Coming together to change the future of education at Google’s Moonshot Summit

If you could change anything in the education system, what would your 'moonshot' be? This was the question asked of 40 educators, edtech innovators and entrepreneurs from around the world who were invited to Google's Moonshot for Education Summit in Amsterdam last week, which I was delighted to be able to attend representing Jisc.

For those unfamiliar with the term 'moonshot', when President Kennedy announced the Apollo programme in 1961 space exploration was just beginning, but by 1969 the first people walked on the surface of the moon - a seemingly unthinkable achievement less than a decade before. Examples of modern day moonshots include driverless cars, personal genomics and personalised medicine, and new materials like graphene. Some of the most innovative of these new technologies are being developed by Google, such as Project Loon, which uses high altitude balloons to provide internet service to rural and hard to reach areas (we've just heard that Google will be connecting the whole of Sri Lanka to the internet using Loon). The video below explains Google's own approach to moonshot thinking:

 As Google chief executive Larry Page stated in a 2013 interview with Wired: "It's not easy coming up with moonshots. Where would I go to school to learn what kind of technological programs I should work on? You'd probably need a pretty broad technical education and some knowledge about organisation and entrepreneurship. There's no degree for that." To which we could add one word: yet.

Moonshots in education

So what do we mean by a moonshot in education? In an era when all of human knowledge is freely available online, and the nature of work is fundamentally changing, we have to ask ourselves how the education system needs to evolve to reflect our new realities. This is particularly important when we look at the tech skills required for the digital economy.

A recent study by Deloitte and the University of Oxford found that "35% of existing jobs in the UK are at high risk from automation over the next two decades, with jobs paying less than £30,000 a year nearly five times more likely to be replaced by automation than jobs paying over £100,000." Meanwhile, the European Commission projects there will be almost a million unfilled tech vacancies across Europe by 2020.

Which brings us to the Moonshot Summit. Our hosts for the summit were Esther Wojcicki and the EdTechTeam. Esther is an award-winning teacher from Palo Alto High School in California, vice chair of Creative Commons, and consultant to Google's Education team. Esther has embraced technology in education as a way of liberating and empowering teachers and pupils, as described in her book Moonshots in Education. Esther's approach to moonshot thinking in education is nicely summed up in this video interview, Educating for the Unforeseen Jobs of the New Economy:


What if...?

In a 2013 interview on the TED blog, Jisc Digital Festival keynote speaker Sugata Mitra says: "It's quite fashionable to say the education system is broken. It's not. It's wonderfully constructed - it's just that we don't need it anymore. It's outdated." This was a commonly held view amongst the teachers who attended the Moonshot Summit, and we began the event by exploring the delegates' big ideas for transformative change in education.

Here are just a few of the 'what ifs' to come out of those discussions:
  • What will the iPad generation need and expect from college or university?
  • What if children were grouped by ability rather than their date of birth?
  • What if learning was as addictive as Candy Crush or Flappy Bird?
  • What if we eliminated the constant cycle of assessment?
  • What if my (other?) teacher was a robot, or an algorithm?
And the big one...
  • What if there were no schools?
It was telling for me that educators attending the Moonshot Summit largely felt that whilst a quantum leap was required in education, this was not principally about technology - in many ways the technology we already have is 'good enough', and we are not fully exploiting it. However, there were some examples cited of new technologies that could have a genuinely transformative effect.

While we might not see the anthropomorphic robots of 1950s science fiction gliding around the corridors of our schools and colleges any time soon, apps like MathBingo and DuoLingo's free language learning platform - which now has over 100 million users worldwide, with examples of how it can be used for gamification of learning - show how technology can be used to augment and enhance contact hours in the classroom and lecture theatre.

Four key trends emerged from our initial discussions:
  • Resources and teacher support
  • Innovative assessment
  • Equity and agency
  • Engagement and agency
The first two themes in particular struck a chord (and correlate well with the recommendations of the UK's Education Technology Action Group). Delegates overwhelmingly felt that teachers needed support and encouragement to transform their approach from 'sage on the stage' to more of a mentoring and coaching role.

They also felt that education as a whole should move away from a culture of high stakes summative assessment and 'teaching to the test' to a more incremental approach that recognises and credits students' mastery of their study topics. As things stand, learners are often branded as failures simply because they learn at a different pace to their peers or have different aptitudes.


Our facilitators from EdTechTeam then formed groups of like-minded individuals to ideate towards projects around these themes that the participants could take away to work after the Moonshot Summit. We used a 'design sprint' approach for this that would be very familiar to anyone who has participated in Jisc's co-design initiative for new R&D projects.

You can read a detailed description of the Moonshot Summit design sprint in Yoni Dayan's post for LinkedIn Pulse, but I will pull out the main ideas here:
  • Gamifying the curriculum - real problems are generated by institutions or companies, then transformed into playful learning milestones that once attained grant relevant rewards.
  • Dissolving the wall between schools and community by including young people and outsiders such as artists and companies in curriculum design.
  • Creating a platform where students could develop their own learning content and share it, perhaps like a junior edX.
  • Crowdsourcing potential problems and solutions in conjunction with teachers and schools.
  • A new holistic approach to education and assessment, based on knowledge co-construction by peers working together.
  • Creating a global learning community for teachers, blending aspects of the likes of LinkedIn, and the Khan Academy.
  • Extending Google's 20% time concept into the classroom, in particular with curriculum co-creation including students, teachers and the community.
You can also view each of our teams' pitches in the Moonshot Summit 'Space Walk' slide deck.

What's next?

The Moonshot Summit is now over, but as participants we are keen to follow up these discussions and explore which of these ideas can usefully be taken forward. While they were largely conceived of with school age learners and school teachers in mind, there are clear parallels with further and higher education and skills - which I am interested in exploring from a Jisc perspective. You can follow #MoonshotEDU on social media to participate in the global dialogue.

I'd also love to hear your own moonshot ideas - do you agree that education needs a reboot, and do the ideas I've outlined above resonate with you? Will your college or university be ready for the iPad generation? To discuss further, please do get in touch with me or leave a comment below.

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