An education revolution beckons in the digital age

Are we ready to quit letter grades?

Dump standardized tests?

Turn inside-out the role of schools as the authorities of knowledge?

While educators try to imagine it, students who’ve already freed themselves are galloping through the digital world.

At their best they are collaborating, creating, seeking justice, making art, defining their significance.

“Don’t we want to create students who can do


” says Michael Wesch, a gone-viral phenomenon on the Internet who essentially launched himself digitally five years ago from the basement of his small farmhouse outside Manhattan, Kan.

He’s a 36-year-old cultural anthropologist at Kansas State University who has become the prophet of an education revolution.

They’re already out there, he says. Students and young adults who have made their mark persisting at new ideas, starting companies, connecting the world to social justice issues, fueling citizen rebellion in Egypt, distributing humanitarian aid to Haiti.

It’s coming out of classrooms, regardless of grades and the structured time in their seats — sometimes in spite of them.

It happens, he says, when students either on their own or with the mentoring spark from a teacher risk themselves in a cause that fascinates them.

“We want to put them in a state of wonder,” Wesch says. “They’re insatiably curious. If we (teachers) inspire them, then we can work to harness and leverage technology and create



Search “Wesch” on YouTube and recordings of talks from coast to coast line up, along with videos he created, including the one that launched him, “The Machine is Us/ing us,” now at more than 11.5 million views.

Cerner, starving for a future work force of engineers, brought him to Kansas City earlier this year to headline its education forum in science, technology, engineering and math. Advertising giant Barkley had him speak before its crowd.

“We have a long-term work force challenge, not just Cerner but broader, facing the knowledge economy,” said Laura Evans of Cerner. “We need the creative skills and problem-solving skills that will determine the economic value of the future.”

And educators know that schools every day struggle to keep sight of Google, YouTube, Facebook and all the other tools of what Wesch calls “the world’s greatest collaboration device.”

But when schools put more effort into blocking the Internet, he says, it becomes students’ “world’s biggest distraction.”

Evans and others like her seeking an education revolution see how Wesch portrays the world that students live in.

“Then you juxtapose that against the tools and environment we set students in,” Evans said, “and of


they’re disengaged. And if we lose them, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.”

• • • 

Consider Patrick Hutfless, Wesch said by phone, back in Manhattan.

Patrick was a student he met during his recent Kansas City area trip to “CAPS,” the Blue Valley School District’s Center for Advanced Professional Studies.

Consider Hunter Browning, he says.

Both students are seniors who spend half of their school day outside their regular high schools in the special programming at CAPS.

For at least half of the day they are measured by their professionalism, their teamwork and their ideas.

Wesch first wanted Patrick to describe his usual school experience, getting only a summation that he was a “C” student. That’s all there was to say about that, Wesch said.

But when asked about his experience in the open, industry-driven, project-oriented world of CAPS, Patrick talked of the apps he’s been developing.

“He’s telling me how they tried to premiere their ideas,” Wesch said, “and how they (real industry reps) hated all their ideas, but that was OK because he said, ‘We’ll try again.’ ”

And they did, creating one for Orange Leaf Frozen Yogurt that’s made it, he said.

And there’s Hunter, creating real energy solutions for cars, who Wesch learned drops by CAPS early in the morning before heading off to his regular high school, then returns and works past the end of the day.

“He’s bending the ear of every teacher and industry professional he can find,” Wesch said.

“The banter you hear about students today is that they’re lazy and self-absorbed,” he said. “But usually we fail to inspire them.”

CAPS wants to flourish in the world Wesch describes, said Executive Director Donna Deeds.

Industry partners drive the curriculum with real-world tasks, and the school unleashes its students.

“Seventeen-year-olds can do so much more in the world than people believe or know,” Deeds said. “They have capacity beyond their years. They can perform. They want to change the world.”

• • • 

Revolution is hard.

Educators who want their students set loose to run in a digital world face real and legitimate barriers.

For instance, Wesch said, “I haven’t figured a way out of standardized tests.”

Structures are hard to bring down.

Many educators don’t like letter grades. It creates what Wesch and others call “transactional teaching.”

The teacher is the authority over the information. Students are told what they have to do to get the grade. “It hampers the intrinsic motivation in kids,” Wesch said, “and creates a bad environment where teachers and students are trying to game each other.”

But if grades are dumped, parents still want to know how their child is doing.

A teacher might succeed in getting students enrapt in building robots or managing the budget of their own urban garden project or writing a media campaign in an international cause — “But are they learning algebra? Can they solve quadratic equations?”

Schools have to provide evidence.

For now, Wesch said, hybrid setups like Blue Valley’s are the closest realizations of what he thinks schools should become.

Innovative corporations don’t know what jobs they will need done, or what entirely new industries might be spawned.

The world will want students coming out of school who will be resourceful, Evans said. They will need confidence that they can figure out whatever comes.

“They will be failing, failing, failing and then have success that way,” she said. “It’s active. It’s not passive.”

There has to be some standard of a curriculum. Wesch concedes that.

There has to be a knowledge base.

But aim higher, he says. When he has students at work on a project in digital filmmaking, they set sights on the world’s premier independent film festival.

“We aim for Sundance,” he said. “We haven’t made it yet, but”