Posts Tagged ‘education’

iPad as disruptive innovation in education

iPad in classroom

A recent meeting with a friend who is interested in technology in education, a NYTimes article More schools embracing iPad as a learning tool and recent flood of attention on the growing tablet PC market got me thinking about the potential of tablet PC’s (Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy Tab etc) as a disruptive innovation for education.

Here’s are 5 attributes of tablet PC’s that I think may help to tip the current education system.

1. Data driven. For the first time in education history we have the opportunity to monitor students progress in minute detail through tablet PC’s. A good example of this is the TeacherMate learning systems which has already been relatively successful.

Teachers can see which students are falling behind and where they need help. It also shows areas where students excel. This opens the potential that given this data, education can be personalized to some degree to fit the needs of each individual student. If advances in biotech allows us to dream a future of personalized drug treatments, why can’t we dream an age of personalized education? There could be a core curriculum that every student must fulfill, however with data on each student, they could also have a tailored curriculum that meets their aptitude, interests and areas where they excel.

2. Open ended. Many mention the benefits of tablet PC as a replacement for heavy and expensive textbooks in the classroom. Yes, that’s an obvious solution, but I think they are missing the point.

I don’t like the notion of technology being relegated to eBooks in schools simply because this makes them just digitized versions of a the traditional closed knowledge system: books. There is nothing wrong with books. Books have worked fine for hundreds of years and I am sure they will continue to serve us for the foreseeable future. But there is something not quite 21st Century about text-“books”. Especially the kind that is government vetted, approved and issued, as we have in Korea.

Tablet PC’s are open-ended meaning apps can be developed that not only teach the core concepts but can be open to tap the infinite and dynamic knowledge that is embodied in the Web. This is one of the founding principles of OLPC (One Laptop Per Child initiative). If OLPC’s are doing this already in developing countries where they are deployed, why not in our classrooms?

3. Networked. Kids learn from each other. As Mitra Sugata mentions in his inspiring TED Talk: The child-driven education, kids are consistently teaching each other. If you look at how a teenager does her homework, you’ll see that she is consistently messaging her peers for information. In this always-online, socially networked world, knowledge-making and learning has become inherently collaborative.

A networked device allows for communication, collaboration and peer learning. Learning to collaborate is key to surviving in this ever increasingly networked society. As Steven Johnson points out in his book, Where good ideas come from (also see: TEDtalk, animation), innovations come less from lone geniuses in our midst but as a result of collaborations that build on the knowledge and ideas within fluid networks.

4. Portable. There are no cables attached to an iPad, and the battery lasts a whole day. This is more significant that it sound. This means kids can use them for a whole school day. This means they can work by themselves, in a classroom setting, in the library or huddled around a desk with their peers in a group project. It goes with them wherever they go. We still have “computer labs” in schools, where kids come to interact at fixed times in their curriculum. Being portable means they have a personal assistant with them at all times, with the all above mentioned attributes that this entails.

5. Interactive. The new tablet PC are inherently interactive because they are touch enabled. Being able to touch something is a giant leap from the moderated experience of typing a command, or click a mouse on a screen. Touching something evokes an emotional response, which allows for a far more satisfying user experience as anyone who has seen kids interact with an iPad would attest.

Tablet PC’s force developers of educational application to rethink the whole user experience (I would hope). It brings a whole new dimension of interactivity to applications that go far beyond the point-and-click variety. A storybook for example cannot be just a “flip the page” experience. Characters and objects need to be responsive. You may even be able to rearrange the story and it’s outcome by directly interacting with the story.

Touch-enabled interaction really opens up a whole new area that had been explored only in limited ways on a desktop computer environment. You can now have the constructivist learning environment that Lego afford. We have yet to see these types of applications come into full blossom, but I am sure it’s only around the corner.

Maybe I’ve painted an overly rosy picture of technology. Every technology has its perils. I can tell you that my 4 year-old is already addicted to my (now his) iPad. Technology makes things worse a lot of times, but that should not take away for the opportunities it does afford us. We have to be mindful and vigilant about its pitfalls, and make sure kids are interacting with technology within a guided, safe environment. No conscientious parent would let their kids wander by themselves in the streets, which is tantamount to what we are doing if we allow kids to access the open web, by themselves with no control or moderation.

As with many things, it is hard to innovate from within. Just ask Michelle Rhee. However, there are rare opportunities that we can leverage to make change happen. I certainly wish that this time technology, in the form of tablet PC, in the right hands and minds, is the push we need to upgrade our antiquated education systems.

Photo credit: macattck (flickr)

The dilemma of content sharing for universities

iTunes U

iTunes U

Republished from

Recently I’ve participated in brainstorming session for a premier university in Korea on how to make its lectures available online.

Ever since MIT started offering its lectures through its OpenCourseWare (website) initiative in late 2002, many higher education institutions have been offering lectures online through various channels: YouTube and iTunes just to name the obvious.

The YouTube Effect

The explosive popularity of sharing sites such as YouTube seems to have radically changes the way we consume media.

Part of the popularity of YouTube lies in the ease in which you can “take” video, hosted on YouTube, and embed it on your site. This is no trivial change. Previously content was a guarded commodity. Some readers my remember that in the early days of the internet, “deep linking” (linking to a page other than the homepage) was a controversial issue, which seems almost comical in today’s internet environment. Others devised ways of keeping users on their website as long as possible, and only allowed consumption of their content on the site.

With the rise of user-generated content, and the legal framework that Creative Commons affords in terms of copyright protection, the line between between the ownership/authorship of content hosted on such content sharing sites as Youtube, Flickr, SlideShare and to some degree digg are being blurred.

YouTube really doesn’t distinguish between the content being on their site or your site. This is important in that it recognizes that is is impossible to neatly categorize the content and it is transferring that burden of organization, categorization and contextualization of the content to users themselves. YouTube has so much content that it cannot (and does not) predict how users will use the content on its site. They leave it up to the users to contextualize it by embedding in their sites. A funny video of a cat may be just cute entertainment on someone’s personal site, whereas it could be a serious example of feline behavior on an academic site. YouTube is saying, we provide you easy access to the content, you provide the context.

David Weinberger writes a whole book on this issue. In Everything is Miscellaneous he writes:

We are building an ever-growing pile of smart leaves that we can organize as we need to at any one moment. Some ways of organizing it – of finding meaning in it – will be grassroots; some will be official. Some will apply to small groups; some will engender large groups; some will subvert established groups. Some will be funny; some will be tragic. But it will be the users who decide what the leaves mean.

Allowing users to take the content is supremely smart for YouTube in that it significantly increases distribution and now that they have figured out a way to advertise within the video frame, a greater source of advertising income.

TED is using this exact model for spreading its ideas.

Shifting role of universities

Back to universities. For universities this climate of content sharing sets up a dilemma.

Universities as an institution have long been in the business of guarding its knowledge and the authors of its knowledge. Whenever you partner with a university the intellectual property contracts their legal department send you is a strong indication of how serious they are about their knowledge. It’s apparent that some knowledge needs to be protected, such as patents, processes and original works. But in this current age, being too strict about protecting knowledge has the negative effects. Universities are not measured in terms of how many books their libraries house but how effective they are in encouraging, facilitating and protecting open discourse, thought leadership and, more so than ever, social responsibility.

Liz Coleman, the president of Bennington College in her inspiring presentation at TED (Feb 2009), A call to reinvent liberal arts education, expresses the urgency of our higher education institutions to be more open, interconnected and socially responsible:

The progression of today’s college student is to jettison every interest except one. And within that one, to continually narrow the focus. Learning more and more about less and less. This, despite the evidence all around us of the interconnectedness of things. Lest you think I exaggerate, Here are the beginnings of the A-B-Cs of anthropology. As one moves up the ladder, values other than technical competence are viewed with increasing suspicion. Questions such as “What kind of a world are we making? What kind of a world should we be making? What kind of a world can we be making?” are treated with more and more skepticism and move off the table.

To share or not to share?

When one thinks about how to describe the premier universities in Korea, words such as exclusivity, high-walled, academic, authoritative and conservative come to mind. This is clash with the values of the internet that shout social, communal, accessible and collaborative.

The motivation behind a premier university in Korea sharing its lectures online seems may seem to be a little more self-serving than socially inspiring: To reinforce it branding and positioning; to create a business model for paid exclusive content; and to provide some public service.

Whatever the motivation, I believe that once the door to access is opened up, it may unintentionally trigger a change that may be irreversible.

Update: Fast Company: How Web-Savvy Edupunks Are Transforming American Higher Education is worth reading on this issue.

Korean government offers generous loan terms for poor college students

In a followup to a previous post, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty in Korea through Education: A Social Business Proposal I saw some very exciting news that the Korean government will move to provide long-term full tuition coverage student loans for poor students starting 2010.

It even stipulates that the students are only required to pay back the loan after they find employment over a maximum 25 years. It also supports living expenses.

More detailed article on 헤럴드 경제 (sorry, in Korean) says that the conditions of the loan are:

취업을 못해 일정수준 이상의 소득을 올리지 못하면 상환 의무도 없어진다.
수혜 대상은 기초수급자 및 소득 1~7분위(연간 가구소득 인정액 4839만원 이하)에 속하는 가정의 대학생으로 평균 성적이 C학점 이상이어야 한다. 고소득층인 8~10분위 가정은 기존의 대출 방식을 적용받는다. 특히 1인당 대출 한도액(현행 대학 4년간 최대 4000만원까지)을 없애 연간 등록금 소요액 전액과 생활비 연 200만원을 대출받을 수 있게 된다. 생활비는 기초생활수급자에게는 무상으로, 소득 1~7분위는 소득에 따라 무이자 또는 정상 대출방식으로 지원된다.

Very encouraging indeed. This does remove some of the barriers the poor students had to accessing higher education and bettering their lives.

Still remaining is how to make inroads into the issue of supporting poor kids while they are in school and bridging the gap between them and kids who get private extra-curricular education (사교육).

Update 2009-08-24
Some opposing opinions about the new loans. (in Korean)

The article claims:
– If you postpone repayment after graduating, you still get charged interest;
– Given the current employment market, most graduates will not be able to afford the repayment schedule;
– Loans mean that grants given to low-income students will reduced;
– This may be grounds for raising tuition, since you payback after you graduate;
– For the government providing the loans, this is another long-term, low-risk way of financially exploiting parents and students.

Breaking the Cycle of Poverty in Korea through Education: A Social Business Proposal


A couple of years ago I asked a friend in Korea with a single child if he considered having more kids. He told me that he wanted to give the best for his son, and he couldn’t really afford the education cost of a second child. He told me a his son was taking 3 classes outside school and that it cost him about 1/3 of his then salary.

Like many countries, the Korean education system is biased towards create elite member of its society. This has been historically true. In ancient Korea, there was the state examination called Gwageo (??). Its purpose was to select officials for government office and shortest route to achieving aristocratic status. In modern Korea, many still think that the purpose of the educational systems is to generate an educated elite of administrators for the high public office through Goshi (??) examinations and university professors. This is really not surprising given that it is these administrators and professors who create education policy and systems.

One is lead to ask, what should the purpose of public education be? To send kids to a good college? To land a high paying job? To marry into a good family? Then perpetuate this cycle? It does seem like the purpose of education is a self-serving cycle without real social benefits or meaning but to advance economic gain and social tenure for the few and the elite.

Sir Ken Robinson, in his address at TED 2006, puts it more elegantly:

Education is supposed to take us into the future we can’t grasp… If you were to visit education as an alien and ask, what is public education for, you would have to conclude if you look at the output, the purpose of public education is to produce university professors. The whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant and creative individuals think they are not.

This situation in Korea is compounded by the fact that the education-crazed population is not satisfied with public education alone and takes matters into its own hands, investing an absurd amount of time and money is Sa-kyo-yuk (???) or “private education” which consists of carting kids off to Hakwon (??) or educational institutions to get that extra one-up on English, math, Taekwondo, arts or public speaking.

It seems that only the affluent or the crazy could afford to keep up this kind of frenzy. And so many do.

In this kind of climate, schools serve only to invest in those who excel. They have limited resources, demanding parents and an evaluation system that only looks at the grades as it measure of success. Malcolm Gladwell in his latest book Outliers call this phenomenon, the Matthew Effect, coined by sociologist Robert Merton who eluded to the verse in the Bible, Matthew 25:29: “For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

It is those who are successful, in other words, who are most likely to be given all kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success.

He goes on to point out that in fact kids from poor families work as well as students from affluent families during the academic year, however they start to fall back as a result of laying fallow during the long summer breaks, when rich kids go to camps or received any additional mind-stimulating education.

The Cycle of Poverty2

So what about the rest that do not fall into the academic elite? What about those below average? What about those who do not have the economic means to have that extra education?

The poor remain poor because they are not given the opportunity to generate the escape velocity to break away from the gravity of poverty. It takes extraordinary effort for the poor. Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 talks to length about this in his book, Creating a World without Poverty

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, the poor are a victim of circumstance. In Korea this is more true, given the climate of extra education and the breakneck pace of classes and subjects that are covered. Teachers simply do not have the time for those kids who fall behind. They are also not given any incentive to bring those below average kids up, since they are evaluated on how many kids do well in exams.

Silo’ed Efforts

So what to do? Where to break this cycle of poverty in education? How do we give poor kids a fair shot at escaping poverty? This seems to be a two-part problem:

1. From the beginning and all the way through public education, provide poor kids some of the guidance, attention and extra-education that their more affluent classmates get;
2. Once they have made it through the public education system, provide them with an opportunity to attend college.

On the public education side, there commendable efforts such as We Start, a program run by Joongang Ilbo, one of the major daily newspapers in Korea, which provide after-school programs for poor kids. It seeks to provide a community-based educational, health and mentoring support for underprivileged kids. But the program only has a limited reach and it stops when the kids graduate primary school (1-6 grade).

I am sure there are the foundations and non-profits working to help the poor students through public education. But all have the limitations in funding so their enterprise have limited reach and scalability.

Another issue is the availability of teachers for the kids. These non-profits mostly rely on volunteer teachers to help poor kids, and here again is a limited supply.

On the college side, if they are lucky they gain access to various scholarships offered by the government, colleges, foundations and religious organizations. But these are not easy to come by, not centrally or systematically organized, and too few.

For those who do not get a scholarship there are for-profit educational loan institutions. Most of them provide inflexible 6 month to 5 year loans. These obviously serve to profit from their enterprise and do not cater to special the needs of the poor students. I am sure they would prefer to provide loans to middle/upper class students who can pay back their loans on time.

An Integrated Approach

It would seem that the issues mentioned above can be approached an integrated (and possibly financially sustainable) way:

1. Offer “patient” loans to college students from poor families.
2. Allow these students to pay back some of their loan by working as teacher for the kids in public education.
3. Make poor families pay a small amount to commit their kids to this extra education help.

These principles can be the basis of establishing a social business, which could be scalable and replicable.

Loans Instead of Scholarships3

For poor college students, loans and not scholarships are good for many reasons:

It is not a free lunch. It gives kids who have lived most of their lives on a survival instinct to make most of their instinct to find a creative ways to pay back their loans, either during the school year or after they graduate. The whole giving them the fishing rod and not the fish thing.
It creates a sustainable model. Funds are replenished as students graduate and pay back their loans. These funds will be available to the next student.
It encourages independence. They studied hard and overcame odds to get this far. It reinforces their self-confidence. Handouts breed dependence.

The loans are must be targeted and only be offered to those who mean a certain poverty criteria. Yunus is careful to point out that social businesses should not benefit the non-poor. Loan recipients should consistently be engaged and loan conditions and terms adjusted to meet the needs of each student. If they have an opportunity to pay it off quickly, then they should be encouraged to do so. If they fall behind, then the loan should be restructured. Defaulting is not an option. Repayment plans should be strucutred so that they only start paying once they are employed and for a couple of year, no interest is applied.

Korean college education is still relatively cheap compared to US schools. A quick back-of-the-napkin calculation shows that the recent graduate with an average paying job out of college dedicates 10% of his/her salary to repayment, they should be able to complete payment in about 8 years.4

Community Component

The loan recipients should be offered the employment during the school year or during summer and winter breaks to repay part of their loans through mentoring of disadvantaged kids in poor neighborhoods. Ideally they would return to their own neighborhoods and communities. Here a matching grant from foundations or corporate sponsorship maybe be helpful.

Students in upper years can also be offered jobs administering the loan program, mentoring students new to the system so that the program has a strong community aspect.

Many religious groups and local communities offer and maintain scholarships for disadvantaged kids within their communities. These group could “bank” their funds in the loan and offer it to their students. A loan rather than a scholarship gives both the group/community and students a reason for them to stay engaged. You can walk away with a scholarship, but you are tied to a loan. The group/community should provide as many additional opportunities for the students to repay their loans through community service and mentoring to kids who are in similar situations as they were just a couple of years ago.

The “Patient” Loan Institution

A “patient” loan institution of this sort does not currently exist, but it would have many benefits:

  • Transparency
  • Better reach
  • Efficient management / economies of scale
  • Effectiveness of loan process
  • Stability and patient capital
  • Success metrics tracking and improvement in products and services over time
  • Institutional knowledge
  • Credibility through branding
  • Accommodation of individual donors and institutional donors

Challenges Ahead

Obviously these are just untested thoughts at this point. There are many foreseeable challenges:

  • Will this model be a sustainable social business?
  • Should this business be a non-profit or a for-profit enterprise?
  • Can a loan institution of this kind be created? What is the legal framework that it needs to operate under?
  • What would be the governance structure for an business of this kind?
  • How to initially fund this social business?
  • How to form meaningful partnerships with schools, universities, foundations, non-profits and religious groups to support this effort?

I also believe strongly that if this model is indeed sustainable, scaleable and (socially and economically) profitable that special provision for special education students who can volunteer/help kids with disabilities. These kids are one of the most stigmatized, abused and neglected in Korean society. If the measure of a mature society is how well it takes care of those who cannot take care of themselves, Korea ranks pretty low, looking at the way it look upon and treats it disabled.


Similar to my proposal, there was an article in the New York Times Im Going to Harvard. Will You Sponsor Me?, about which provides a service where alumni can give a loan to students in financial need. As of writing the service is only limited to Harvard students and alumni with plans for other schools. It also not limited to students from poor families. It’s the idea of providing interest free loans to students is worth comparing. The loans are limited to $2,000 and are interest free, and repaid within 5 year after graduation. The article also mentions that a crowd-sourced microfinance site will soon be offering loans in the U.S., planning eventually to expand to student loans.


1. This post came from the result of many conversations with my father who is a volunteer English teacher for the We Start program. Two books I read recently further shaped my thinking:

  • Muhammad Yunus, Creating a world without poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism
  • Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

I am pretty sure that many people (smarter than I) have already though of this idea and have developed much further than what I write here. If so I’d love to hear about their work.

2. There are many ways to break the cycle of poverty. Microfinance has been proven to be a very powerful one. I believe upward mobility through education is another.

3. I have to say that by knowledge of banking, student loans, scholarships etc. are very limited. None of these ideas have been tested in any way. God is in the details. The challenge is working out the details, refining the ideas and testing them.

4. The assumptions for this calculation are: 5 million won / year for tuition, 20 million won salary with 10% increase per year based on the following information sources: