Perpetual Beta Education

Beijing teacher and Thinking Stick author, Jeff Utecht, suggested an idea the other day that I have only just now discovered. What if we had Perpetual Beta Education?

First of all, the term beta is often used to describe a software product that is ready for use, but not completely finished in terms of bugs and final polishings. It is frequently released to the public, or a selected public, to be used and to uncover bugs that have yet to be eradicated.

As an example, Class Blogmeister is a weblog tool for teachers. It enables them to establish a class blog for publishing not only the educator’s writings, but also student articles. It includes many features of the blogging engines used by many adult bloggers, and some additional features designed to both protect student identity, and facilitate instructional valuable conversations.

What’s unique about Class Blogmeister, and increasingly common among other Web 2.0 applications is that as teachers envision ways that Class Blogmeister might better serve their educator needs, they post their ideas on the Class Blogmeister mailing list. If I agree with the suggestions, I set about writing the code for the enhancement.

The up side is a tool that continues to evolve with the needs of the users. It becomes a conversation between the users and the developer. The down side is that there are more encounters with bugs, because any time that you work with computer code, what fixes one thing, often breaks something else. The result? A piece of software that is in Perpetual Beta — perpetually adapting to the needs of the customers.

What Jeff Utecht is suggesting is the notion of an education system that is in perpetual beta. In my mind, this means that teachers and administrators are free to recognize new needs, new opportunities, and changing circumstances, and freely adapt “how” and “what” they teach, and even take risks, within the bounds of sound professional judgement.

There are certainly schools and classrooms that are practicing a beta approach to instruction, but our broader (U.S.) education institution runs very much counter to flexible, adaptive, and experimental learning environments.

In my opinion, the greatest need for beta flexibility is the standards — the “what” that we teach. Consider that the World Wide Web came into existence less than 15 years ago, and it’s been only ten years since it began to approach the mainstream. So much has changed in the last ten years. Yet, in cases that I am aware of, state standards and textbook adoptions are only updated every five years, and and it has been my experience that pressure is applied to change the standards as little as possible, more for the convenience of education system than for the effective socialization of our children for their future. Please correct me if my observations are wrong.

A while back, I wrote a blog about Shallow Standards / Deep Learning. I suggest that the shallow standards, those skills and knowledge that are crucial to building a common social, cultural, economic, and environmental context for our children, be established by state or national bodies, and that the deep learning be shifted to the school and classroom, where students might develop in beta learning environments.

Why it Won’t Work:
This can’t possibly succeed in today’s education environment (speaking of the U.S.) because education is run by the government, and government is in perpetual terror of making a mistake. I stand firmly in favor of strong, effective, and independent public education. It’s one of those services that is simply too critical to leave to the market place. That’s why why have governments. But while public education, continues to work under the ever watchful eye of journalists looking or the next expose and the relentless scrutiny of the anti government faction, our schools remain our students’ strongest tie to the last century, rather than an effective preparation for their future. It’s not what schools should be.

Addendum — Why it Might Work:
One interesting feature of the Arizona conference series is a session that they call “A Conversation with the Speaker”. It’s an open discussion about the topics brought up in the keynote address. I suspect that I did a better job in Flagstaff, of structuring the discussion than I did yesterday in Tucson. I had planned for the session to result in a wiki page with lots of ideas about barriers and possible solutions. It ended out being a venting session, and that’s ok. We often learn a lot from those thoughts that we are emotional about.

I suggested Utecht’s ideas about a perpetual beta classroom, describing what perpetual beta means in the Web 2 world, and then comparing it to more open classrooms that trust their teachers. What surprised me, and shouldn’t have, was that the concept was quite familiar to the audience, not the beta part, but the idea of a style of education that is an ongoing conversation between students and teachers, students and other students, the classroom and the community, the teacher and a continuing examination of their field, and the freedom and skill to adapt what and how we teach to a rapidly changing world. Many, in the audience, raised their hands with examples of beta classroom activities and programs.

Perhaps this isn’t such a way-out idea.

Author: David Warlick

David Warlick has been an educator for the past 40+ years. He continues to do some writing, but is mostly seeking his next intersect between play, passion and purpose, dabbling in photography, drone videography and music production.