Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Khan Academy & Cultural Understanding

Last Fall, CFM and The Henry Ford convened a group of educational practitioners, reformers and funders to explore how museums could become more deeply embedded in K-12 education. The report from that gathering--Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Ecosystem--will be released soon. Meanwhile, here is a teaser: one recommendation made by attendees was to put more museum content on existing platforms that have a broad and growing reach--platforms such as Khan Academy. Today’s guest post is by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, deans for art and history at Khan Academy. They have both taught art history for more than 20 years and each has worked at The Museum of Modern Art. Prior to joining Khan Academy, Beth was Director of Digital Learning at MoMA and Steven was Chair of History of Art and Design at Pratt.
During a recent talk at Carnegie Mellon University, Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, noted that if you went back in time 400 hundred years and asked a member of the clergy in Europe what percentage of the population was capable of learning to read, he likely would have replied, “well if you have a really good education system, then 40 or 50 percent.” Sal continued, “we now know that’s wildly pessimistic; the answer is pretty close to 100 percent.” Sal then challenged the audience to consider what blinders we have on today—what if a world-class education was freely available to everyone? Might we all be able to understand quantum physics and contribute to genomic research?

Let’s take this utopian vision to the world of art and design. What would it mean if nearly 100% of us understood the architectural vocabulary that shapes and gives meaning to our streets and public squares? What if nearly all people understood the ways in which human beings in different places and times have used images to give expression to their most deeply held beliefs and most profound questions? What if people around the world better appreciated the meaning and beauty of each other’s visual heritage? What would it mean if nearly every museum visitor was visually literate?

How can we use technology to help make cultural understanding universal? In an inspiring talk at a recent TED conference, designer and engineer Bran Ferren shared a moving story (“To create for the ages, let's combine art and engineering”) about a visit he made as a child to the Pantheon in Rome that changed the course of his life. That day, he realized that the worlds of art and design were not incompatible with science and engineering.

His point was that it wasn’t simply the technology—the Romans’ advances in the use of concrete—that made the Pantheon possible. For Ferren, concrete, like the internet, is simply a tool. Hadrian’s building resulted from an “unprecedented creative vision,” one that still connects us to our aspirations and to one another. So, to extend Ferren’s metaphor, can the internet be the tool we use to offer a free world-class education for everyone, everywhere? Could it enable us to achieve a cultural literacy rate of near 100%? Such an outcome would profoundly impact our cultural institutions, our efforts to fund the preservation and understanding of our shared cultural legacy, and enrich our visual future.

So, how can those of us committed to making art and design accessible use the web to leverage our collective knowledge and teaching expertise to reach a vast new global audience? Here we use the term “web” as shorthand for numerous resources and tools: image collections, essays and video but also MOOCs (massively open online courses), as well as platforms—like Khan Academy—where analytics are used to fine-tune learn-at-your-own-pace experiences, and where an active community and game mechanics make learning fun and engaging. Our staff of 60 reaches more than 10 million unique visitors every month.

Smarthistory at Khan Academy is used by museum visitors, independent learners, professors, teachers and their students. There are nearly 600 short-form art history videos created from conversations recorded on-site (in urban spaces, archeological sites, museums, churches and mosques), as well as hundreds of essays on art and art history. We’ve begun to partner with museums to bring their formidable expertise to a global audience (often by simply repurposing pre-existing content). And we are working with over 100 art historians with deep knowledge of content stretching from Ancient Egypt to contemporary art in sub-Saharan Africa.

This art content is visited by learners in more than 200 countries (with translations into dozens of languages). We will reach more than four million learners this academic year (with growth near 80% over the previous year). Most importantly perhaps, we are reaching an audience that, just like Bran Ferren on his family vacation in Rome so many summers ago, is not necessarily interested in art—yet.

There is still a lot to figure out and we look forward to working with the museum and academic communities to make this happen, but it’s clear that we need to think beyond the boundaries of individual institutions and collections. And we also need to think very differently about scale (Michael Edson’s blog post and Slideshare deck on this subject are inspiring).

It took nearly four centuries for the potential of the printing press to be exploited for public education (on a broad scale). Let’s not wait that long for the digital revolution to inspire a new way to educate the globe about one of the most fundamental aspects of our humanity—our history of making art. Think of the millions of learners that can’t travel and don’t live anywhere near a museum. Let’s use the web to foster a love and appreciation for the visual arts and their history. If we do, we’ll create a vast new audience who will want to see that art and who will appreciate all the incredible work involved in preserving, exhibiting, and researching it. How many young Bran Ferrens are there waiting to be inspired?

Here is how Sal ended his talk:
“the potential here is…a once in a millennium opportunity, where you have this thing called education, this thing that has always been the key determinant between the haves and have-nots, but it’s always been scarce and its always been expensive, and...I think if we collectively work on it, over the next ten, twenty, thirty years it is going to get to the point where access...to a world-class education... [is] going to become more common-place…and more and more of an expectation.”

We can do more.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Monday Musing: Looking to Hawaii for the Distributed Future

Futurist William Gibson observed “the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.” In CFM’s report “Tomorrow in theGolden State” we looked to California for glimpses of the unevenly distributed future of demographic change and other trends. A story I shared in Dispatches from the Future of Museums last week drove home to me that Hawaii is a good place to look for the present future when it comes to social enterprise, charitable giving and impact investing. (A theme much on my mind, and prominently featured in TrendsWatch 2014.)

I have already been impressed with the strong grassroots approach in Hawaii to sustainability, social justice and community action. See, for example, the nonprofit Kanu Hawaii, which uses a game-like social platform to encourage people to make commitments to “sustainable island living.” Or the social-activist Pinky Show, which is Hawaiian-born and bred. (And if you haven’t watched the Pinky Show’s animated “We Love Museums…Do Museums Love Us Back?,” you should. Right now. Really.)

Last week’s article made my Hawaii file explode. It summarizes the work of the Ulupono Initiative, founded by Pierre and Pam Omidyar. Ulupono, described as “half private-equity firm, half philanthropic foundation,” promotes local food production, renewable energy and reduction of solid waste (so, like Kanu Hawaii, it is working towards “sustainable island living”). It does this through investing in for-profit enterprises and giving grants and loans to nonprofit social organizations whose work advances any of these three causes. Both the business and charitable investments are designed to create sustainable businesses: the for-profits when they begin to pay off, the nonprofits when they create their own earned income streams or when they find long-term funders.

I love two things about this article:
  •       The insight into how Pierre Omidyar distinguishes the roles of charitable giving (filling immediate needs), philanthropic giving (solving long term problems) and impact investing (which--surprise!--he sees as having the same goals as philanthropy.)

  •        The numerous cases it provides of non-profit social enterprises with notes on their models for sustainability. SchoolGardens, for example, which Omidyar expects to be adopted by Hawaii’s Department of Education, becoming simply “the way we teach our kids.” Or ReUseHawaii, which deconstructs homes and resells the salvaged materials to prevent it from going to the landfill. If you’ve ever browsed one of the reclaimed materials shops popping up around the nation, you’ll understand the article’s conclusion that “it’s easy to envision a time when ReUse Hawaii will be completely self-funding.”

Which leads to my musing, which isn’t so much a new thought as a reinforcement of the thinking I shared in TrendsWatch 2014’s section on “For Profit for Good.” At the present, all too often nonprofits think their distinguishing features are both their dedication to mission and their inability to make money. (I’ve even had museum professionals tell me, on more than one occasion, “but we are nonprofit—we are not allowed to make money!”) Funders like Ulupono and the for- and nonprofit enterprises it supports are going to shift the focus to both mission and sustainability. In that future, what will determine whether an organization like ReUse Hawaii qualifies as a nonprofit, as opposed to a for profit business? Good question. In the next decade or so, I think we are going to have to work that out.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Futurist Friday: I Think, Therefore I Am

Some futurist scenarios are more probable than others. But even those that seem wildly improbable help us see the present in a new light. The March, a lyrical animation (5 min)  wrote, directed, and animated by Josh Fortune for the Sci-Fi London 48 Hour Film Challenge,  explores how augmented reality affects our "real" lives. 

Fortune's "Brainbots" have lost the bodies they neglected in favor of the virtual world. Will this lead one 'bot, at least, to rediscover the core of his humanity?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Big Data and the Holy Grail of Museum Metrics

One of the themes covered in CFM’s TrendsWatch 2014 report is the power of big data and data analytics. The ubiquity of internet-connected sensing devices and our relentless use of social media and online commerce generates 2.8 zettabytes (a zettabyte = 2 to the 70th power) every year. This flood of information is being fed into predictive algorithms that yield results that look nearly magical: forecasting spikes in unemployment, global conflict, disease outbreaks, even local crime. As people are quickly discovering, big data analytics, like any tool, can be misused, but when applied to appropriate problems with sound methodologies, they can transform whole sectors.

Can big data transform museums? Data mining can certainly be useful to individual museums--I’m chairing a session on that topic on Monday, May 19, 1:45 pm at the upcoming Alliance conference in May. Data on a museum’s visitors linked to US Census data via zip code can generate reams of illuminating demographic information. Tracking patrons’ use of museum space and amenities can suggest efficiencies of staffing and services. But I’m even more interested in the potential payoff of big data for the museum field as a whole.

As we’ve explored in TrendsWatch 2013 and on this Blog, we live in a society increasingly focused on concrete measurements of outcomes. This poses the risk that museums, in order to comply with these expectations, may focus on doing small, measurable good, while losing sight of the big, ambitious hard-to-measure good that lies at the heart of our missions. How do you measure the improvement art makes in someone’s life? What metric captures the value of an understanding of history? Largely, in the past, we couldn’t measure things like this, and didn’t try. Even in fields like medicine it is rare to find the kinds of large scale, long-term longitudinal research projects that can tease out small and subtle effects of lifestyle and behavior. Museums have never had the cultural equivalent of the Framingham Heart Study or the Nurses’ Health Study, following thousands of individuals over the course of decades, generating the masses of granular data needed to support such analysis. Instead researchers try to get at these questions in bits and pieces (measuring the effect of field trips, or the personal value of museum engagement), but the results are generally limited and hard to generalize.

Now there is an alternative to traditional longitudinal studies like Framingham. The combination of the Internet of Things (which tracks and measures so much of what we do), the Quantified Self movement (mainstreaming individual collection and analysis of minute details of everyday life), and Big Data Analytics could give us the ability to assess the impact of museum engagement on health, happiness, educational attainment, well-being and other measures of success.

People are already envisioning how big data can transform health care. Doctors and health care advocates envision a future in which the internet-connected things in your life—your fridge, scale, activity monitor band, medicine cabinet—communicate with your health provider to provide seamless integration of care. Besides giving individuals a “big picture” look at how their own behavior, diet and environment affect their personal health, this network would create huge databases, supporting analysis that would greatly increase the speed and power of identifying the overall risks and benefits of specific foods, behaviors or environmental exposure. It took decades to make an overwhelming case for the dangers of cigarette smoking. Despite the huge sums the tobacco lobby is spending to defend the next system for delivering nicotine, it may take far less time to quantify the first and second-hand risks of vaping (inhaling vapor from electronic cigarettes).

Educators, technologists and reformers are already envisioning how big data can transform education. The IBM PETALS project (Personalized Education Through Analytics on Learning Systems) is using machine learning and advanced data analytics to identify the individual learning needs of students and recommend personalized learning pathways. Khan Academy is using data gleaned from its thousands of student learners not only to provide feedback to teachers on specific students, but also to identify patterns in how students learn, and what kinds of pedagogy work best with what kinds of learners. Some researchers, and reformers, want to link children’s health and school records to identify factors that cross the home/school/community boundaries to affect children’s ability to thrive. For example, linking hospital records with education records to assess the correlation between smoking during pregnancy and ADHD, or impact of concussions on educational outcomes, or how children with a diagnosis of autism fare in the special education system.

What if we added cultural engagement to the linked data sets of health and education? If we track how people—children or adults—Interact with museums, historic sites, libraries, performing arts, and put that in the big data mix, we could finally document the effects of, say, family museum visits on kids’ educational attainment, or the impact of engagement with the arts on health and well-being.

The biggest challenge to this “holy grail” of museum metrics isn’t technological—it’s cultural. The kind of blanket surveillance that enables us to collect this level of detail is frankly, freaking people out, and leading to a backlash of concern about personal privacy. Do you really want your toothbrush ratting you out to your dentist? While you may feel better if your mom’s pillbox emails you if she doesn’t take her meds, do you want your pillbox emailing your kids? Do we want our museum logging when we visit, and how long we stay? (Well, maybe with appropriate incentives, we do.)

If we as a society ever do decide the potential benefits arising from mass collection of personal data outweigh our concerns, it may be with regard to our children. We already accept limits to kids privacy and autonomy in the interests of ensuring their health and safety, limits that we would not accept for adults. So I’m waiting for the first city to propose the trifecta of big data on children, merging health, education and cultural data to find out what really fosters happy, healthy, successful kids. Let me know if you see a movement toward this starting in your community…

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: WindPunk

Hooked on this weekly (nearly) wordless glimpse of the future? You can find more images, and links to related stories, on the CFM Pinterest Boards

Read more about the BAT floating windmill

Monday, April 14, 2014

Monday Musing: the Future of Education, Testing & the Common Core

Weekend before last I was in New Orleans, at the National School Boards Association conference. I was there to talk up the Alliances soon-to-be-released report "Building the Future of Education: Museums & the Learning Ecosystem" (more on that in a bit).

Katherine Prince, who directs forecasting on the future of education for the KnowledgeWorks Foundation, was at NSBA speaking on potential futures for America's young learners. Katherine and I have long been swapping notes on this topic,  and the message she delivered in NOLA highlighted projections which we both feel are very likely: the coming era of transformation in US education; the danger of creating a fractured landscape of learning which exacerbates social and economic stratification; the potential of integrating resources offered by museums, libraries and archives into a vibrant learning grid that serves the needs of all learners. Katherine was kind enough to give me time, at the end of her talk, to invite board members to come talk to me and my colleagues in the Alliance booth about what they want, and get, and need from museums, to sign up to receive CFM's education report and to volunteer to be part of a larger conversation between museums and schools.

I confess I was expecting resistance to the premises that underly the vision of education Katherine and I buy into: that learning works best when it is self-directed, passion-based, experiential and directed towards "real world work." These principles align very well with the growing consensus that, in order to thrive in the 21st century, young people need to hone their skills of creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking. They don't mesh so well with the current focus on regimentation, standardized teaching and hyper-testing. I went to this conference assuming that the majority of school board members support the status quo.

Instead, I found that NSBA had seeded the conference numerous educational critics and reformers--Sir Ken Robinson, Thomas Friedman, Nikhil Goyal, Erin Gruwell--who hammered home the point that current political and social trends are doubling down on an anachronistic educational paradigm. And the attendees seemed largely receptive to their messages, though hesitant and unclear on how to change to a new paradigm. The most common question I heard, lobbed at several of these speakers, was "how do you feel about the common core and standardized testing?" I was interested to hear each give variations on the same answer: common core and standardized testing are two different issues, even if they are yoked in current policy discussions. None were fundamentally opposed to their being some common framework for society "we all should be conversant with this"--even if there were varying degrees of enthusiasm about the content of the current standards. All felt that the current narrow focus on testing was immensely counterproductive, destructive both to teachers and students.

So, (at last I get to my musing for the day) I was heartened to return to DC and find this headline in my inbox, sent by a colleague:

Education Taskforce Meets in Boise to Eye Ideas

The article reports that the [Idaho] governor's Task Force for Improving Education met to discuss legislative proposals, including "a switch to mastery-based education that would let students advance based on when they fully grasp a concept, rather than the time they spend in a classroom." It notes "Proponents hope more autonomy on local levels will give teachers room for creativity and innovation — possibly sparking a better way to reach students" but acknowledges that this is at odds with the push towards standardized teaching and testing, and that the task force members don't have a clear idea on how to meaningfully measure mastery. 

But at least this task force is trying to change the system. As Sir Ken pointed out in his talk, we can't expect to teach creativity through an educational system that is itself designed around standardization. I find it encouraging that not only individual school board members, but their national association and policy makers at the state level are taking this message to heart.

Now, what can museums do to help create the new educational era, one premised on diverse, creative learning environments? That is what the Alliance is beginning to explore, starting with the release later this month of "Building the Future of Education". We will use this report to start discussions at the local, state and federal level about what it would take to break down the barriers between museum educational resources and the full spectrum of young learners---whether they are in public or private schools, home schooled or unschooled--and what role the Alliance can play in making that happen. Keep an eye on the Alliance website, and this blog, for the release of the report. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on who we should recruit into this discussion, and what experiments we could try, as we explore next steps.