Social media pioneer says technology will transform education

LinkedIn Co-Founder Reid Hoffman is sitting on top of the digital world.

Hoffman helped create one of the world’s most successful social media platforms. He dominated his niche and monetized his idea. His company’s IPO assured that he has the financial resources to fund his dreams and passions for the rest of his life. And a particular passion is education.

I caught up with Hoffman at a special event hosted by the U.K Consulate in New York City that honored Marshall, Rhodes and Fulbright Scholars. Hoffman, a former Marshall Scholar, used his pulpit to articulate his vision for how technology should be transforming the educational system.

“Education is about giving people the tools they need to to navigate the world,” he said. “And the current system, at least in the United States, is failing to do that.”

An adaptive learning system?

Hoffman characterized the current system as a “factory model of education” where everybody gets the same set of tools to navigate the world one way … which is inconsistent with the “arc” of most people’s lives.

He pointed to his own frustrations with the education system as his inspiration to speak for change. “I was interested in starting software companies and found there was a whole set of work skills that was completely foreign to me. Based on my education, I was unprepared to navigate this world. How do you work as a team? How do you organize and inspire people? How do you bootstrap a business? I was learning this by randomly bumping into walls.”

Hoffman believes technology can be used to create an “adaptive learning system” that nurtures the “arc” of an indvidual’s passion and interests.  “Today, with a few million dollars you can create a digital platform that changes millions of lives.  You can do the same for education. We have never had that opportunity before in our history.”

Transforming education through technology

“Technology can humanize education and put the content in contextually relevant new ways,” he said.  “We can use data to continually improve the processes based on a student’s success and performance to adjust to their individual arc and capabilities.”

He pointed to several projects (some are his investments) as examples of applying technology in ways to create new educational models:

Grokit is a platform to help students prepare for standardized testing.  “I like this because you get like-minded students to teach each other using underlying content, game theory, and small group discussions.”

Edmodo is a social network for teachers and students. It provides a safe and easy way for teachers to connect and collaborate, share content, and customize the classroom for every learner. “If Facebook is the social graph, and LinkedIn is the professional graph, Edmodo is the educational graph, ” Hoffman said.

Kahn Academy provides 2,700 free, high-quality lectures on a variety of academic topics. “Wouldn’t students prefer to learn from an outstanding video than a live teacher who is perhaps not so great?  That way we can turn the classroom into a place focused on interaction instead of a place where children sit quietly for eight hours.”

Re-inventing the classroom

Hoffman said that technology could have a disruptive impact on how schools are organized. “Maybe you hear the lecture before you ever get to the classroom at a time when your attention is at its peak. Teachers become facilitators instead of having the pressure for all the content creation.  There will always be value in kids gathering together to learn, if for no other reason than parents need to go to work!

“Technology opens up the educational echo chamber by introducing the possibility of learning from a variety of experts and perspectives. It creates an opportunity for global dialogue, expanded connectivity, and the possibility of learning from the best teachers, wherever they may be.”

Hoffman said technology also opens new revenue models to enable classroom innovation. He pointed to as an example of how ideas can be funded even in the face of tight budgets. On this site, innovators make a case as to why they should be funded, potentially attracting new patrons from around the world. He used several examples where teachers were working on projects to help with student socialization skills, autism and other education issues as ways technology can bring together needs, donors, and resources.

Using Silicon Valey as a model

While these concepts are innovative and engerizing, I asked Hoffman how the institutional barriers of school boards, teachers unions, and government bureacracy could be overcome to give technology a chance.

“The classic model of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship is to just build it,” he said. “If it’s available and it’s something good, people will start using it. Go around all the people standing in your way and let the marketplace determine if it is a worthy idea. Momentum will build if its great.

“Let’s not wait for the grand plan from the government.  We don’t need to have an agenda that everybody agrees to and we don’t need to tackle the whole system. Let’s start trying and experimenting in cheap ways like entrepreneurs do. Let’s build things, iterate, and sort them out as we go along.”

I liked Hoffman’s fresh perspective and energy on technology and education.  What are your thoughts?

Disclosure: The British Consulate is a client.

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  • Dave W Baldwin

    Good article, and what we can do with Education via technology this decade is an opportunity we need to take hold of. 

  • Very interesting post!

    Maybe social media can make those professors productive! Or maybe at least change the 400 year old model of the university!

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  • Quite interesting ideas, no? Thanks for commenting.

  • I hear you brother. : )

  • Dave W Baldwin

    Will take Evangelism, Method of Delivery (!) and throw in some real Disruption on the side of Development….

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  • Brilliant!  As an intellectual property attorney, I truly believe in changing the way we teach and train lawyers as well. The current pedagogical preference of learning through reading prior legal decisions followed by a socratic style class experience that was introduced over a century ago deserves a fresh look.  Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the brilliant jurist and Supreme Court Justice, was cutting edge for his time when he proposed this method of teaching and learning.  Who will pick up the mantle for our time? 

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  • This is a great post. Education is everything. We rely upon our younger generation becoming educated in order to continue to create a future that we all we share. How are we preparing our youngsters to do that? The point being made by Reid Hoffman, is that we are not. 

    We continue to use methods that are outdated, and that don’t connect students with each other, or teachers and students. As Kelley mentioned, our professional education is no better. Schools of medicine have been teaching students using the same framework for the past hundred years. I am so happy that I work with a medical school that has decided to embrace community in educating its students. 
    Our students basically teach themselves and each other, using a facilitator to ensure they are not going too far astray. They utilize many on-line resources, they sit through very few lectures. In fact, they are learning how to be life-long learners in medicine. With multiple sources at their fingertips, they know what they need to learn from their professors is HOW to be a doctor, leaving the what for self learning. After all, the WHAT will likely change many times during their professional lives. 

    They are also learning HOW to work in teams, something that will determine their success in the future of medicine. Never again will we see the lone physician practicing by relying solely upon the knowledge and technical expertise accumulated in medical school. The team is everything, and these young men and women are learning IN teams, how to be members of teams, and leaders of teams when appropriate. I am eager to look at some of the social media tools Hoffman mentioned, to see how they might be applied to a medical school curriculum.

    Thanks, Mark, for keeping this blog so interesting and providing “something for everyone” no matter what our backgrounds. 

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  • This is a very keen question Kelley. Who WILL lead this change? It’s a political nightmare.  And while I know the “build it first” idea works in Silicon Valley, I am very skeptical about these ideas being adopted without some kind of mainstream sponsorship.

    I recently had dinner with a friend who is a teacher. She is incredibly stressed by the bureaucratic demands and the idea of managing the classroom to take standardized tests. Everything about the system seems backward and wrong but that is the reality and it is deeply entrenched.

    Perhaps Mr. Hoffman should start his own private school to prove the point. : ) 

  • First, thanks for the very kind comments Alice.

    The current education system — at every level — is disheartening. My step-daughter wants to be a graphic designer. She suffered through not one, but two, mandatory semester-long college classes on botany that were not even taught by a live professor.  These classes, which resulted in nine months of misery, could potentially lower her GPA and influence her career opportunities. And I’m PAYING for this?

    I have to wonder about the last time this curriculum was revised and examined for ite relevancy to the navigation of the real world. Probably 30 years ago.

  • as tech evolves – personalization is going to make any service/product more attractive / more likely to be utilized – even education….
    Issue with education is the level of control over the messaging that is needed / the requirement of certain ‘country agreed’ levels to be met (school standards) – and the concern/danger with regard to level of abuse that technology is open to  (the internet already has a bad name from how easy it is now to plagiarize).
    For those who criticize the current system – We must also remember that the current education system is the one that has produced today’s innovators – so it can’t be all bad…!!

  • Yes, I have seen this at all levels as well. My youngest daughter transferred from one highly respected University to another after two years of work. While getting college “credit” for all the courses taken, they did not all “map” to the same domains regarding her major. So I will be supporting an additional semester of tuition for her to re-take essentially the same classes just to meet ridiculous requirements. She will not learn anything new, and certainly will not be stimulated in re-taking them. 

    As the ability to afford a quality higher education becomes more limited, perhaps the schools will learn that the consumer needs a say. Actually I am seeing more innovation going on at the Community College level, preparing students of widely variable abilities to survive in the real world and meet the needs of the new economy. With distance learning, use of social media to engage students, and bringing the community into the College so the students can learn directly from those who could become their employers in a couple of years. 

  • Anonymous

    This reminds me of the anecdote about BIll Gates and Steve Jobs final conversation … they also singled out  education as the one area that technology has not yet transformed.   I am glad to hear that this has the attention of Silicon Valley, because we sorely need innovation in this area. 

    The first time I saw Kahn academy I was amazed.  Not familiar with Grokit or Edmodo, will check them out.
    Your post also reminded me of a great education non-profit called Donor’s Choose,  Do you know it?  DC is an online charity connecting people to classrooms.  Teachers post what they need for their classroom, and people can support it on a project or school basis.  Hope it’s OK if I post a link:

  • This is a really strong post Mark! The idea of transforming education through technology is interesting to me because it is not a question of IF but WHEN. Eventually, all of this will happen. But will we in the U.S. be able to overcome the bureaucratic and institutional impediments you mention to do it in time, or will we be late to the party, as other countries who do not have such an immense education structure in place leapfrog the 19th century model we have and go straight to the 21st?

  • Oh that is so aggravating.

  • That’s a good point — and the world still comes to the U.S. for a university education. Still, your point about personalization is key. Seems we are far behind in that area?

  • Yes, actually Reid mentioned this charity too. Thanks very much for the link Rhonda! 

  • In the U.S., this will have to start at a state level I think because that is who is generally setting budgets and performance standards. Such a political hot button though.  Difficult change to enact with the political risk. There will have to be a successful pilot in a private school or something.

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  • For me this is the final frontier. But I also believe it will never be addressed nationally.
    The article was spot on, and the kind of stuff I look for online. So high fives for that Mark.
    Education is broken around the world, because the the why of being educated is not known.
    Reid Hoffman targets the real why reason to acquire an education “…tools to navigate the world…” 
    The How of being educated cannot be fixed until the why is understood.
    There is the rub…
    We don’t educate we prepare a drone for work.

    To get an education you go and get it yourself, and that is the hardest thing to do in this world today.
    The tools are fantastic and I wish dearly I had them twenty years ago. But the tools aren’t enough.
    The teachers must be educated and know The Why questions first before attempting to teach the How Questions second. The tech is to servant of those two demands.

    Independent individuals are attempting these things already using the tech they understand.
    Roy Williams is an example down in Austin Texas. He is re educating advertising people and then some.

    I went to an individual who taught me outside of the Theological Systems. It was all the difference. I was grounded in the Why questions first, and their are plenty of them; then the How questions were left to me to answer or look for answers.

    It is not the tech’, social media, the internet or anything else that will change this mess. It is and always will be ‘the crazy one’s, the freaks as you pointed out so well. Those people are the hope, it is they who need to get together.

    Problem is, they don’t get heard enough. Let’s start a social gathering for them and see what comes out of that

    Entrepreneurs blaze new trails and that is great. However, someone must come behind them and create the true relevance to those following.

    I have been schooled in Europe and America: both are past being fixed. 

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  • Mark, this is great, thanks for sharing.  

    Although the current system and curriculum is one reason for today’s problems, I believe the bigger problem is the lack of personalized one-on-one attention. As the cost of education mounts, we continue to put more kids in a classroom, and the situation gets worse.

    My question is, will teachers in this model spend more time interacting with their students one-on-one or in small groups? Or will teacher’s current “speaking” time be replaced by video and other formats, where teachers sit to the side? If so, the current system’s response will likely be the same one-on-one time, with teachers rotating across still more students, spending time with one group while another watches a video or remote presentation.

    I’m a skeptic of our educational system for this reason. I actually see many of the upsides to home education (the path we have chosen) laid out in Reed’s vision, and that is great. Private schools or home educators are, in my opinion, likely to adopt these tools and use them to improve education before the current school system does. 

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  • A dim view my friend.  I believe somebody will step out and lead. It may take something akin to an educational “financial crisis” to force the issue though.

  • I am no expert in this area but do agree that the home-schooled environment could be progressive in this area. Why wouldn’t they use these amazing resources? Makes sense! Thanks for the great comment Eric!

  • It is a dim view based upon what currently exists.
    The crisis is already upon us. 
    Example: in Akron a local school district stopped requiring cursive writing being taught in the early grades. This is a necessary motor skill, artistic skill and social skill, regardless of the texting generation. Being left behind in this area hurts in others. I.E. cannot read other cursive writing.
    I actually hold the article in high regard. I also hold the reality the article discusses in even higher standing.
    I even eluded to generating a platform to change things, via the ‘freaks’ and ‘crazy ones’.
    I also would advocate that we find out if there is a will to get the ‘somebodies’ together and offer something else.

    Rudolf Steiner, while I don’t agree with his greater philosophies, did set out a far more realistic process for education. In fact I placed my children within its system and it has been a blessing as they learn to learn. Not learn to earn.
    Students here excel above their peers by a mile. They really do learn how to learn.

    I believe we need education that takes the whole person into account. Body, Soul and Spirit. I believe that advocating education based upon the person’s needs for fullfilment and not the societies is more important to the society in the long run. More on this if you like.

    Steve Jobs educated himself, and in the process developed the tech’ that we are discussing here. In his location most of the arts and valley types use this school system. Our current public system, as the article states, allow the parents to get to work.

    Parents must be involved the education, meaning learning how to learn.

    A lot of the private school pilots have been done, they cost too much for the average family, especially today. The States and The Nation do not have the educated ranks in large enough numbers to even look at a program.

    Now if States had the rights! to charter education based upon the needs of this article we would have a revolution from the Teachers Union. The basis for transforming education cannot begin with technology. It must begin with the users of the technology and in the most parts it is not there.

    Education is now the domain of the politician, not the educator. Policy dictates reality.

    If the world of education was awake, it would be begging the likes of Jobs, Gates, your interviewee and all the other great thinking people around the world to explain Why we must learn how to learn and then the education allows us to do the How.  

    Alas it is Turf first, the needs of education next.

  • agree with the adopting of these tools. But it still comes down to the product it produces. Does it help create a self aware person who has reason, logic, morals and social skills that allow him or her to generate an educated response that let’s him or her navigate the world. 

  • It has been seen that homeschooling gets a better education for the child. Primarily because the parents are intricate to the process of answering the hard Why’s. And of course they are the early adaptors of tech.

  • But it produces these inovators despite itself not because of itself.
    Yes, the Universities have fantastic facilities, but it takes a Bill Gates to steal time on a mainframe to understand why it’s important and then how to use it for the rest of us

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  • I take it you enjoyed the lunch? 🙂

    I am in total agreement here, and hope it comes to fruition. I’ve mentioned on my blog before that the education system is facing a bubble right now. And elsewhere have said that education will be huge for business and the internet in 2012. 

    I don’t think that the system can keep moving along the track it’s on (except maybe the Rutgers MBA program 🙂 ). So hopefully technology can be applied to change the direction. Although, I think it’ll have to be the private schools that do the driving.

  • Yes, it was a good time : )

    great points Eugene. Thanks for the valuable insights.

  • Anonymous

    As a mom and proponent of new media,  I am really encouraged by these ideas & technologies.  I also agree with the comments here that indicate it will be difficult to implement much of this in an effective way.  So much emphasis is on “Teaching For The Test” that parents have to be really proactive in ensuring their kids are learning beyond the walls of the schools.  I hope Mr. Hoffman and other innovators will “just build it” and make it available and affordable for the average family.

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  • There you go. Here’s hoping. Thanks for the great comment Liz. 

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  • Hi Mark,

    Just tweeted these to you, but sharing here for others – further, related resources include Class Connect Inc. and Class Dojo.

    I like the post, and I think that what we are facing is a two-part problem: 1) helping to make teachers’ jobs and lives easier through technology and 2) helping to teach our students the tech and critical thinking skills, among others, that they’ll need to solve the problems they’ll face as citizens, first, and as workers. I’d like to see more creative thought used in classrooms and see that reflected in the digital (and non-digital) tools we’re giving to our teachers and students. They need a blueprint as a guide, but they also need an unequivocal understanding that they can deviate from it when the moment is right and explore other ways of teaching, thinking, doing, solving, etc.

    I’ve worked in educational publishing for nearly 10 years. I’ve also worked as a tutor and instructor. Until recently, I worked full-time at World Book, where I helmed the division that created digital curriculum products. It was a real treat to see how kids responded to what we were making, but even better, it was wonderful to see how teachers’ lives were made easier with the same tools. And I absolutely *loved* the work. Still do. 

    The topic of education gets me going. The best part about it is that helping to solve the problems we’re facing in our educational instruction gets our kids and teachers going, too.


  • Superb comment Mari.  This is such a gift to the community. Thank you for taking the time to contribute these passioante virewpoints.

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  • Thank you for the kind response – and thanks for sharing the initial story, Mark.

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  • Katherine

    As a college student in one of my classes today we were discussing standardized testing and whether in public schools students are being “taught for the tests” and I have to agree with Liz (below) and say that most are. This article had some great ideas to get students involved instead of being talked AT for 8 hours a day. My teachers try very hard to incorporate technology wherever they can and I appreciate it. Great article and I’m glad to see people thinking about our teachers and students!

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  • Technology is now making learning more and more easier. It’s good to see technology used for the greater good of younger generations.

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  • Brent White

    Some really innovative and disruptive ideas on how to fix the educational system in this country, which I think is long over due. We’re losing generations here and it’s mainly (in my opinion) because of greed. This country spends a ton of money each and every year on education and if we’re ever brave enough as a country to enact some of these ideas, we’re going to be putting a lot of people out of work and that is going to be a tough battle to win in DC. But for the enrichment of this country, we need to move forward in these innovative and productive ways before we lose yet another generation.
    Brent White
    Gigs for Freelancers

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