Innovating for Change: 5 Questions with David Yanofsky
Last week we had an opportunity to speak with David Yanofsky, the Director of Media and Youth Development at ConnectEd, a nonprofit organization based in Berkeley, CA, that develops tools, projects and collaboratives to expand young people’s pathways to college and careers. Since 2007, ConnectEd has served as a major contributor and supporter of the national Linked Learning approach in California. Linked Learning is a transformative experience for high school students that integrates strong academics, demanding technical education and real-world experiences that give students a lasting advantage in high school, postsecondary education and careers.
David serves as project lead for ConnectEd Studios, an online platform providing students and teachers access to integrated curriculum units, multimedia resources, project planning tools, and industry professionals to support project-based learning in schools. We talked with David about his work and about leveraging technology to achieve social impacts in education. Excerpted below are some of David’s key observations, insights and cautions.
Q - Please tell us about the significance of your current work as it relates to under-resourced youth and families.
A - I think the traditional path through high school has taken two directions for students: college or career. Traditionally, though, the “career” paths have been to low-end jobs.
[With ConnectEd Studios], all kids are prepared for college AND career—not one or the other. What used to be home economics and shop class are now biotech, engineering and IT. [ConnectEd Studios] is intended to provide an answer to the question: “Why do I have to know this?” Students see the relevance of their work and are much more likely to learn and understand. When kids are engaged, they are going to be more likely to retain information.
In our program, students experience high school in a different way than they have traditionally. We’ve done away with the “sage on the stage” model. Our model is hands-on, work-based and uses project-based learning. We are not judgmental about which path a student takes after school. We see the whole range: military, apprenticeships and two- and four-year colleges.
Technology can connect industry and community partners with students more directly in the classroom. Experts in the field may not have the wherewithal, bandwidth or time to participate in schools even though they may like to. We can give them that access with technology. When students are connected to industry professionals in general, it really does light a fire and get them excited about their work. Through ConnectEd Studios, a field professional can sign in from a remote location or at home in her or his pajamas, and see a student’s design. She or he can then provide real-time, in-line annotation and feedback to students on their work.
Students are immersed in technology outside of class, and we can bring that technology into the classroom.There is this huge disconnect in that the place where they spend the most time, they are prohibited from using the technology tools they are so used to using: computers, mobile and social media. ConnectEd Studios gives students, teachers and administrators the ability to power up.
Q - What do you think is the most exciting application of technology in your field right now?
A - I am excited about getting into differentiated instruction at the individual level through technology. Just as Netflix and Amazon now serve up customized suggestions based on previous consumer behavior, we can offer the same thing to students based on their academic interest and development. In the classroom, the teacher cannot effectively attend to both the lower- and higher-achieving students, so this level of differentiated instruction through technology has the possibility of being a game changer in education.
Q - You’re describing a very unique and innovative platform for education. Are there challenges to using a tool like this?
A - In California, we are seeing a grossly under-resourced digital infrastructure, a lack of technology integration into curriculum and instruction, and outdated tech. We are still facing the digital divide for broadband access in the home—the 'flipping the classroom' model can’t be used in those instances. There is still a significant and severe digital divide that has to be mitigated before we can tap into the full potential of tech in the classroom.
Q - If you could share one insight from your work with others who are hoping to make a difference in the lives of underserved youth and families, what would it be?
A - Folks are doing really innovative things, like flipping the classroom and using 1-to-1 devices. There is all this incredible innovation happening, yet so little happening in California, given that it is home to Silicon Valley and a huge number of start-ups. It is really shocking how little technology has been woven into the everyday student experience. It is beguiling to me that these companies and the state have shown so little initiative. California is going to have to play catch-up for a long time. There is a cognitive disconnect between the technology resources concentrated in this state and the amount of it that has trickled down.
My argument is, if there is one skill students will need in the 21st Century, it’s digital literacy. So how can we in good conscience send them out into the world without a valuable, intentional and rigorous connection of technology? It will take vision and leadership from Sacramento to lay out a vision for what the 21st-Century student experience looks like in California. Otherwise, the well-resourced and enterprising school districts will be the “haves”and their neighboring districts will be the “have-nots.” Companies also need to be directed to support these efforts, as well. Leadership is really the critical piece, and there has been a vacuum in Sacramento around integrating technology in the curriculum. We are lagging behind on our level of digital literacy internationally.
Q- What’s next for ConnectEd and the Linked Learning Initiative?
A - ConnectEd Studios is in beta mode, with 8- to 9,000 users. Half are students, and the rest are teachers, school administrators and industry professionals. We will launch the platform this fall in 63 school districts in California, in the cities of Detroit and Houston, and in Wyoming’s statewide initiative. We’ve spent a number of years engaging our stakeholders to develop a basic platform. With the launch of these additional sites in the fall, we will be at almost 100 percent capacity.
To learn more about digital literacy, technology and education, check out some of David’s suggested resources.