For being the U.S.’s most-watched live event ever, Super Bowl XLVIII was pretty uninspiring.
What was inspiring, however, was the uplifting Microsoft ad featuring former NFL safety and ALS patient Steve Gleason, along with other people with disabilities, using innovative new technologies to make life easier. Gleason’s use of a Microsoft product called the Surface gave him the ability to provide voicing for the commercial in heart-rending fashion.
The ad opens with a simple question on the screen as Gleason (in tech-aided voice-over) asks: “What is technology?” As the answers come (“It unites us.” “It inspires us.” “It has taken us to places we never thought we would go.”), emotional scenes of tech in action are shown, including a child running on a pair of prosthetic legs, a deaf woman excitedly using an implant to hear a doctor, and a elderly man once blind now able to use a computer efficiently, exclaiming: “Now I can do whatever I want!” The ad concludes with a simple tagline: ‘Empowering us all.’
It’s an effective promo. Even though a vast majority of us don’t know the technological workings of helping a blind man see, who can argue with the ultimate outcome? It’s common sense, really.
As I add another view to the two million the video already has on YouTube, I catch a classroom—pause, rewind, and instant replay. It must have been just a millisecond’s worth of a clip, but it’s there. A classroom full of students ecstatically shares a lesson with another group of their peers remotely through video chat. “Wow,” I think to myself. “That’s common sense too, right?” Sadly, America doesn’t treat it as such, at least not in implementation. The concept is agreeable and runs seamlessly with the rest of the ad’s message. For all the first-down tech innovation we apply to our lives’ every facet, we fail to take the education of our nation’s children with us to the end zone. Each generation of our students will have lives more immersed in tech than the last. America’s first-graders were born after the iPhone was released.
“What can it do?” the commercial asks.
Ninth-grader Vincent Zhou, the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Junior Men’s National Champion, is an online student who one day might be a part of the same Olympic games that are happening now in Sochi, Russia. Vincent is also among the 300,000 U.S. students who attended school online last year, and he knows full well what it can do. Vincent goes to Capistrano Connections Academy in California. Young athletes like Vincent are interested in digital learning, whether wholly online or blended, so they can balance a busy training schedule, just one of many reasons families around the country make the decision to take an alternative approach to education.
Online public schools mix typical class structure with the ease of online learning. With no tuition requirement for most online schools, over 30 states offered full-time online schools in multiple districts, respectively, at the end of 2012. Some online schools belong to a local school district, like Appleton School District in northern Wisconsin.
Through online schooling, a student can attend school in Appleton despite living over 100 miles away. No wonder over 60% of Americans support digital and blended learning.
Students who graduate from the Ohio Connections Academy, a school authorized by the Ohio Council of Community Schools, receive the exact same diploma as their traditional school peers. Connections is one of a growing number of national educators providing online resources and curriculum to public and private schools across all community demographics. At Connections, parents and teachers work together to provide several lines of support at home and elsewhere. Schools like Connections provide online portals and digital tools to help students stay organized with everything they need at their fingertips.
Nexus Academy, a blended learning educator with locations across multiple states, uses daily online lectures as students do most of their schoolwork independently, meeting regularly to discuss progress and set unique goals with teachers and parents, through face-to-face meetings and video calls.
Construction for a brand new Wheaton High School is underway in Silver Spring, Md. as part of Montgomery County’s new plan to infuse “new innovative strategies” into students’ education. But the innovation that Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr defines as “embracing the new” is in stark contrast to the common sense applications from that Super Bowl commercial. The recognition for the need is there.
Will we continue to build new housing for old, tired methods, or will we make education adapt to our students, what they need, and the lives they will live beyond schooling?
(Kara Kerwin is president of The Center for Education Reform, a K-12 education policy and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.)