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6 Questions With Education And Innovation Leader Tom Vander Ark

We talked to the education thought leader about how both technology innovation and global citizenship are critical to the future of education.

Education in the United States will look very different in the next 10 years. Tom Vander Ark, founder of Getting Smart, says students will connect their learning seamlessly between several devices throughout the day, and artificial intelligence will play a much larger role in teaching and learning. Students will be assessed based on their mastery of a subject and be able to securely share their individual competency via Blockchain. Despite all these technological advances, Vander Ark equally stresses the value of educators and mentors and the importance of becoming a global citizen. Babbel recently spoke with Vander Ark to put these big-picture ideas in context for today’s learners.

1. Tell us a little bit more about yourself, your various experiences, and how Getting Smart came to be.

Vander Ark: I’m an engineer by original training. Backed into finance, worked for a big energy company, quit, and started a planning company. Jumped to a startup — a Costco competitor that went from zero to $5 billion in five years — where I was CFO. We sold the company to Kmart. I spent two years running a technology practice for Capgemini, and then became a public school superintendent. Traditional pathway, right?

I was the first business executive to try to be a public school superintendent. Did that for five years, then helped Bill and Melinda start the Gates Foundation in 1999. Spent the first eight years there, ran the X PRIZE Foundation for a few years, and then left to start the first edtech venture fund, which is now called Learn Capital. While I was launching that, my wife started what became Getting Smart to advocate for innovations in learning. I joined her full time about six or seven years ago. We were also able to hire both of our daughters. So [our daughter] Caroline runs Getting Smart, and our daughter Katherine runs our nonprofit eduInnovation. So the future of learning is decidedly a family affair. We’re kind of all in on innovation and learning because we just think it’s the most important thing that anybody could work on. Given the exponential change that’s happening around the globe and the concentration of wealth and power that is going with it, we think the most important antidote is learning. And so we’re really excited about the new opportunity to learn more, faster. And to spread that more equitably around the world.

2. What are you most excited about in the immediate future regarding learning and technology?

Vander Ark: Well, we’re living through a period of exponential technology. I think we’ve actually, in 2017, entered a new era. We’ve left the information age and joined the automation age. I think artificial intelligence will prove to be the most important invention in human history. So, understanding how to lead these augmented lives and work with smart tools is the most important innovation out there, and that’s true in the world of work. It will become true in the world of learning as more and more of our learning apps become smarter and incorporate AI. That’s going to be combined with Blockchain, a distributed ledger, which is going to continue to decentralize services. It will eventually allow each of us to have a really comprehensive learner profile that we can manage ourselves, and then we’ll be able to grant permissions. When I sign on to Babbel, I’ll be able to grant permission for my language competency, but I won’t have to grant permission, for example, for my math competency. And so I’ll be able to grant permissions to portions of my learner profile to new schools, and to new learning partners, and to new learning apps and that’ll run on Blockchain. So the combination of AI and Blockchain as the new internet of value transaction is really going to mark the next 10, maybe 20 years.

The [technology] innovations in learning are not tools, but what tools allow us to do. So it’s the new learning environments that are being created and often scaled up as school networks like Summit Learning, New Tech Network, Labs, and at the higher ed level, Minerva. These are re-conceptualized learning experiences and environments that are enabled by new technology. But it’s really not the tools that are the breakthrough, it’s the educators that are designing new environments as a result of the new set of capabilities. So teachers are more important than ever, but today they are, as one of our favorite schools describes, teachers as "learning experience designers". It’s a mouthful, but this new task of designing learning experiences and taking full advantage of all the technologies that exist, that really is the new challenge in front of us.

3. Several states are looking to make competency-based high school diplomas the standard. Many include requirements around learning a second language. What’s your take on this?

Vander Ark: So the world is moving to competence. What we mean by that, is it’s a "show what you know" world. We’re moving away from seat time, taking Spanish I, II, III, et cetera, to standards of initial mastery. And we’re really excited about what’s happening in New England: the five New England states have, to varying extents, adopted proficiency or competency-based diplomas that describe what graduates need to know and be able to do. We think most of K-12 will move in that direction over the next few years, but it’s extraordinarily challenging. It really changes everything about how we’ve organized school. But the neat thing about world languages is that, as we’ve written at Getting Smart, world language teachers have understood competence forever. And they’ve often been leaders in personalized and competency-based learning, often blended learning as well, creating combinations of face-to-face and online [instruction]. And we think this move to blended, personalized and competency-based learning creates a great opportunity for world language teachers to shine and take on leadership roles in their school to describe what those kind of learning experiences and environments are like.

4. It’s estimated that 21 percent of American households speak a language other than English at home. Have you seen any innovation in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages or any specific challenges that you think are worth talking about?

Vander Ark: Well, I’m excited to see school districts around the country embracing dual language. For the last 30 years it’s been a sprint to English, and almost always that meant forfeiting or forgetting about competence in one’s native language. But we think there’s a growing body of evidence that nurturing literacy in a native language while learning English is really important. We’re really excited to see districts like Dallas and Houston and El Paso embracing a dual language for all students. And once you do that, we’re seeing a growing number of students, not only becoming proficient in English and Spanish, but taking on a third language. This has been common in Europe for 100 years, and it’s exciting to begin to see it happen in the United States. We’re at a point now where every high school in the country can and should offer four or five languages. Not everybody can staff those with a teacher, but with online resources and apps like Babbel, it’s quite possible for one teacher to have a world language class where students are learning four or five different languages and often connecting with native speakers around the world.

5. What do you think are some of the benefits for students who learn a second or third language?

Vander Ark: The most practical benefit is that we live in a global culture and there’s a monetary benefit. You’re worth more as a graduate if you have at least conversational proficiency that you can put on your resume. Another thing I want to add is that learning a language is an interesting way to create empathy and the ability to walk in other people’s shoes. The reason that is important is we’re facing not just technical problems, but adaptive problems, and these are problems that we’ve never faced before. And the first step in an adaptive problem, this is the first step of design thinking, is empathy and beginning to understand what other people are experiencing. We’re really excited that more and more schools are adopting design thinking and embracing social and immersive learning. And we think learning a world language is really an important cousin to these growing trends because it does help to build empathy for other people.

6. What does being a global citizen mean to you? What are you hoping to inspire in young people by giving them this sort of education and what do you hope that they do with that?

Vander Ark: The most important lesson that I learned from Bill and Melinda Gates is that all lives have equal value, and that was really the foundation of everything that we did at the Gates Foundation. I think it’s a key tenet of global citizenship, just recognizing that each of us benefits living in a particular nation. But increasingly, because our world is characterized by urbanization and globalization and automation, we’re living together in cities, but we’re connected together around the world. So being connected in this network of cities means that we just have a much higher level of interaction with people around the world. Being able to manage those connections, and having empathy for and valuing other people is key. And then just navigational competence of having at least a beginner understanding of how to conduct one’s self in, and as part of, a different culture is another important part of global competence. The last thing I would add is just stewardship — understanding that we share this planet with seven, soon to be eight billion other people, and that we have a responsibility to those other people. We have a responsibility to our grandkids to take better care of the place that we live.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Click here to read the full transcript.

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