“The grinding effects of poverty are the biggest obstacle to quality learning at home and at school. A good education is the best way to break the cycle of poverty. A good school is the best economic development boost for a neighborhood.” – Tom Vander Ark, USA

Tom Vander Ark has seen almost every facet of the world of education, and has played a starring role in taking it into the 21st century.  Vander Ark has worn many hats:  superintendent, executive director at the Gates Foundation, investor, author and blogger for his blog Getting Smart.  And he’s led groundbreaking change and innovation.  “When I was a public school superintendent, we opened the first K-12 online school and were one of the first districts to introduce 1:1 programs (in partnership with Microsoft),” says Vander Ark.  “While at the Gates Foundation, my team supported the development of 1200 new high schools and supported the formation and growth of dozens of school development organizations.  As an investor, my fund has supported 25 edtech startups like the free social learning platform Edmodo.  As an advocate, I’ve written thousands of blogs and articles about the shift to personal digital learning, which (along with clean tech, biotech and democracy) is one of the four big drivers of this century.”

To say he is devoted to bringing education to all is an understatement. Through his work at Gettingsmart.com, Vander Ark works to evangelize personal digital learning globally. According to Vander Ark, it’s about the big three: customization, motivation and equalization. Whether through talks – like this one at TED – or through his many blogs and articles, Vander Ark is dedicated to making digital learning the norm. “This decade is the best opportunity we’ve ever had to improve US education and to spread access to quality secondary education to hundreds of million of young people around the world that don’t currently have access,” he adds.

I hope you enjoy today’s Daily Edventure with Tom Vander Ark.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

Hard to tell, but I enjoying watching and participating in (what Michael Moe called) the near spontaneous eruption of innovation in education—it’s been twenty years in the making.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

I try to share lessons in my daily blogs.  Here’s one on 5 lessons on startups—and life.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

I learn with two or three screens a day—a mobile screen, a production screen, and a projection screen—and students should have the same opportunity.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

The grinding effects of poverty are the biggest obstacles to quality learning at home and at school. A good education is the best way to break the cycle of poverty.  A good school is the best economic development boost for a neighborhood.  We need to continue to push for great educational options for every family while addressing conditions that led to generational poverty.

What is your country doing well currently to support education?

Compared to other OECD countries, the US is a leader in online and blended learning.  Combining the best of online and onsite learning is our best shot at boosting achievement in the US and spreading access to quality learning (especially secondary) worldwide.

What conditions must change in your country to better support education?

Common expectations for college and career readiness are a great start.
Common Core State Standards provides a great platform for innovation, a new opportunity to share resources, and improved ability to compare results.

Next, we should offer every family in America the good school promise—access to at least one good neighborhood school and multiple online options.  Fulfilling the promise requires a robust authorizing system and the courage to close and replace schools and providers that fail to deliver results.

As we outlined in the 10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning, a coherent set of state policies that supports good teachers and schools is key.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

Combining the best of online and onsite learning is an opportunity to personalize education and help more students graduate ready for college and careers.  Next generation learning platforms will make it much easier to personalize learning and create high performing schools.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

The number of ways you can help young people learn is expanding every month with the development of new tools and new schools.  Figure out how you like to spend your time, what you’re good at, and a cause you’re passionate about.  If you plug in to social media and read broadly, you’ll find or create a place where you can make a big contribution.

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

Personalized learning means targeting learning levels and meeting individual needs.  Customized learning goes further by giving students some control over rate, time, and location.  It increasingly means an individual learning path based on the kinds of experiences most likely to produce persistence and performance.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

The best gift a family can receive is access to a great school that is based on intellectual mission, with effective teachers that work together as a team to create and curate compelling learning experiences, and with strong support systems that identify and meet individual student needs.

About Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is author of Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing the World and founder of GettingSmart.com. Tom is also CEO of Open Education Solutions and a partner in Learn Capital, a venture capital firm investing in learning content, platforms, and services with the goal of transforming educational engagement, access, and effectiveness. Previously he served as President of the X PRIZE Foundation and was the Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation where he implemented $3.5 billion in scholarship and grant programs. Tom was the first business executive to serve as public school superintendent in Washington State. A prolific writer and speaker, Tom has published thousands of articles and blogs. In December 2006, Newsweek readers voted Tom the most influential baby boomer in education.

Tom is a director of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) and
several other nonprofits.

Tom received the Distinguished Achievement Medal and graduated from the Colorado School of Mines. He received his M.B.A. in finance from the University of Denver. He continues his education online.

  • Birthplace: Ann Arbor, Michigan
  • Current residence: Federal Way, Washington
  • Education: BS from Colorado School of Mines, MBA from University of Denver
  • Website I check every day: www.edweek.org/ew/section/blogs (there are a half a dozen there that I read daily), www.AVC.com,
  • Person who inspires me most: High school teachers with terrible working conditions and big loads that still find ways to personalize learning.
  • Favorite childhood memory: Melting crayons in the radiator in Mrs. Dick’s class.
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): next few months include Phoenix, New Orleans, DC, NYC, Indianapolis and Oklahoma City (with a little Poverty Bay in between each).
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why?  Last time I laughed was probably at my crazy Jack Russell (terrier).
  • Favorite music: Patty Griffin, Heavenly Day (and other singer songwriters)
  • Your favorite quote or motto: 

I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.
I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for

may for once spring clear
without my contriving.

If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.

Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,
these deepening tides moving out, returning,
I will sing you as no one ever has,

streaming through widening channels
into the open sea. 

                Rainer Maria Rilke


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