Monday, July 27, 2015

Is Education Capable of “Big Hairy Audacious Goals”?

Guest Blogger Yoni Dayan
Moonshot EDU 
Amsterdam Attendee
Cross-Posted from:

Between the 20th and 21st of July, “innovative teachers and education leaders from around the world” attended the Moonshot Summit organized by Google for Education and the EdTechTeam.
Think of this summit as an unconference akin to a BarCamp, starring participants-generated projects. The goal was to push education to make big leaps forward following the model of “moonshots," those uncertain and bold goals like sending a man to the Moon, and which generated an incredible momentum and progress throughout our history.

I had the privilege of being invited to this event through the Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity and here’s a report (using some tweets, in some sort of LinkedIn "Pulsify/Storypulse", I'm patenting this hack!) followed by some reflections.


All started the 20th, when the dozens of attendees gathered for a kick-off cocktail at Google Amsterdam. This was the opportunity to hear French, Swedish, British, Australian and other flowery accents mingling about a wide range of topics, from the projects of K-12 teachers to the research of Ph.D. students on MOOCs, while not forgetting the services launched by entrepreneurs.

You can't see it but there was actually a schism between the beer crew and the wine club. By the way, how can Google employees resist on a daily basis those plates full of cream & herbs sandwiches?

This socialization was punctuated by the interventions of the organizers such as the EdTechTeam, the Google teams and the famous educator Esther Wojcicki, telling the story of Google's creation at her daughter's garage.

James Sanders from EdTechTeam (nice hosting skills!) and Esther (the green halo is just a piece of furniture, not some kind of power rangers-like super-educator-gear)

A night later, the serious things started with a whole day devoted to “thinking big” and to revolutionize the way we learn throughout several activities mimicking the different phases of a rocket launch. Participants were tasked to write their ideas on post-its in the form of “what if” statements.

There's obviously a missing suggestion: "What if my 10 years in World of Warcraft were acknowledged as a Ph.D. in team building, drama management, loot distribution, TeamSpeak-powered war-cries, and 3 hours long sessions of virtual herbs gathering?”

Quickly, four trends have emerged:
  • Resources and teacher support
  • Innovative assessment
  • Equity & agency
  • Engagement & agency
It’s interesting to note that those 4 “bins” constitute patterns of current needs as well as future pathways for education that I’m often witnessing in the edtech events i'm participating in.
Then, the attendees spread out in groups corresponding to those 4 categories and worked on their ideas through Google's "design print", an idea-to-execution system similar to human-centered approaches.

Ahh, good memories of a MOOC I took by Leticia Britos Cavagnaro from Stanford's on design thinking. I had to revolutionize U.S. students' lockers. It was tricky to "empathize" with them though, considering we were just throwing* our stuff in the hallways in Baguette Land's high-schools. (*with style)

During the session, we refined our ideas, iterated on them depending on the perceived need of our end users, then voted for the ones we liked the most.

"Contemplating his next Moonshot"? Nah!, bragging in his mind about the perfect, borderline French-level, color-match between his shirt and the posts-its.

After a break and the constitution of teams around the most popular ideas in each category, participants were tasked to further flesh them, prototype them and pitch them in front of the other attendees.

Even the brownies where themed after space conquest. Who thought of that, i will personally endorse him/her on LinkedIn for dedication, attention to details, and pastry creativity (hey, it's number 2 in this list of "top pastry chef skills"!)

Here are the 8 final projects:

Team "we love Frenchies, beards and selfies", gamifying students' curriculum. Real problems are generated by organizations (institutions, companies) then transformed into playful learning milestones (think of accomplishments in xbox live) that once attained, grant relevant rewards.

Team "we could totally do a toothpaste ad with sparking smiles", proposing to dissolve the wall between schools and community by including kids and outsiders (artists, companies, etc.) in curriculum's design.

Team "who got this idea of posing like that, my knees hurt!!!", who would like to create a platform where students could develop their own learning content and share it. A cross-over between edX and playskool, ooh i like that!

Team "this big green thing in the middle is totally, aesthetically speaking, justifying that we are taking our picture here", aiming at crowdsourcing potential problems and solutions to the schools.

Team "we already have a name so that you can't find a silly one for us!", promising a "new holistic approach to education and assessment" through a more horizontal and flexible learning.

Team "it's Jennie from the EdTechTeam who told us to do those stances, i swear!", blending LinkedIn, Khan Academy, Forbes, and Meetup, to create a "global guide learning community for teachers" for them to develop together.

Team "let's do our group picture 5 seconds before pitching" extending the "20% time" concept into curriculum co-creation including students, teachers and the community

The event concluded with a hangout with Google’s headquarters for the launch of the Teachers Guild (a platform for collaboratively creating solutions to education challenges through design thinking), final inspiring words from the organizers, and a reenactment of Oprah Winfrey famous hectic distributions of gifts when each of the attendees received Google’s Cardboards.

How to wrap-up a nonetheless cool event with guaranteed smiles. I took notes, although I wonder what could I distribute... a warm and crusty croissant?

We parted ways with beer and fry-ups, promising to stay in touch and to continue working on our projects.

In an uplifting and poetic meteorological turns of event, the rain that shrouded the Moonshot's start, gave way to a radiant sun, as if the elements themselves were encouraging educators to apply what they just brainstormed, back at home.

That’s it for the descriptive part of the event. Time for reflection!

 Several trends have emerged from the Moonshot

- More inclusion of the learners and the community: many suggestions gravitated around the feeling that curriculum can't be designed in a vacuum. The outside world should be involved at least partially, whether it be the local actors (such as the parents), the associations, and companies. Above all, the students themselves should be included. A number of problematics can be raised by this concept of a less "fish bowled" school. For instance, how can students know what they want and/or need to learn, especially at certain ages?

Esther's "TRICK" framework, putting the emphasis on independence and trust. The ministries and administrations need to trust the headmasters that they will do the right thing with the schools they manage. The headmasters and parents need to trust the teachers that they will do the right thing with the kids. And the kids need to trust Yoni that he will do the right thing with their delicious home-baked meals.

- More support for the teachers: there’s a clear need to bring support to the teachers in their work that emanated from the event. Multiple proposals consisted of creating hubs/plazas connecting the educators, where they could share pedagogic methods, the resources and the tools to be more efficient in their classes and more importantly, where they could get a sense of belonging to a relatable community which takes care of its own. I had the feeling that such environments already existed in several countries, so why aren't they more known, adopted, and useful, so that those teachers would feel less isolated in their quest for innovative teaching?

- More personalization: learning should take into account the passions, the interests, the aspirations/goals and the emotions of individuals. It encompassed projects like an evolved "20% time" which would be saved for the students to take the course they want, in the format they wish (in class, online, outside activity, etc.) even create their own courses (potentially through a MOOC maker) and sharing it with other students. This is a trend also observable in online courses with various statements from providers like edX "to provide education adapted to each one of us" and materialized through experiments of customized learning pathways, content tailored to the participants, and more. But where does this customization trend will end? Where will be the cursor separating a common core, a mold transferring a set of values shared by citizens, and this race for personalization?

- More engagement and interactivity: this urge was very pervasive in the Moonshot. As you can guess, this was my prime interest, and I’m happy that my idea gained some traction to the point of being selected. It consisted of a gamification/rewardification of education, to put value on all your learning experiences by making them earning you some kind of currency, unlocking achievements then tangible rewards (it could be a free visit to a museum for a given domain you are studying if you are a kid, a subscription to a scientific magazine, a 1 day mentoring/immersion in the shoes of a game designer at a big game company, with the underlying purpose of raising commitment thanks to this educational carrot on a stick).

I'm even more pleased that this idea was hacked and surely improved by the creative minds who joined me, and who added a “for impact” twist. Basically, external stakeholders like associations and companies could share a problem which would be translated into a set of gamified tasks to complete, tasks that would be integrated by the teachers into their programs to foster students' engagement as they would try to complete these achievements and receive rewards.

The visual representation of our gamified solution to increase learners' engagement. Yeah, i'm taking pictures while on stage to pitch, take that, etiquette!

Of course, this trend is raising some interrogations and resistances. Such mechanisms require the educators to be trained at game design and the tools to create games. As a former hardcore gamer myself, i'm also wondering if it's a good thing that this need is certainly constrained by our era of mobile games, social networks, instantaneous (some would say frenetic) feedback, permanent interactions and reduced attention span. It's a matter of balance i guess, between moments of high interactivity, and more thoughtful (as in "gather yourself") learning.

 - Centralization: Most of these trends translate into solutions taking the shape of hubs, plaza, etc. As underlined during the event, the issue is that there are countless of gathering places in the web, many of them fail to gain "critical mass", i.e. enough users to populate the platform in terms of content and lively exchanges. This is due to a lack of visibility (for example, many teachers in France aren't aware of Viaeduc, a social network built for them) or what we call in business the "entry barrier". In essence, most people feel they already have enough accounts to remember and usually prefer to stick to facebook and linkedin rather than making the effort to adopt another solution. Hence, the questions are: do we need "hubs" in the first place, and if so, what would be the added value and the incentives to push the education world to use them?
  • Can we really be bold in this sector?
Beside those interesting patterns, i feel like the stated goal of "reaching the Moon”, thinking big and dare conceiving radical solutions, wasn’t totally fulfilled. Even if many were refreshing, most of our projects were still in the realm of the possible. It may result from some kind of self-censorship from the participants, a bias, confirmed by overheard statements like “I know it will be difficult to implement that in my class”, “I know my administration, they won't support me", “my school may actually lose ranks if we adopt those kind of approaches”. It’s a rather telling sign that even for one of the most innovative and involved educators selected by Google, it’s still difficult to unleash their full creativity and craziness for the domain they are passionate about.

Distributing a bunny-hat with this motto printed on it to all the participants, would have certainly pushed us to "think bigger"

Several factors can explain this. A less fast-paced event's agenda may have further melted some hesitations and activated our inner “shark with freakin’ laser beam” in order to reach the expected level of “what if I break my class, what if I go beyond this established framework and produce a real paradigm shift”. Of course, the weight of the participants' working contexts, illustrated by the understandable statements shared above, played a role in this too, like the administration's heaviness and the ensuing resistances to changes, the nitpicking parents, the perceived need for stability and continuity including from students (as an illustration, several studies show that many of them still prefer to learn in the classic fashion with a professor in class, rather than from distance through a MOOC or flipped classrooms). It’s underlining the necessity of having supportive institutional environments, conducive to innovation in education and to the "uncensoring" of the incredible energies and stratospheric enthusiasm I’ve felt within the attendees.

In other words, due to the stakes (future of children and of adults in case of lifelong learning), the load of history and certainly other parameters, this domain is often restrained by a ponderousness, a lead weight, that i haven't encountered in other sectors. For all those reasons, i'm wondering if it's truly possible to make education evolving in a disruptive/sudden/fast-forward fashion, to set BHAGs (“Big Hairy Audacious Goals”, as named by Jim Collins in “Build to Last”, are audacious long term goals to focus an organization on, like sending a man to the moon)? Or are we rather talking about a Darwinism process of iterative evolution, renewal, where little by little, the way we learn and teach will evolve? 

I would love to hear your take on it!
  •  Good energy and "bouillon de culture"
On the bright side, I can’t stress enough how much a positive and constructive energy exuded from the event. The dynamism of the EdTechTeam was a driving force behind it. Quite logically, Google was also demonstrating the usefulness of its range of services but in a rather benevolent way, we were very welcomed, hosted and advised, I had the feeling that they genuinely want to empower these educators to generate some kind of "innovation" slash "education" slash "ripple effect". Either way, it is up to us to preserve our core values, our independence and our critical thinking, in order to keep what can support us and reject what could hinder us.

A meta-picture of a picture taking of the organizers (hey, at least it's original, right?)

The event also demonstrated again the value of inter-disciplinarity, embodied by the center who invited me (the CRI is based on the encounters between disciplines), and more generally of adopting a decompartmentalized philosphy. Having a blend of cultures, of responsibilities (k-12 teachers, headmasters, entrepreneurs, etc.), of genders and generations, allowed for buoying ideations, iterations, and simply quite a lot of fun. Nonetheless, I think that for the next edition, more entrepreneurial/industrial/artists would allow to shake to a greater extent the established order, while their own input would be enriched by the perspective of all those wonderful teachers with hands-on experience.
  •  How to translate this into tangible results?
But the big question marks about the Moonshot are “how to keep the momentum going” and “how to scale?" In the many events I’ve participated in or even organized, in a fit of blunt honesty, it’s quite common to leave the room with warm “au revoir” and promises to change the world, which end up in just a matter of days in a depressing absence of news from the attendees and a dreadful lack of impact. The best intents on Earth aren’t enough, they must be followed by a resolution to act and a translation of all this good will into tangible steps. I’ve appreciated that in the very program of the Moonshot, the organizers acknowledged that we have only experienced the first phase of the rocket launch, but that the lift-off itself and the space journey, lie ahead.

Yeah, nice closing words, but how to translate those words into concrete repercussions? (my emphasis is cheesy, but I'm French!)

There are intents of staying in touch though social networks and share news on our progress on a regular basis, but beyond that, here are a few suggestions for what those tangible steps could be:
  • The organizers plan to meet face to face around 60k educators this year. It's very important to consolidate all these local events into a global network of Moonshots for education, and that the core we are constituting will be enriched by each cohorts in order to generate a real movement, with inter-penetrations with other stakeholders that aren't necessarily a part of the Google for Education ecosystem. This is the approach I’m adopting with my consortium project aiming to tackle some issues of online learning through the research and development of common grounds/best-practices/even norms that would be interoperable, above considerations of competition and marketshare.
  • More partnerships between the public and private spheres, to spread the output of such events outside of its innate boundaries.
  • More state-backed experimentations derived from the events with real scalability plans in case they succeed.
  • More international cooperation if something works in a country and could be reproduced with some adaption in others.
  • Adoption of common channels of distant communications and collaborations with regular hangouts to keep each other posted on our progress, and coordinate/mutualize our efforts to avoid redundancies.
  • Physical events to frequently gather the community.
The "construction site" for shaping the future of learning and teaching is huge and challenging, this is what makes it interesting, strategic, and fun. Events like Moonshots are definitively several steps in the right direction, let’s fuel this educational fire and even fan it!

Don’t hesitate to reach out to me at and on Twitter to discuss this online learning/mooc consortium project, and also brainstorm the possibility to scale all those edtech efforts.

Yoni “don’t mind the hat” Dayan


A picture of all the gifts we received. Notice: 1) My skills in photomontage. 2) The cover of the Google's notepad is made of real wood, i actually had several splinters on my fingers using it. Is it a hint to a new Google X project, revolutionizing Band-aids? You heard it here first!


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