Jessie Woolley-Wilson has big ideas about education technology. I sat down with the CEO of DreamBox Learning — an adaptive math learning system used by students in all 50 states and more than 20 districts in Washington — to get her take on what’s possible, what’s critical and what’s in the way.
GeekWire: I’ve heard you speak a few times on ed tech, and it’s clear you care a lot about it. Why the personal interest?
Jessie Woolley-Wilson: My father came here in 1956 from Haiti, pre-Civil Rights, and he had confidence that if you worked really hard and you’re equipped with an excellent education, there’s nothing you couldn’t do. So I’ve said to myself, look at all the kids who have amazing capabilities but because they don’t have access to quality education, they have undemonstrated potential. What we’re trying to do in this next generation of learning is unlock that learning potential, because I assume every kid has it. And if we don’t see it manifest in kids, it’s because we haven’t done enough to help them manifest it. What’s the best way to do that? Marry technology and learning so we can inspire a love of learning.
GeekWire: You talk a lot about a model of blended learning — the best of tech meeting the best of everything else. Why is that so important now?
Jessie Woolley-Wilson: I feel like we are at an important inflection point in history. We don’t want to create or shepherd children that are going to survive the next century; we want children who can drive the next century. So how does a mom in Seattle prepare her child for jobs in industries that might not even exist yet? We have to cultivate a nimble intelligence. We have to help them understand that to adapt is in itself a required skill for thriving in this world, and that the first step to getting something right might be to get it wrong. And that’s ok, because if there’s deep learning about why it was wrong you can carry that forward.
GeekWire: This is a new space, so there’s lots of excitement, but also anxiety. Any thoughts about what tech should do not do in education?
Jessie Woolley-Wilson: I would like to see tech doing less drill and kill. A lot of technologies try to do more practice. I don’t want practice to happen without insights. I want technology to usher in new paradigm of learning that creates new possibilities for deep thinking. So if you have a workbook and you’re going to move it to tech, you say, Wow, I have digital learning. It’s still flat, in my mind. I don’t want flat tech. I want adaptive technologies that are nimble, that bend. I don’t want technologies to be so focused on curriculum and competence that they lose sight of how important it is to inspire kids to try something they don’t know. We’re deluding ourselves if we don’t think it’s our charge to build confidence while we build competence.
GeekWire: You’re bringing up a lot of ideals that are tough to reach. What are some of the real-life barriers you see in the way?
Jessie Woolley-Wilson: The first thing I’d say is fear. You have parents who have legitimate fears about what’s the right tech and what is the right deployment of that tech for my child. You have teachers who fear. Is tech going be a replacement? I think access is a barrier — there are still communities that don’t have adequate broadband and devices. I think leadership is a barrier. We have to be courageous about talking about critical issues like data security and privacy, and give a much more balanced point of view. I couldn’t deliver delightful experiences if I didn’t have data in DreamBox Learning, but I have to be responsible to the learning guardian, to parents, teachers, and say these are risks and we have to work together to mitigate those risks. And one thing I don’t think is getting enough attention that is an impediment is funding.
GeekWire: Assuming we can get there, what does the ideal classroom look like five years from now?
Jessie Woolley-Wilson: Some people believe kids aren’t going to spend a lot of time in a classroom with their peers, and I have to tell you, I hope that’s not true. We have the opportunity to have a lot of individualized learning with supportive technology, then pivot the model to be much more project-based and critical-thinking based so students can harness collective wisdom. I think the school of the future will be age and grade (K-12) agnostic. I think the classroom is going to have less structure. Some kids are going to get through topics in 15 minutes while other kids need 45 minutes. It’ll be more flexible, more customized, more responsive, more engaging. Our whole educational system is built on summative snapshot assessments, but the world is going to move to formative assessments that represent where a child is in their learning patterns. Students are going to drive their own learning, and there’s going to be amazing innovation.
GeekWire: Tech companies are often out to capture early adopters, people who can be the most vocal about why a product works. Ed tech seems called to work differently. Kids come from all backgrounds, and they all need help.
Jessie Woolley-Wilson: We’re about impact. Here’s something that keeps me up at night: At the end of the day you can’t make all these innovations in learning technology and exacerbate the gap between the haves and the have nots. So we have to work really hard against that. This is not about the proliferation of tech. Our goal is to support great teaching and learning. That’s where we earn credibility and earn the right to go to the latter part of the tech adoption curve and say, You don’t have to be a maverick, you don’t have to be first. We de-risked it. Technology is not the end; it’s the how. I don’t want technology for technology’s sake. One thing I’d like to see more effort in is incubating innovation so school districts aren’t burdened with the evaluations, so they can have confidence that they’re not harming the learner. It’s almost the Hippocratic Oath of education. First, do no harm.
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