Matthew Rascoff, Vice Provost for Digital Education at Stanford University, talks about the positive learnings from the pandemic’s emergency remote learning experiment, breaking the boundary between in-school and after-school learning, and the future of digital education.

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What exactly is “digital education,” and what did the pandemic teach us about it?

The pandemic created frustrating online educational experiences for many. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few aspects of digital education worth preserving, investing in, or growing for the long term.

Matthew Rascoff joins us to dive into innovation challenges in education and how they can serve our students today and in the future.

Digital Education: What It Is and What It’s Not 

On its face, digital education means learning online. But all of us with remote learners during the pandemic can remember disengaged children who barely participated.

That said, it’s important to distinguish between the emergency remote teaching precipitated by the pandemic and true online learning fueled by intentional design.

“Online learning is something that is the output of a backwards design process that starts with learning goals, and then figures out how you're going to support them,” Matthew says. It was an urgent response to a crisis — not how we want to design great learning experiences.

True digital education should include the hybrid innovations and creativity emerging in the online learning space. Exclusively online or exclusively in-class learning might not be the right fit for K-12 students, but hybrid might be, Matthew says. 

Hybrid learning, inclusive of creative technology, empowered faculty, and students with the necessary skills and tools, could well become the future of education.

4 Lessons to Preserve From Pandemic Learning 

Matthew points out four learnings from emergency remote teaching he thinks are worth developing into true online learning:

  1. Digital education was a mass professional development experience for educators. These skills cannot be unlearned, and many teachers now know what they want to keep doing.
  2. The pandemic underscored the academic and economic leveling that on-campus learning creates. The inequalities became even more visible when people tried to access education from their homes.
  3. Remote education reinforced whole-person learning and teaching, especially with regards to mental health.
  4. The pandemic created newfound respect for the role of the learning designer, the frontline workers of online learning.

“School is learning embedded in a social experience,” Matthew says, elaborating on points two and three. Without the holistic and social aspects of education, as the pandemic removed, we seriously underserve our students.

Breaking Boundaries Between In-School and After-School

“Learning technologies have the potential to help bridge the gap between school and home,” Matthew says. Here are some ways the pandemic helped show us what’s possible in our approach to learning.

Bidirectional Communication

Teachers and families can communicate more easily and with shorter feedback cycles. This increases transparency and visibility between the classroom and the home.

Virtual Resources

Educational technology allows students access to more types of expanded and extended learning, including enrichment opportunities like virtual field trips, virtual science labs, citizen scientist apps, and machine-learning-driven differentiated education.

Dual Credit Courses

Programs like the dual enrollment computer science pilot program at Stanford allow enrolled students to earn high school and college credit simultaneously.

“There's a lot of promise in dual enrollment in bridging another boundary, which is the high school to college boundary,” Matthew says. 

“Dual enrollment says you're not on your own. It's also about seeing yourself as part of a great academic community with all of the expanded learning horizons that come from a catalog that covers every discipline known to humankind.”

Addressing Educational Inequity

The future of digital education is an optimistic one. While there are no easy answers to the big challenges in education, technology and innovation, there are opportunities for new approaches poised to effect change to educational inequity.

The zip code you are raised in, your family background, or your access to education should not determine your life outcomes — though it often does. 

“We need to do everything in our power to ensure the next generation gets the full benefit of all the creativity and artistic inspiration and brilliant ideas that our young problem solvers can generate, no matter where they're from,” Matthew says.

Action Steps for Parents

1 - Keep Balance

Keep breadth and depth in balance. The two are not opposites. You are not tied either to the Federer model of broad exposure to varied sports, or to the Tiger Woods model of golfing at age three.

Educational success is T-shaped with exposure to many different fields as well as opportunity to delve into the one or two areas driven by the interests of the learner.

2 - Embrace Growth

Embrace a growth mindset in education and life. It’s both the belief in the idea that intelligence is not fixed plus the idea that allows students to actually learn more.

When parents support that belief and understanding for students by surrounding them with a growth mindset, they will bring that conviction to their pursuit of learning. 

To that end, we should take the lessons learned from the pandemic – both what went terribly and what went surprisingly well – to continue to blur the boundary between in-school and after-school with innovation in digital education.

Resource Recommendations

Learn more about educational equity at Stanford Digital Pathways (National Education Equity Lab), and check out these resources that Matthew recommends:

For more ways to support your advanced problem solver, check out our free Raising Problem Solvers Guidebook, filled with resources and actionable strategies you can start using today.  

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This episode was brought to you by Art of Problem Solving, where students train to become the great problem solvers of tomorrow. 

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Episode Transcript

Matthew Rascoff Q&A [2:01]

Eric Olsen: On today's episode, Matthew Rascoff, Vice Provost for Digital Education at Stanford University, joins the podcast to talk about the positive learnings from the pandemic's emergency remote learning experiment, the boundary being broken between in-school and after-school learning and the future of digital education.

Matthew, what are some of the positive things we learned about online learning during this forced emergency, remote teaching experiment of the past two years?

Matthew Rascoff: Thank you for that question, Eric. I think that is a really important one to be asking right now, as we move to the endemic phase, perhaps. And our team at Stanford is actually working on a Lessons Learned Report from the pandemic that is focused on the educational opportunities that come out of it.

Obviously, from an educational perspective, the pandemic was, by and large, an awful experience, but that doesn't mean there aren't a few things that are worth preserving and investing and growing for the long term. I would flag four of them for you. One of them is that I think if this was really more of a mass professional development experience for educators than it was truly an online learning experience for students. And I think we've had mass development of experience and judgment and skills among teachers that cannot be unlearned.

So now all instructors have viewpoints on what they like and what they don't like in terms of learning technologies and pedagogies that can be used in these distributed settings. And they'll now have views on what they want to keep doing for the long term. So that's number one.

Number two, with respect to higher ed, but K-12 also, I think we realized how much of a leveler campus life can be, that when you bring students to campus, they're sharing their meals. They're sharing their dormitories. There's a kind of economic leveling and an academic leveling that happens when you come that I think had been largely invisible to many of us before that the inequalities became even more salient and more visible when people went back and tried to access education from their homes. And I do feel like that is an important lesson that we should keep investing in the democratic shared values of learning within our institutions and use our campuses to enhance those values.

Number three, I would say we recognize that students are whole people, that just learning on its own is not actually what you get out of school. School is learning embedded in a social experience, in a coming of age experience, and those are really important. We need to take the mental health of students and instructors into account much more than we have in the past. And I do feel like that responsibility and that collective awareness is going to be a lesson learned of the pandemic if we get it, if we don't miss it. And I do worry a little bit about our desire to move on will prevent us from really learning those lessons.

And the last thing I would say is newfound respect are the role of the learning designer and the whole team of staff who help create learning experiences alongside the faculty. I think of learning designers as the frontline workers of online learning. And I think there's now great respect and awareness of this job that had previously been invisible in for many of us inside higher education and K-12 and in edtech as well. So those are my top four, I would say.

Digital education vs. online education [5:27]

Eric Olsen: They're a really strong four. I was struck by something in number one, which was, we made a judgment call on what online learning is based on this emergency situation. I've noticed that you prefer using the term digital education to online education. Matthew, are you just rebranding here? You can be straight with me. This is a safe space. Do you just want to make sure people don't get the wrong impression of what online education is and can be after these past two years that many students, many teachers, to your point, many families felt underwhelmed by?

Matthew Rascoff: I think that is a very important question. And there is an important distinction that I would make between what I call emergency remote teaching during the pandemic and true online learning. Emergency remote teaching was an urgent response to a crisis, and it was not how we would like to design great learning experiences when you have the right time and staff and team and planful approach that is really critical. Online learning is something that is the output of a backwards design process that starts with learning goals and then figures out how you're going to support them. And that just wasn't possible during the pandemic.

Digital learning, I think of as a more general category. So it's not just a rebranding. I just think it's a bigger category that includes the emergency strategies that we used in the pandemic and the resilience of our institutions for academic continuity. That was critical. That was within the purview of my efforts at two institutions to work on academic continuity. So online learning, I think of as part of digital education, but digital also includes all the hybrid innovations and all of the blended innovations where I think there's going to be a lot of creativity coming out of the pandemic.

And I think that experience of instructors may very well be put to work in painting with the new canvas of hybrids that is going to be really generative, that online may not be the right fit for many learners. And K-12 is generally not the right fit, but the hybrids might be. And I do feel like we need a term that is inclusive of all the potential of infusing technology and learning together in more thoughtful ways with faculty who are empowered with all the skills and the tools to make good use of the learning goals that they have for their students. So that's why I use digital instead of online. 

The boundary between in-school and after-school education is being broken down [7:54]

Eric Olsen: You mentioned this immersion of hybrid that we saw. Talk about this similar trend that you saw that we at AOPS definitely experienced last year of this boundary between in school education and after school education being broken down.

Matthew Rascoff: So I think one thing we've seen during the pandemic is that learning technologies really have the potential to help bridge the gap between school and home. And they can put teachers and families in closer touch, and it's bidirectional, which I think is pretty cool. So with better communication tools between a classroom and a family, you can get shorter feedback cycles that can make classroom learning more transparent and more visible to parents and to families. So that's from the school to the home.

But then from the outside in, you can see some of the enrichment opportunities that arise in the context of expanded and extended learning, like Art of Problem Solving coming into the classroom. And so we've got, at Stanford, a project on virtual field trips, that's about using the technologies to help students who are in a class learn about the geology of some remote place that they might not otherwise be able to visit. So that's exciting technology that's being created now at Stanford.

Another example of this is citizen science apps like Seek, which my family really loves, which uses machine learning to help identify plants and animals in the field. So that's turning a real field trip into a virtual science lab. So I feel like the technology has this potential to cross the boundaries and to take some of what is great about different kinds of learning into school and to reimagine what's possible in a more enrichment-oriented approach to learning than school has previously made available to many students.

So that, to me, is really exciting, and it shows some of the potential of the technology to open minds beyond the traditional delivery, beyond the traditional curriculum, and think about the more free spaces that we have as experimental spaces that can then infuse back into the traditional school model as well.

Eric Olsen: Fascinating. I was also really interested to see your new dual enrollment computer science pilot program at Stanford. Can you give us a quick overview, as well as what you think about the future of dual enrollment programs, where we have students enrolled in and earning both high school and college credit simultaneously, who they're right for?

Matthew Rascoff: Thank you. This is a very exciting project. It's a signature of my team, which is Stanford Digital Education. And I think there's a lot of promise in dual enrollment in bridging another boundary, which is the high school to college boundary which has a lot of friction for students in the form of college admission stress for many families, but also undermatching, which is the phenomenon of the most talented, low income high school students in the US never even applying to the selective colleges that would admit them and would give them more generous financial aid than the colleges they generally go to. So there's a real crevasse between high school and college for many students.

And dual enrollment says, you're not on your own. You don't have to figure out this transition yourself. We're going to push college out to you in high school, not wait for you to come to us, and give you an experience that is not just about building up the knowledge and skills of a college level course, but is also about seeing yourself as part of a great academic community with all of the expanded learning horizons that come from a catalog that covers every discipline known to humankind. And there's something wonderfully, intellectually expansive for talented students in high school to be exposed to whole fields of learning that they didn't even know existed because they're not part of the traditional K-12 curriculum. So that, to me, is what is really exciting about dual enrollment.

Our effort at Stanford is targeted to Title I schools, so low income schools, and it's squarely focused on that undermatching issue. And our pilot was with CS 105, an introductory computer science course at Stanford, but we've now expanded it to SLE, which is structured liberal education, a great books course that we've offered in collaboration with uncommon schools in the Northeast. And this spring, we're launching a writing course, an academic writing course in collaboration with our online high school and our Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Stanford, and that's going to be, I think, a really exciting kind of general curriculum if you think about all the skills that you want to have in the modern economy, expressing yourself with code, learning how to read critically and understand language, and learning how to express yourself in writing with English, that forms a kind of mini curriculum.

And there's something very satisfying and whole about these three courses that form our initial pilot in collaboration with a great nonprofit partner that I want to name here, which is the National Education Equity Lab, which is helping institutions like Stanford figure out how we can play in the space of dual enrollment, which has historically been the province more of community colleges, and four-year colleges like Stanford have not invested in this space, but I do feel like it could be strategic for us in solving some of those pathways challenges that especially afflict low income students.

Eric Olsen: I love hearing that focus on the full problem solvers skills stack that is music to our missional ears here at Art of Problem Solving. Finally, Matthew, what about the future of digital education are you the most excited for?

Matthew Rascoff: I would say, I think there are many big challenges in education technology and innovation. I taught a class at the Stanford Graduate School of Business this past quarter, and my closing comment for the students was that those challenges are really meaningful to work on. So even if you can't solve them, to use a relevant topic, we can make progress on them. And they're valuable and important and very complex. I mean, there's no easy answers in this space, but I think we're at an exciting moment for education innovation coming out of the pandemic when there are many opportunities that have emerged for new approaches, new entrepreneurial approaches, but also new teacher moves in the classroom and nonprofit opportunities that I think will come out of the recognition of the big problems that are out there. So I'm really optimistic about this sector. And I see among my students a great sense of the potential for making change in this space through all the different tools that are available to us.

Download AoPS’ Raising Problem Solvers Guidebook [14:48]

Eric Olsen: I'm optimistic as well. I'm excited about the new tools, and that's why we've created a new one ourselves specifically for parents. It's Art of Problem Solving's brand new Raising Problem Solvers Guidebook full of helpful strategies to support and challenge advanced learners, curriculum recommendations straight from our Art of Problem Solving families, our STEM gift guide, free resource recommendations, and much, much more. It's the perfect next step to help you navigate and build an educational plan that's right for your family. Download our Raising Problem Solvers Guidebook for free today. 

Matthew Rascoff Rapid Fire [15:32]

Eric Olsen: It's now time for our rapid fire segment called Problem Solved where we ask the guest to solve incredibly complex and difficult education issues in single soundbites. Matthew, what's one thing about K-12 education you wish you could snap your fingers and problem solved, it's fixed?

Matthew Rascoff: I'm sorry to say, Eric, I have to question the premise of that one because I just don't think education is like that. There aren't any shortcuts, including with edtech, which often promises them and then fails to deliver, which is a source of a lot of the disappointment with edtech. So what I would say is that everything meaningful in education is hard, and the most important problem to solve, in my view, is educational inequity, which is, I view really an affront to our basic American values that your zip code you're born in should not determine your life outcomes. And if you look at the way our education system works right now, too much of your family background plays a role in what you get to do, what you can study and how much you earn. All of your life outcomes just depend too much on where you're from. So I think we need to do everything in our power to ensure the next generation gets the full benefit of all the creativity and artistic inspiration and brilliant ideas that our young problem solvers can generate no matter where they're from.

Eric Olsen: You tried to cheat, but I think that's a great answer. If you could go back and give your kid-self advice on their educational journey, what would it be?

Matthew Rascoff: I think I have to question the premise here too. Because I think one of the hardest aspects of making educational progress is decentering your own educational experiences. And we're all protagonists in our own learning journeys. And our challenges take on outsized proportions in our telling of the story. And I recognize those narratives are important, but we also need to get outside our own individual experiences if we're going to understand the world as it is and the needs of others. So that's the main learning goal of the class that I mentioned that I teach at Stanford. And I think the critical tools for doing that are empathy and listening. So that's how we will understand the world outside of ourselves and our own families and our own identities. And I wish I had learned that earlier.

Eric Olsen: I got to make a quick note. Matthew does not believe in time travel. Don't you see why I like talking with Matthew, friends? He's so great. Matthew, what part of education do you think or hope looks the most different 10 years from now?

Matthew Rascoff: I'm hopeful we'll recognize the importance of early childhood education for all kids. Less than 5 million of our 8 million three and four year olds attend preschool today. And the majority of three and four year olds in poverty don't go to any program at all. James Heckman, the Nobel Laureate economist demonstrated there are no better public investments than early childhood education, strictly in terms of kind of an economic analysis or return on investment approach. But if you see the emerging brain science, we now have an explanation of why, because between birth and age three, children have the potential to learn at a rate that is just vastly greater than any other point in life. And I think we need to do everything can to make sure all children have the opportunity to benefit from the learning that happens in those years.

Creating t-shaped students [18:56]

Eric Olsen: And what's your best advice for parents looking to raise future problem solvers?

Matthew Rascoff: So I have two pieces of advice on this front. One of them is to keep breadth and depth in balance. I think breadth and depth are sometimes set up as alternatives, like the Federer model of broad exposure to many sports versus the Tiger Woods model of starting golf at age three. I'm going really deep on that, but I would argue they're actually complements. And my vision of educational success looks more T-shaped where there is breadth at the top and lots of exposure to many different fields, but then an opportunity to go down really deep in one area that is driven by students, learners and their interests. So that's kind of how I think of the outcomes that we should support.

The other thing I would say is that we need to embrace growth mindset much more in education. I think growth mindset is the key contribution that psychology has made to education. And it's the idea that intelligence is not fixed, and not just that fact, but the children who recognize that intelligence is not fixed actually learn more. And so they have to understand that. They have to believe that. And I think parents and programs like the Art of Problem Solving have the ability to support that belief and that understanding for students. And we really need to surround our learners with growth mindset in every context in order to enable them to be really successful to fulfill their potential.

Eric Olsen: The Federer model is so interesting to me, especially as someone with little ones, who's getting kind of terrified at youth competitive sports and the folks involved in that one. Team Fed for me. My CEO, Richard Rusczyk, also talks about this concept of promoting broad subject literacy and subject specific mastery, which is I think online with the premise you just gave. And listeners, we'd love to hear your answers as well. So email us at podcast@aops.com with your best advice for raising future problem solvers. And we'll read our favorites on future episodes.

Matthew, thanks so much for joining us today.

Matthew Rascoff: Thank you. It was really a pleasure, and I look forward to hearing more episodes in this series as well. I'm a big podcast listener, and I'm excited to have one more to subscribe to.

Episode Summary & Conclusion [21:19]

Eric Olsen: Isn't Matthew great, folks? We've been friends since back when I was in higher education, and he held a similar position to his current one, but at Duke University. So impressed with what he and his team are building at Stanford now. So great to have a friend like him as a friend of AOPS. I love his primary take that one of our primary responsibilities as educators and parents is to take that lessons learned from the pandemic. What went terribly? What went surprisingly great? As many of our families are trying to get back what we lost, how can we also bring with us what we gained during the pandemic so that we continue to blur the boundary between in school and after school so that we can continue to push for not only broad literacy, but subject specific mastery for our students, creating T-shaped learners with breadth and depth?

So much to be excited about happening from a learning science standpoint right now. So many new opportunities for our kids to leverage, but so much work still to be done. And may you continue your journey alongside us raising the great problem solvers of the next generation.

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