangling over an energy bill.
Democracies can’t afford to lose substantial numbers of journalists, teachers, and librarians. In an information-rich world, we as citizens need trusted guides and interpreters of the extraordinary array of facts and opinions that we can access digitally via the Web. Journalists, teachers, and librarians have every reason to make common cause – between and among themselves, but also with the next generation of technologists – during this transition to a digital age.
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At its twenty-fifth anniversary, it might be tempting sit back and celebrate what the Web has given the world. The answer would be much, indeed, and it is worthwhile to acknowledge all that. I am deeply thankful for what it has made possible in terms of economic growth, human interconnectedness, and the development of new knowledge.
I prefer, though, to look ahead, in the spirit of the invention itself, to the challenges that lie before us. Those challenges include preserving the openness and the interoperability of the Web and the essential networks on which it rides. Those challenges are to use this tremendous gift to improve core democratic institutions, such as education, libraries, and journalism, in the public interest. In so doing, we will be creating institutions that will enable our youth – coming to age in a digital era – to build a brighter future for those who will follow.
The effect of our good decisions today could be to launch a generation of young people who use the Web to accomplish positive social change. The Web is a tool that can be used for ends that are pro-social or ends that are destructive. As we build out the next iteration of the Web and the institutions that rely on it, we ought to aim to inspire and enable young people to be innovative, creative, and engaged in civic life around them. In its best form, the Web can be a tool that conveys a sense of agency and possibility to those who have come to learn its ways and are facile with its use. The benefits for economic growth, cross-cultural understanding, and vibrant democratic institutions could be a powerful force for good, world-wide.
[This essay was published in Spanish in Politica Exterior (Foreign Policy) No. 161, September-October 2014.]
Join us for the launch of the Andover Institute on October 17, 2014!