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How to Revitalize Schools With Tech

Jul 13, 2016

When Adam Miller sent his children to public school in Los Angeles, he realized just how behind the times the institution was in terms of its technology. So he did what any reasonable parent might do. The chief exec and founder of Cornerstone OnDemand (csod), an HR software company, petitioned along with other parents, played the squeaky wheel, and won a minor victory. The group persuaded the school to install a smartboard in the library.

Nobody used the thing. "It didn't get turned on for an entire year," Miller told a closed-door gathering of top educators, technologists, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, and investors that met to discuss education reform at the Aspen Institute as part of Fortune's Brainstorm Tech Conference on Tuesday. The task force—numbering 28 people in total—was spearheaded by Walter Isaacson, CEO of the institute, Alan Murray, editor of Fortune, and Susanna Schrobsdorff, chief strategic partnerships editor at Time.

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The L.A. school's tech integration problem didn't end there, according to Miller. Each new initiative seemed to meet with failure. iPads for teachers? The tablets collected dust. Laptops and projectors? The duds barely gained traction. Finally, the school brought in a local organization called PlanetBravo—and that's when everything changed.

PlanetBravo, a computer training program and summer camp, taught technology to the students, as well as the teachers, in one session per classroom per week. Whenever a new piece of hardware broke, the team fixed it. Whenever a person had a question, the team answered it. "Now the students generally say their favorite class during the week is that tech class," Miller said, eager to share an all too rare success story.

Read Fortune's "How Business Got Schooled in the War Over Common Core"

Miller was just one of the more than two dozen experts who spent their morning tucked away in a conference room during the event to discuss the state of education, and to offer ways to improve it. (He and the rest missed out on main stage talks by Brian Krzanich, CEO of Intel (intc), and Rony Abovitz, CEO of Magic Leap.) Others participants in the task force included Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code; Mark Hoplamazian, CEO, Hyatt Hotels Corporation (h); Mimi Ito, cofounder of Connected Camps; Hadi Partovi, cofounder of Code.org; Reshma Saujani founder and CEO of Girls Who Code; James Tynan, vice president of strategy and operations of Khan Academy; and Dennis Yang, CEO of Udemy, among others.

A common theme of the day's deliberations: Though technology continues to disrupt industries ranging from media to manufacturing to banking, it seems to have left the world of education relatively unscathed. People have been mostly stuck learning in a centuries old model leftover from the Industrial Revolution.

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"How do we make sure it's not just 'do good, feel good' philanthropic stuff, but people who are real entrepreneurs like you all who are building new companies," said Isaacson later on stage, delivering an appeal to the conference's affluent, influential, and business-minded audience. He urged the attendees to "not just build a better dating app" but to "do well by doing good" through socially conscious, sustainable capitalism aimed at EdTech.

Barbara Jenkins, superintendent of Orange County Public Schools, presented the task force's recommendations alongside Isaacson. The final list was the product of more than two hours of whittling and refining. (The group had graded each one on a bell-curved scale of A through F, rather appropriately.)

"I think they set a wonderful platform, a foundation for what is to come," Jenkins said of the suggestions. In short, they included access to infrastructure, communication, investment, and emphasis on computer science. In the language of the brainstormers:

No. 1: Ensure that all public school students have high-speed internet access, devices and tech support at school and at home.

Bring reliable infrastructure and support to all communities to promote digital learning, working with NGOs, government and the private sector. Alongside delivery, provide cultural understanding of safety and security regarding the internet.

No. 2: Start a national campaign to showcase and expand excellence in learning innovation.

Inspire, motivate and activate communities, parents, policy makers, educators, and industry to take action.

No. 3: Radically reimagine the classroom to enable personalized learning

Transform the classroom itself to promote true personalized learning and use of technology in adaptive learning spaces. These models require serious investments in R&D and around all aspects of the classroom experience. Those investments include training and incentives for schools, teachers and districts to adopt and scale to ensure all students benefit equitably.

No. 4: Teach computer science (broadly defined) at every grade level, starting in kindergarten

Integrate computer science into school curriculums so that students are exposed to fundamentals early on. Ensure that every high school offers a funded and credited course, with a focus on underserved students including girls and students of color.

"The main thing is not to look at this as a report out, but as a challenge for you to do something," Isaacson exhorted the tech savvy execs in the audience. "You should look at each of these four things and say what am I actually going to dedicate myself to do over the next 12 months."

Fortune Brainstorm Tech is, in many ways, the perfect place to make such a plea. Because the world doesn't need another smartboard. What it needs is smarter boards.

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