I design for big-E Education and you could too

I have spent most of my time at Stanford exploring the intersection between design, technology and education, and many people have asked why. I have been giving slightly different reasons to each one, since I am both captivated by it as a student growing up in the fascinating Singaporean education system, an educator creating and teaching classes on edtech and equity, and on developing tech for social impact solutions to complex problems, and as a designer working on technological tools that support and encourage student-driven learning.

Reflecting on it further on why I am even in this field, it all boils down to the fluffy notion of helping all individuals reach their full potential, regardless of the circumstances of their birth and surroundings. We have an entire system arguably built around that aim, and that is big-E Education. To me, big-E Education refers to the schooling system that virtually every child goes through. I differentiate that from small-e education in the sense that learning and teaching occurs in informal environments as much as it does in the formal school system, and is as equally important. I also differentiate it from formal learning as well, because big-E Education goes beyond pedagogy and learning methods and considers other systems constraints like equity, funding and politics.

Personally, I’m attracted particularly to the mucky, sticky, wicked system that is big-E Education, and here’s why.

  1. On the highest level, Education (with the big-E) in the USA is an infamously calcified system, meaning that any incremental change is incredibly hard to implement, and when it is implemented, it tends to be adopted on a large scale, with little leeway for course correction. There are many interesting political, economic and social factors at play that require a different type of design and intentionality to maneuver, but are fascinating in and of themselves.
  2. The magic of education (i.e. learning) happens in the very real, and seemingly ordinary, day-t0-day interactions between students, educators and parents. Technology is promising as means to make this interactions even more fulfilling and enriching, but it isn’t the cure-all. As Kentaro Toyama suggests, technology only serves to amplify human forces, and ultimately, education is one of the most fundamentally human endeavors to exist. When I recall my own learning experiences, what I remember are the little jokes my Chemistry teacher cracked in class, the penguin puppet my friends and I made for a video around environmental conservation, and the absolutely terrifying, yet thrilling moment in English class when my teacher tore apart my script just moments before I was about to deliver a speech. It is not the technology that I remember, and I’m sure if you look back to your own experiences, that will not be what you remember too. When I design for big-E Education, it is still these moments I am designing for, but hopefully many more folks out there, and for the folks who need them most.
  3. The quality of education should be equal for all, but clearly is not. Where do I even start — from inequitable school funding policies to racial and socioeconomic bias to the lack of internet connectivity of whole school districts, the education you get is determined less by your own hunger and curiosity than it is by macro forces you cannot control.Technology can serve to widen or shrink that disadvantage, and being able to consider the system allows me to factor in these inequities in ways that considering only the micro-interactions will not.
  4. There is hope and a whole bunch of people working toward the same goal. There are people out there pushing the boundaries in meaningful and measured ways, such as the d.school K-12 Lab Network and the Transformative Learning Technology Lab at Stanford, the XQ Super Schools Project at the Emerson Collective, and schools themselves — where the impact really happens. Just to name a few, AltSchool, Khan Lab School, Cristo Rey San Jose and New School San Francisco are a few that have popped up recently to experiment with new modes of learning. Being a part of these immensely passionate, kind and brilliant people who are slowly budging the system one initiative at a time, and who embody the tireless spirit of learning, is incredibly empowering and something I draw so much energy from.

If you are a designer and are thinking about what to devote your energies and awesome talents to, I hope you consider big-E Education too. This is an area that could use your creativity, empathy and passion, and that could give you much joy in return too.

Many thanks to Monica Yupa and Zachary Robinson for your feedback on this article!