For Students, the Convenience of Smartphones ‘Comes at a Steep Price’

Jan 02, 2020

Before authoring the book “Most Likely to Succeed,” and producing the popular documentary of the same name, Ted Dintersmith made his name as a venture capitalist. Now retired, he’s devoted to education philanthropy, and supporting schools that reimagine teaching and learning.

But his approach is a stark departure from ideas espoused by many other philanthropists. Instead of pouring cash into charter schools, accountability measures and tech-based software solutions, Dintersmith spends his time traveling to schools across the country. And his vision leans more toward student and teacher agency, championing novel initiatives that work within existing school structures to support cross-disciplinary programs, project-based learning and entrepreneurial mindsets.

Recently, we asked Dintersmith for his thoughts on the decade in edtech, as someone who’s seen a fair number of sides of it. The following are his responses, lightly edited for clarity. (For more on his vision, check out our podcast interview with him.)

EdSurge: What technology has been the most disappointing? What never lived up to expectations (or the hype?)

Ted Dintersmith: There was a massive gush of enthusiasm for MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), with some conviction it would revolutionize higher education. Many colleges rushed to put in place their MOOC offerings, hoping to provide meaningful free or low-cost education to a “massive” number of students.

To a large extent, though, the MOOC movement has proven to be a disappointment. At some level, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Few adults I interview feel they learned all that much from the large lecture courses they took in college as many of them featured fairly pedestrian exams. So taking a lousy in-person learning experience and putting it online wasn’t terribly transformational. But we sure saw lots of newspaper headlines and magazine covers about the MOOC revolution.

What technology has actually delivered on its potential and promise?

The smartphone, without question, has exceeded all expectations since its release in 2007. I doubt if even Steve Jobs could anticipate the millions of applications that would be developed, the myriad ways it’s changing lives all around the globe, and the profound impact it’s had on our daily lives.

What would you say was the “dark horse” of edtech—an idea or tool that very few anticipated would take off...but actually did?

As I travel (and I travel a lot!), I find classrooms and after-school programs that focus on a cluster of digital media skills to be quite remarkable. Amazing things happen when students are given the chance to get good at website design, creating and implementing social media campaigns, graphic design, creating and producing videos, creating and overlaying soundtracks (including music).

These proficiencies don’t require coding, generally don’t need to be taught (just point a kid their way, and they’ll learn on their own), and get kids excited about their learning. In my ideal world, teams of students would master these digital media skills in an elective during school. We’d give them a chance to apply their growing expertise to in-school initiatives (e.g., create a website for an athletic team), and then use the summer to sharpen their entrepreneurial mindsets and skills by figuring out ways to earn money through their developing proficiency. It’s inspiring to imagine teenagers across the country mastering these types of proficiencies, and then creating career paths that enable them to earn money on par, or even exceeding, what many college graduates earn.

These kinds of learning experiences help students develop essential competencies, energize them about their learning and can open doors for careers in a wide range of professions.

What trend (or fad) will resurface next decade?

I think we will see the return of the new, improved MOOC, where students—no matter how many thousands are taking the course—are partitioned into small study groups that debate, coach, inspire and critique each other. And lectures that never worked well in person or online will be replaced by thought-provoking challenges that engage and educate students, who tackle these challenges in the context of small study groups who engage and interact with each other—virtually or in person.

What predictions were right? What never panned out?

To this day, Tom Friedman’s “The World Is Flat” looks prescient beyond words. The changes in our lives, in our economy, in our democracy have been profound, and Friedman deserves immense credit for calling this to our attention early.

In terms of predictions that never panned out, I’d point to anyone who, in 2015, thought Trump would in fact Make America Great Again. It’s been the most painful years of my life, and the main thing that we’ve seen him do is Make America Hate Again. There are exciting, bold things we can do—starting in the world of education—to empower our citizens, especially our kids, to thrive in a world defined by innovation. But with our attention focused on each day’s scandal or disaster, and with a polarized Congress and society, we’re just fighting each other, instead of taking on pressing challenges.

What problems have we solved—and what new ones have we created?

Well, we’ve certainly solved the challenge of how to find information. It’s around us 24/7, just a search or Siri command away. What used to take hours of painstaking research can now be accomplished in seconds. And smartphone apps now solve pretty much any problem assigned to kids during a high-school math class. With PhotoMath, just hold your phone’s camera over a hairy math problem or expression, and it will solve or simplify it right before your eyes, and lay out the steps.

But this ready access to information comes at a steep price. Kids and adults are on their devices constantly. And often we are occupied by something that is more of a waste of time than advancing our understanding of anything important. Going forward, I worry—a lot—about how most Americans are informed about current events. When I was growing up, people turned to Walter Cronkite or “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” for authoritative reporting—which was by and large quite factual. Now, we select what types of sources we want to hear, and self-select in ways that often evolve moderate views into extreme views over time. An electorate that is polarized and misinformed is a ticking time bomb for our democracy.


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