How 20 Million Minds Uses Tech to Disrupt Education


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Once a mother who dropped her son off at his public elementary school, I’ve now become the art teacher and started a book club to compensate for cuts in vital programs due to lack of funding.  Meanwhile, the rote memorization and repetition of our agrarian education system can no longer compete with the infinite, interactive iPad.  The opportunities for innovation and disruption in the education vertical are seemingly endless.  A TOTAL DISRUPTION will focus on several teams that are rising to the disruption challenge in education in the coming months.  To kick it off, we’ll start years down the road in higher ed and bring you inside the 20 Million Minds Foundation, an LA-based foundation determined to sink the fat and inefficient textbook industry.

From the excessive cost of textbooks, limited seat availability, dwindling graduation rates, and the alarming rate of defaults on student loans, it’s blindingly clear that our higher education system is broken and only getting worse.  The status quo is rife with needless barriers that prevent students from becoming masters of their own futures.  In California alone, we have a backlog of over 500,000 students waiting for English 1 or Algebra 1, the very courses necessary for them to move forward with their education.  In addition, one in four students fails to complete post-secondary education, and among those students, 60 percent cite the cost of “textbooks and fees beyond tuition” as a factor in their decision to withdraw.  Meanwhile, five conglomerates control 80% of textbook production, which is a $20 billion dollar a year industry.

These conglomerates feel the wind blowing, however, as the pressure to provide open source solutions, support academic freedom, and make education more accessible and democratic builds due to our ability to share unmediated information directly and organize.  Over 74% of teachers use some form of digital resources in the classroom to enhance learning.  MOOCs (massive online open courses) are on the rise. Coursera, established at Stanford, has more than 400 courses in seven languages from 87 academic partners and some 4.7 million students, and the American Education Council has recommended its members provide transfer credits for online courses. I believe that as soon as accreditation can be awarded for completion of course offered by these MOOCs, we’ll see a “tech”tonic shift in the numbers of students that pursue their education online.  Majors will be composed of different courses that qualify the student for the job of their choice with a skill set that is appropriate (as opposed to preset menus) and these students will be learning from the best teachers in the world.  Until then, and for those who argue that getting into the same room in the physical world has unmatchable value, tech is still vital to eradicate the traditional, heavy, outdated, expensive textbook.

Celebrated inventor, Dr. Gary Michelson, has one less patent than Benjamin Franklin and was inducted into the Inventor Hall of Fame in 2011 for countless innovations in spinal instruments and procedures, including a vertebrae replacement that revolutionized spinal surgeries.  One day, Michelson was reading an article over breakfast about teachers banding together to create a scholarship fund for students who were dropping out because they couldn’t afford textbooks.  Ever since then, he’s been determined to contribute his time and money to making education more accessible to everyone.  As he ventured into the educational jungle, the scale of the challenge started to emerge, “When I entered this, I thought I had a problem. And what I realized is, I had one leg of an elephant, and it really wouldn’t matter where you grabbed on, the thing is enormous.”

In this week’s A TOTAL DISRUPTION episode, we sit down with Dr. Michelson, his co-founder of the 20 Million Minds foundation, Dean Florez, and their team to discuss the elephant in the classroom and the disruptions on the horizon.  Their digital textbooks will reduce a student’s $700+ textbook expense per semester to a one-time $60 fee for a waterproof reader and also allow for relevancy and collaboration in the core curriculum as professors can add, mashup and remix the data.

Michelson may not be the person you might expect to disrupt the ed space, but he is no stranger to overcoming impossible odds, “I actually put myself through medical school, which they say you can’t do. I drove cabs at night, I washed cars at a dealership, I cleaned animal cages in research laboratories.” He became a surgeon specializing in back and spinal injuries where he went on to revolutionize the field of orthopedics including designing and inventing a substitute vertebra replacement with adjustable height.

In a society where knowledge has increasingly become commoditized, Michelson’s first move was to free information from the greedy grip of the publishing industry, “It’s hard to be able to explain why some commoditized knowledge such as Geometry, which hasn’t changed in 2000 years, or  Calculus, which hasn’t changed since Isaac Newton — how could those textbooks cost between $150 and $200 a piece?”  So the esteemed doctor journeyed to Sacramento to meet with state representatives and the governor and pave the way for the vital changes he was planning to bring — which led to joining forces with Dean Florez, the majority leader of the California State Senate.  As Flores termed out of the senate, he could think of no higher mission than to disrupt higher education.  Together, they set about creating open source digital textbooks to replace all of the basic 101 textbooks, and in 2012, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a historic set of bills that created the nation’s first free online textbook library. The California Open Source Digital Library now houses the open source textbooks for the most popular college courses. For Florez, the goal is to empower both students and educators, “The premise of all our textbooks is that they are open. And open meaning from our perspective that, a faculty member or student could repurpose the information, they could reuse it, they could redirect it, and more importantly they can make it their own.”

20 Million Minds formed a coalition with The Hewlett Foundation, The Gates Foundation, the Maxfield Foundation and released their first wave of titles.  According to CFO Phil Kim, they have already saved students and provided a return on their investment, “We are starting to see this whole alternative pathway.  Like what happened in the music industry when iTunes came along and the album kind of fell apart, you see the disaggregation of these once-held fallible holy concepts.”

The advantage of digital textbooks are myriad.  For example, the day after the Presidential election, you change George Bush to Barack Obama, instead of waiting 5 years for the next cycle of the print publication.  It also provides amazing opportunities for interactive learning, where you can click on a link of Crick and Watson and see a DNA helix. With digital textbooks, students will save around $1,600 over the course of one year (two semesters.)  As for where we will be learning, it costs $1.8 billion to build brick and mortar schools that would only provide education for 11,000 students. On the other hand, it costs $20 million to build the online infrastructure required to support the same number of students… That’s a savings of over $1.7 billion.

While many entrenched and fear-based politicians, schools, and educators are dragging their feet, kicking and screaming into the 21st century, students are increasingly reporting positive experiences with digital textbooks, online learning and MOOCs.  They understand that the key to securing everyone’s basic right to access to higher education is a digital one.  Our story has a happy ending though:  Visionary innovators and technologists will be returning justice to the land – all lands – for all great disruption is unstoppable, and it’s just a matter of time until the old guard either adapts or falls.



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