Scaling Quality Education

Originally published on Medium with NECSI.

A complex systems science perspective on the education system can help guide improvement efforts. The New England Complex Systems Institute is conducting discussions to nucleate innovative efforts in action based upon this perspective. One example is the education system.

The education system performs a highly complex task. Many individuals are educated but their capabilities and other qualities are diverse and they will eventually do many different things in society. Despite this diversity, the current way of coping with the large number of students has been to evaluate success of the individual and the system through standardized testing. Many educators and parents are not happy with this approach. Standardized testing can be considered to be like asking different kinds of animals to compete in the same task, like climbing a tree. The commonly used alternative is portfolio assessment that does not give objective or comparative indications of capabilities or of the effectiveness of teaching. The biological analogy to animals, however, provides a different alternative, niche selection. Niche selection is the idea that each type of animal competes in a different set of tasks, but they do compete. In education this would correspond to having multiple tests that evaluate different types of capabilities, while still enabling competition that provides measures of success and guidance about where an individual can best contribute in society. Cohorts associated with a particular set of skills can move through the system challenged by their interaction with peers. This is one of the important ideas that are motivated by complex systems science others are discussed here.

On May 27th, NECSI welcomed a set of educators to discuss their viewpoints on the educational system: one focused on intrinsic motivation in learning from the perspective of an individual’s role in community (Olin College), one on interaction with difficult challenges in a way which helps the individual see their impact on larger society (Facing History), one on large-scale scaffolding for curriculum propagation (OpenEdX), and one on using the new abilities of technology to support outliers in learning (CMSAS). Each of these groups also distributed different components of their endeavors, and centralized other parts. Facing History centralized through slow training of instructors. Olin centralized through slow training of institutions. Both struggle with how to scale — because of the strong individual touch involved, it’s difficult to instill these approaches beyond the speed of individual instructors. OpenEdX centralizes the knowledge repository structure — anyone can spin up an instance, anyone can put material on it. They don’t do quality control for the hosted material, and struggle with how to reach marginalized populations. CMSAS has a model of small online classes which combine many of the above things. Want to offer up their model for anyone else to use as turn-key solutions for education.

Adam Strom at Facing History

from the Facing History website

Facing History And Ourselves is a human-centered program operating for 40 years. He tells us that “we teach teachers how to teach.” Facing History creates humanities curriculum for teaching about moral and ethical issues. They help teachers one by one, and treat them as professionals, just as we train doctors.

He asks us what can be systematized or at least tailored. We make complex choices about material, but in a structured model. What are all the factors that shape decisions, not just for education, but also in how we shape our worlds? What about how groups impacted by historical issues choices/made choices? How have those ideas changed over time? How did democracy unfold? How have democracies dissolved into dictatorships? Not just teaching the impact of the small results, but thinking in complicated ways about responsibility, and then look at their own roles in society. Facing History helps students and teachers look at the story, and to see how they can make a more positive impact in their communities. This takes serious intellectual rigor, ethical reflection, emotional engagement. All of these are facilitated by the teacher, who must always be reading the class. A teacher makes about a thousand choices in a classroom a day.

Adam points at the 3 things Facing History provides:

  • professional development
  • engaging resources
  • educator community

Their program is deployed teacher, by teacher, by teacher. One staff member becomes their lifetime coach. That’s a lot of work. But Facing History supports about 90k teachers, who then reach a half million students.


  • Teachers are adult learners
  • Working with, not around, teachers
  • Adolescents are budding moral philosophers
  • Universal insights come through studying the particular/Details matter
  • Part of being a good teacher is customizing curriculum
  • We have a pedagogical model that works

So, how do we scale this model?

  • Centralized is what Facing History has been doing
  • A next step would be being more decentralized — what can we start to give away to other groups to use?
  • What would it look like to become distributed?

Some questions to consider:

  • What does technology enable us to do?
  • How do digital technologies meet the realities that teachers face?
  • What is the role of a teacher? What needs to happen in the classroom? Build student confidence.
  • What kinds of education content can be systematized?
  • How can we support learning goals outside of traditional learning environments? The change we measure is in 46 week incriments. What happens if you don’t have that? Can you support larger learnings?


Teacher’s unions, and pushback or no

  • if it’s mandated by the district, that’s when unions have *sometimes* been an issue. But when it’s teachers coming to it on their own that it’s WAY more time than they would otherwise. The more it becomes systematized, the more you become a piece of a machine.

How much have you seen teachers taking the distributed technologies into their classrooms?

  • that’s super interesting. maybe a lot, but we don’t know. we had a digital initiative documenting, but couldn’t sustain it financially. What I am seeing is teachers doing professional development for other teachers. Can’t follow it.

Outside the classroom?

  • Scott O at MIT is talking about games environments. Should games be inside the classroom. Keeping the larger ideas in the curriculum. Play it outside the classroom, which reinforce the values, but aren’t the content. Then you teach the teacher every one inc awhile, tso they can make the connection. Reinforce.

Molly DeBlanc with OpenEdX

from the Open edX github repository

Molly DeBlanc works with OpenEdX, the open curriculum platform started by MIT and Harvard. It hosts courses on the site, and has started offering low-risk credits (you only pay if you pass). There are all sorts of great partnerships listed on their site, and are worth checking out. Molly is focused on the code component behind the platform.

She tells us about the code as a bunch of files on github, which are used to supply courses. This code supports video and audio files, and questions and interactions between students and faculty. While the classes are not in real time, the basics are pulled from real time conversations. EdEx is in use all over the world in very different ways — they don’t know all the courses or organizations.

Many universities are using it — take courses and get it further out there. Some companies and organizations use it internally for their training material. Beyond that, there are some people are *only* taking classes online, who have strange schedules, or who are far from the offering institution. Even in more traditional educational setups, students are doing lectures at home, with classroom time doing more interactions and workshopping together, more problem sets. One class ditched the textbook and just had lectures online, to great ends. Nonprofit in DC using the platform for low income nutrition and financial education. Russian method of teaching mathematics, tailored it to an American audience.

Things to think about

  • How far can this be pushed? This is mostly universities pushing classes to audiences. What ELSE can we do? What about how teachers interact with each other?
  • Who needs to be using the Open edX platform? Most of the people using this are white, male, upper class. What about access to resources, what about language, etc?
  • What tools and features are needed? Not just about folding proteins, also maybe how to connect students doing well in one area connecting with students doing less well.
  • Policy, outreach, impact
  • Not just digital accessibility, but access to the resources needed to use it.


How do you help nonprofits understand the value of edx?

  • Talk with a bunch of different groups about what it might look like.
  • Talking with groups with work with a bunch of nonprofits

Signup versus completion?

  • Signing up is 2 buttons. 5% from signup to one course. First exam completed to doing more is 30%.
  • People are starting to make shorter courses. 8 hours a week from Harvard?! 16 weeks from Stanford?! No!
  • Smaller bites of information is basically you can watch your videos wherever you want.

Completion for self-paced?

  • All are arguably self-paced, material stays up.
  • Certificate for completion vs certificate for credit.

Third world use?

  • platform and courses, yes.
  • Use of vocational training.
  • Teacher training but also student training.
  • Lab simulations for use in rural Ghana.

Care about?

  • Platform, we’re delighted when we see people using it. There are some companies which say “if you complete this course within this time, you qualify for hiring” which is not “be a student at a fancy school”

Debbie Chachra at Olin College

from the Olin website

Olin has recontextualized what engineering education is done. They have guiding principles, and work with institutions around the world about how they work with their students. The most basic is intrinsic motivations, which is not whether someone is motivated or not as a quality of who they are. People tell Debbie, “your students are motivated and super smart,” but the reality based in research (Why We Do What We Do by Deci and Ryan) is that… We do lots of things we chose to do voluntarily, and many we do because we have to. Someone puts a gun to your head and tells you to do it. But that’s a terrible reason! If you tell people to do something because of the gun, it’s not actually going to stick, nor be fulfilling. There’s a somewhat similar thing called external regulation, which is when you chose to do something because you know it’s the right thing to do (like going to the gym). Intrinsic motivation is a bit different, and it’s when you teach yourself to do something. When you play guitar, you’re deciding when and how to do it. Often a link to community. You can tell you’re getting better at it.

To be intrinsically motivated, you need:

  • autonomy (setting it yourself)
  • purpose (often community)
  • competency development (know when you’re getting better)

Traditional education is REALLY good at scaffolding learning, but NOTHING else. People who are good students are not motivated, they’re motivated BY THIS SYSTEM. So Olin works on creating systems which create those three factors to foster studentsto be intrinsically motivated.

Debbie contrasts this model with MOOCs, which are focused on those who are already well served by the traditional educational system. Those who are instrincly motivated have much better learning outcomes over time. These are individuals who can’t tell you what was on a test, but can tell you about a report they wrote, for which they decided the topic.

Project based learning at Olin is about autonomy and purpose. Then our job as educators is to provide the scaffolding. The student makes a project which makes them the expert. The educator is here to provide scaffolding.


What is engineering specific?

  • very little of this is engineering-based. Adam spoke about it in another format.

How are you finding the continuity ? You had a vision, you’ve reshaped things, new people, etc.

  • I’ve been there from the beginning. The students are new every year.
  • Continuity is a virtue and a vice. We thought we’d restart every 5 years. Now we think about how to evolve parts. You don’t do a gut reno every year, you do a wing and then systematically renovate the entire house.

How do you handle evaluation without tests?

  • We had a huge fight at the beginning about grades. Good arguments for both. Grades as an API for the rest of the world — allows our students to get jobs and go to grad school. So we still use grades, but along different rubrics. Design and education (not about right or wrong)
  • Even if you have a math exam with right and wrong answers, and you are still making judgment calls about what you value. If a student misplaces a positive or a negative sign in an equation, do you mark the whole thing as wrong (because the final answer is wrong), or do students get partial credit (because the process is sound)?
  • That said, we’re accredited. We show that people learn and change things in a way the acredation body is interested in. We demonstrate that at an institutional level.

The collective purpose of engineering in society? Individual purpose and collective purpose.

  • individual purpose is often related to community. So often it’s thinking about what that community is. EdX has learning communities in different spaces. Curriculum is user-oriented design. People not like you. Humanities team.
  • Want our students to graduate as globally aware citizens.

Tamra Excell at CMASAS

from the CMASAS website

Students can take classes as-is, top to bottom, OR they can modify that, and demonstrate the mastery in another way. CMASAS students are from all over the world, learning differently, and some travel a lot.

As an example, a surfing student demonstrating physics learning by working on a surf board, otherwise top-down. That student later demonstrated business skills by starting a business around those surf boards.

Whether examining the CMASAS setup by grades, or student feelings, or college acceptance, they’re noticed by 3rd party ranking systems. Now that they’ve done this and are growing, how do they get this model out there more? Start other schools using our turn-key system? Partner? Learning centers? Training? Assist in untraining and retraining of teachers, administrators, parents. Take it to the next level!


Socioeconomic makeup of your students?

  • we’re tuition based, so higher-ish class, but about half the tuition of many places. (5k per year, 7k for unlimited credits)
  • the model does work in lower income places
  • want to get it into more public schools

Like the mastery model. How do you work with things that are a softer skill, not performance assessed? (classic model etc, studying a model)

  • have some explicit instruction in whatever parts they were going to study. talk with teacher about those aspects. What do they want to pay attention to? Reading comprehension, what did the character do versus interpretive. Take the students where they’re at, move them forward from that. The students have a lot of way in what literature they’re looking at.
  • Not going to fit on a SCANTRON. We’re doing more than that — we ask a lot of our teachers (and we pay them well). It’s scalable, but we have a smaller number of students per teacher to make it work. Want the student to be meta-cognitive.

Panel Discussion

Re-estabilsh trust in education?

“X is broken” — why are you saying that? What is the motivation? We have a factory model now. We think people have to have the same levels of skills, people as widgets, need quality control on our widgets. Education as a for-profit system, we want an ROI. Instead of an investment for its own sake. The other model is a garden model. You have a bunch of plants in your garden, they all grow into different plants. But we’ve decided that public education is a thing we don’t spend money on. We have to decide it’s something that matters to us. Not “do what we tell you.” — students AS WELL AS teachers.

Accountability goes from student to teacher to superintendent. What you’re doing as a good teacher is violating rules. I work at a nonprofit of people who broke the rules.

People not seeking a diploma, they’re seeking a different way. Needs to be possible and meaningful. Why do we need to know this stuff?

Focus on an individual student — what about groups?

At Harvard, of the 50k signed up to a Harvard edX class, the highest rates of completion were around students who were getting together themselves.

Encouraging networks, connecting people into the networks. When we talk about individualized education, we’re serving a learner for their needs… but those needs aren’t an independent thing. How do you let the networks emerge. Those clumps were an emergent property of the system.

Creating new habits. Hard to get people to listen to each other in a room. Hard when you’re in an online discussion space… Institute for the Future does a thoughtful space. But many people post without reading what’s gone before.

Synchronous vs Asynchronous?

  • Facing History: 50/50
  • Olin: synchronous. If you know students work better in a group, why wouldn’t you design for that? The community aspect of edX… it’s hard to have community online. Clear that people who have met before work better together. Being geolocated, having a learning community, having a study group has a huge impact.

Do you think that’s face to face or a certain style of interaction?

  • As a community manager, you have a different accountability to people after you’ve met them. You know “I have met PERSON, I know them, tey are nice.” I feel responsible to them now.
  • There are functional online communities. SciFi space where hundreds of comments on a post, all thoughtful.
  • People have met each other online, then met in person. There are caveats, of course.
  • Multiplicity of ways people interact, so we need to add to that.

Accumen has their own courses, you can take it at your own pace, but has to be with people.

How could you treat ethics without other people? It’s the meeting of different people together which builds tolerance.

Online homeroom for CMASAS, have meetups in different locations. Clubs to meet people from all over the world. Graduation ceremonies for those who can make it, help offered for those who can’t afford it. bonding had definitely happened for these students who had known each other for a long time.

How do you get people to be autonomous?

Autonomy isn’t binary. It’s not an all-or-nothing thing. We scaffold autonomy just like anything else. Start with more, end up with way less. By graduation, they should be self-driven. First year is pass/no credit.

All the schools scored <25% on language. No shared history from which topics to emerge from. The kids demanded to be challenged, wanted ideas to challenge. What do you give up? Challenge the kids, otherwise they’ll spin in their own circles.

Technical communities. People get involved to have power, skill, ability. You point them at things they can handle themselves, and give them the tools to do it. Give them more responsibility over time. So when someone completes a project, you give them something else to look over. Add in more steps for responsibility.

What is the situation, who is the learner, where are they at? All the skills, anything they gain is still a gain. Sugatra Mitra talks about getting out of kids’ ways. We have an intro course to become self-aware and -directed.

No magical bullet. There are certainly ways to approach it, focusing on students and scaffolding etc. But the ways to implement are context-dependent.

Dichotomy of Individual or Societal Benefit

One of the things we have to do from a complex science perspective, fostering individual development becomes synergistic instead of oppositional.

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