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Disrupting the Traditional K-12 Model

September 19, 2017

Computer_classI remember my fourth grade classroom outside Seattle: rows of plastic desks with uncomfortable chairs that inevitably had old bubble gum stuck to the bottom. My teacher sat at a larger wooden desk in front of a large chalkboard, every inch of which was often covered. I remember hurrying to copy all those math equations and English homework questions into my notebook before they were all erased.

You will not be surprised to hear that my kids' teachers rarely use chalk. Students today will never take notes on paper or have to remember what had been on a long-erased chalkboard. These changes have affected not only the way teachers teach and the way students learn, but also the way classrooms and teaching tools can be designed to optimize teacher effectiveness and student ability.

I've noticed two tremendous opportunities in the disruption of the traditional K-12 model — trends that are helping educators reimagine the classroom and how they teach, and reshaping the student learning experience. The first is the imperative to democratize digital skills; the second is the increasing potential of personalized learning and approaches that put students at the center of education.

Democratizing Digital Skills

Recent studies show that we are facing a digital skills gap, and this is especially true when it comes to young girls and underrepresented minorities. Computer science knowledge has become essential in today's job market, but students, especially those in underserved communities, are not getting exposure to it. On the flip side, when technology tools and a STEM-related (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum are made available in every classroom and to every student, it leads to profound impact. We at Salesforce.org can see this right here in the Bay Area. In the San Francisco Unified School District, where Salesforce.org has supported efforts to expand computer science education and improve access to a quality education, enrollment in computer science courses across twenty-one middle schools has increased from 1 percent of students to 35 percent in five years. We're also reaching new demographics in computer science, with nearly 50 percent of female students and more than 50 percent of underrepresented youth enrolled in computer science courses.

Personalized Experience

For students who do not thrive in traditional one-size-fits-all classrooms, there's a need for flexible, personalized models. We're starting to see the potential in personalized and competency-based learning models — the Lindsay Unified School District in California's Central Valley is a good example. Lindsay dismantled its entire system based on one question — "What kind of learners do we want our kids to be?" — and shifted the focus from the teacher to the learner. Instead of advancing at the same rate regardless of whether they're ready, students now advance to the next unit only once they master a competency.

Just as businesses increasingly are putting personalized consumer experience at the center, education is putting individual student learning at the center. A decade ago such a shift would have been impossible, but advances in technology have made this a reality, with hyper-personalized models leading to student success and deeper connections between the student and the school. For example, Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA), an alternative charter high school that serves at-risk youth, used the Salesforce platform to implement a tracking system that can flag issues early, enabling the school to step in and provide guidance, counseling, and/or other interventions to help students stay on track.

Building off of personalized learning, virtual schools that offer flexibility and competency-based learning also are gaining traction. Online learning in K-12 wasn't an option when I was growing up, but it's now a reality for students who thrive in a non-traditional classroom setting. While online learning isn't right for every student, it serves as a complement to traditional schools and offers an alternative way for students to learn.

These disruptions to the traditional K-12 model have the potential to create future innovators, builders, out-of-the-box thinkers and change makers, and we owe it to our students to leverage technology and provide non-traditional options to help them learn and succeed.

Rob-Acker_for_PhilanTopicRob Acker is CEO of Salesforce.org, the social enterprise arm of customer-relationship management software provider Salesforce.com.

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