Five questions with Steve Midgely |

Five questions with Steve Midgely

Five questions
Image by :

Subscribe now

Get the highlights in your inbox every week.

In the early fall of 2010, Greg DeKoenigsberg suggested that we might do a five-questions-style interview with Steve Midgley (bio) in the education channel. Steve was on leave from Mixrun , and serving as Special Assistant to the Secretary of Education, acting as the Deputy Director of Education Technology. This article is the result of the work of 15 students exploring ed tech and carrying out said interview.

As members of the faculty at Allegheny, we all teach in the first-year seminar program. These seminars hone writing, speaking, and discussion skills in the context of the liberal arts, and so I put Greg's question to the students enrolled in Creativity and Leadership (homepage, wiki): how would you like to interview someone doing interesting things in the Department of Education? It sounded like a good challenge to the class, so we dove in.

Our process was fairly straight-foward. We:

  1. researched Steve's efforts in the ed tech sphere
  2. collaborated on developing questions
  3. ran the interview as a class over Skype
  4. transcribed the 1-hour interview for discussion and analysis
  5. researched what we didn't understand
  6. wrote up the interview, reflecting Steve's words and our research.

To be clear, neither the students nor I had ever undertaken a project like this before. While an expert is accustomed to interviewing and writing up the results, it is another thing entirely for 15 people with no particular technical background whatsoever (and no real experience doing interviews) to engage in a project like this. Our resulting document was less like a traditional "5 questions" interview and more like an extended research essay. Our original five questions were as follows:

  1. In Unlearning How to Teach, by Erica McWilliam, she makes a point that factual information is of decreasing value in the digital age, because facts can be easily looked up,  How will digital archives and recommender systems lead to a change in experimental innovation in the K-12 classrooms?
  2. The pro-technological stance you take gives students and teachers a great amount of freedom. It gives access to a lot of information that we normally could not access. You've said that your experience with Montessori schools have given you a lot of experience with support systems. What kind of support systems would you put into place to help students and teachers make the most of new technology?
  3. In what ways will students be able to take an active role in contributing to the [educational recommender systems]  you discuss? Or are they simply for passive consumption?
  4. It is not uncommon for schools, even those that are well off, to have aging, inconsistent or unreliable donation equipment or materials pieced together from small grants as the basis for their digital infrastructure. As more things go digital, how do those schools keep up?
  5. If this becomes a critical department of education initiative, are we going to move forward in providing equal access to all students in all American schools, including those in more of the inner-city environments who don't have access to such digital technologies?


An Interview with Steve Midgley

It's on the Wiki

Our conversation began with Steve with questions about the nature of information access and education. In envisioning a "recommender system" and community of educators sharing resources, we were curious about Steve's perception of value in this space. Earlier in the semester, we had read Unlearning How to Teach by Erica McWilliam, where she makes a point that factual information is of decreasing value in the digital age, because facts can be easily looked up.  We wondered: "how will digital archives and recommender systems lead to a change in experimental innovation in the K-12 classrooms?"

Steve was inclined to agree that factual information is losing its importance in the context of education, specifically meaning that it has become far easier to quickly look information up online through any of a variety of tools. Sites like Wikipedia are continuing to gain credibility as ways for students to find answers to questions, as well as contribute additional material that they themselves have researched.

However, there are still challenges. Using digital technologies effectively in the classroom is hard; the technology is only part of the solution, not a solution unto itself. For example, students and families must be involved in helping create effective education, and in this context Steve pointed us at the book Literacy With an Attitude.

In the end, the goal of an archive and recommender system is to provide a powerful, automated system for helping deliver educational material to teachers and students alike in a timely manner. The hope is that powerful tools like these will help make more resources available to more educators and students at the right time for them to be useful and valuable.

Admitting that we are not experts in this space, we followed up and explored some of these ideas further. Specifically, we were wondering whether learning in a digital environment makes it harder or easier to create a personalized learning environment. For example, would educators and students have less freedom to learn in a way that suits them best, rather than more freedom? Steve was quite clear that we have to be careful about "just plugging kids into computers," as this is not the solution to any educational problem. For example, he pointed out that you can't use World of Warcraft to teach just anything, but it is an environment in which skills like team building can be developed. As we reflected further, this is one of our concerns with initiatives like the Kahn Academy: content alone does not make for an education. The community and collaboration that comes from an excellent classroom experience is an important part of learning, and Steve's point gets at some of this -- different environments will work better for different kinds of learning and different educators and learners.

Supporting the use of the Tech

For us, the personal (human, local/physical) experience of education seems important. While modern technology can be "mashed up" and provide students and teachers a great deal of freedom as to how they use material, we still wondered what might be missing. Steve had said in other interviews that his experience with Montessori schools gave him a lot of experience with "support systems." So, we asked: what kind of support systems would you put into place to help students and teachers make the most of new technology?

A theme of our discussions before the interview had to do with individual freedom in the context of K-12 education. Steve said that a support system is difficult for us to conceive of because of the inconsistent implementation of technological infrastructure in schools across America. Even in our own experiences, we were able to talk about the wide variety of computing resources available to us in the schools we attended before coming to Allegheny.

Steve went on to say that the US education system is not intended to be a top-down or centralized system for managing or mandating how learning takes place. Instead, the goal is to "support local educational systems operating in the US." Both in our research and in the interview, Steve compared a system like this to how Amazon's recommendation system works---as a teacher or student is looking for resources, recommendations tailored to that individual might be made, based on a combination of centrally provided resources (eg. like materials from the Smithsonian) or resources provided by other educators and students.

Thinking about these kinds of systems led us to realize that, while we ourselves might not be able to easily contribute to such a system directly, students can become involved in the development of technology in schools. They can do this by participate in fundraising, volunteering, or getting involved in direct and meaningful ways in the politics of education at the local and state level.

Access and the Digital Divide

The theme of access was one that consistently came up in our discussions before and after the interview. This led us to research some of the ways that schools receive funding support for technology. For example, the E-Rate program provides substantial grants to schools and libraries across the U.S. However, this grant is limited to networking and telecommunication services, not things like computers and software.

The revision of E.E.T.T. (Enhancing Education Through Technology) provides technological funding for elementary students, which is intended to help expand the current limitations on spending on technological hardware. The change will direct funds to upgrading hardware -- not just networking services -- that is extremely useful as technology is being integrated more and more into classrooms.

In talking with Steve about his project, we asked if asking private industry to become more involved in supporting local schools is a suitable approach to obtain support for technological advancement in any one school district. Steve pointed out that many business are already very invested in the schools. He also adds that one way to get support is to "go visit local businesses and talk to them about what they want from our schools, and make it a point that the current students are the future employees and future business leaders."

Steve went on to ask us whether this would necessarily get local businesses more involved than they are already. When trying to convince them to support a school system's technology infrastructure, one needs to be clear on how engaged they are currently. How much more can you ask of local businesses (especially small- and medium-sized businesses) given what they might already be doing? He stressed that we would want to make sure that any requests for support  are not overlapping with what you have already asked from them.

Although universal access is a complex political process, Midgley would ideally like to make learning technology available to everyone, despite the issue of cost. While the learning registry is playing a role in desired change, there are still many obstacles that may prevent the success of this goal. One of these problems lies within the education system, as it "does have some significant shortcomings," according to Douglas Crets in his article titled Steve Midgley: Building an Amazon for Education. "Those shortcomings are inequitably distributed among racial, social, language and other lines. From that perspective, its pretty clear that as a country we can and should do better." Crets adds, "Technology does today and will in the future play a role in improving educational outcomes for students". ( Crets interview.)

Steve points out that "property taxes as a primary source of funding for public education can be a controversial issue in some areas" ( EdReformer, Wikipedia) for many reasons. Specifically, public schools are funded based on the property tax level in the area in which the school exists, and therefore a less wealthy community provides less funding for public education. However, even if a school is in an under-developed area, the government gives the school money. The Wikipedia article titled Education in the United States explains:

According to a 2007 article in The Washington Post, the Washington D.C. public school district spends $12,979 per student per year. This is the third highest level of funding per student out of the 100 biggest school districts in the U.S. Despite this high level of funding, the school district has produced outcomes that are lower than the national average.

Our question was driven by our concern that it seems unfair for some students to attend lavish schools while others have much less. Recently, there has been a push for the taxation system to support the education. Bob Chase, President National Education Association describes the issue saying  "that some children are more equal than others in American public schools is an abomination, a national disgrace, and an ugly pustule on democracy's fair visage." According to the article, "despite the loftiness of the states' intentions, there have always been inequities in the funding of public schools." ( Read more.)

Midgley said, "Transferring to a digital environment can radically alter cost structures." Over time, technology becomes more well-known, less expensive, and more available. The apple iPod is a good example of this point Midgley made. The chart below shows the increase in sales and the decrease in cost of the iPod since its debut in 2001 (see

Technological sources are cheaper to make, but instead of lowering costs, companies are increasing profits. "Following the Amazon e-book example, companies that produce products at cheaper rates should lower the costs of the product, instead of reaping the benefits, especially in situations involving public education. Why should e-books cost the same as physical books? Steve Midgley explains that despite the trend of decreasing costs and increasing profits, the open-source movement is putting pressure on institutions to make digital technology more cost-effective and accessible.

How can we help?

The question we kept coming back to in our own discussions before the interview were "how can we help?" What can we do to help improve the educational situation in the US? Steve wanted to be clear that with a system like he envisioned in place, there would be nothing stopping anyone from contributing, but there will likely be a very small contributing demographic, since it is a somewhat complicated technology. (This is also the case with sites like the Wikipedia -- there are far more users than contributors.)  He went on to address who might be allowed to contribute resources. What we came away with was that an educational resource and recommender system like this is a complex social system, and finding ways to bring many different kinds of content from many different people (in a trusted way) is a huge challenge. For example, it would not be good if people could easily add content to such a system that allowed them to masquerade as a trusted source (eg. a federal resource like the National Air and Space Museum).

From Steve's description, we believe he is envisioning a tool that is similar in some ways to Wikipedia, in that it allows anyone to contribute to the editing process. He does not imagine that financial contributions would be expected from the private sector, since they would (essentially) be being asked to help organize and make available existing resources so that they could be more accessible to teachers and students. This is, then, like Amazon -- publishers format books and information about them in a way that makes it possible for Amazon to sell (and, in some cases, recommend) their product to others. Steve expects that most of the project funding to come from government run programs. Steve also mentioned SMTP  and DNS as technologies that are fundamentally distributed and relate to his vision.

We agree that everyone should be able to contribute, but the threat to the integrity of the sources must be recognized. As we discussed the interview, we were left with questions like "what security is available to protect users from the kinds of identity threats Steve describes?" Being able to more trust sources would likely lead to more and easier contributions from a wider demographic.

In Conclusion

Steve is describing an ambitious program that can recommend resources to teachers and students based on previously used resources. This is much like how iTunes suggests new songs based on your previous purchases. It tells you songs that other people bought who also bought songs that you have. We have all found this kind of "social network" recommendation system to be very useful in many contexts. To apply this idea to education could only have beneficial outcomes.

We find ourselves agreeing when Steve says that "analytic and synthetic cognitive capabilities are going to become much more highly valued [in the future]. There is an ongoing divide in the education in the US, and something that needs to be addressed between those two sorts of skill sets and how they're deployed in different schools." His recommendation service is a tool that will help support the development creative and critical thinking skills, and his proposed system looks like it will provide improved access to learning resources when and where they are needed.


About the author

Matt Jadud - Matt is passionate about the design and development of usable languages for embedded control. You can some of his work at, a rallying point for parallel programming on the popular Arduino platform. However, most of the time Matt keeps himself busy as a member of the faculty at Berea College.