"Courses - as both the architecture of and the way we measure learning - have been a useful construct in education, but we’ve reached the limits (of their usefulness), and courses are now blocking innovation and integration, and are a lousy form of measurement." - Tom Vander Ark

Listen on:
iTunes | Android | Google Play | Spotify | Stitcher | TuneIn | Overcast | Email

Audio version:

Video version:


Our guest today is Tom Vander Ark, an education advocate, and adviser for better learning. He is the author of “Getting Smart: How Personal Digital Learning is Changing the World”, “Better Together”, “Smart Parents” and “Smart Cities”. Tom is the Founder and Executive Editor of “Getting Smart” - a learning design firm helping education and learning-focused organizations increase their impact with strategy, design, growth, publication, and learner experience services. Tom has written more than 800 blog posts for Education Week and is a contributing author to Forbes Magazine. He is here with Enrollhand today to share some thoughts on the direction that innovation is going in education.  

In this episode, Tom shares some ideas on how even small schools can begin to take steps to move towards personalized learning and competency-based learning, some of the challenges that they might face, and how to overcome those. He gives specific strategies for school leaders to consider as they enter a time of great innovation in education.

Listen and take note of how the entire model of education is changing from “course-based learning” towards “platform networks”, and what that might mean for schools as they plan their value proposition.

In our discussion, we cover:

0:30 Andrew asks Tom, “How can small schools start the journey towards personalized learning and competency-based learning?”

3:32 Tom responds to Andrew’s question about how the factor of time has an impact on the first efforts of schools trying to make changes in the direction of project-based learning.

8:04 Andrew asks Tom to comment on the 2 questions that tend to come up when schools are considering the possibility that test scores might initially decline as they shift away from test score measures and toward project-based learning - namely, college acceptance for students and answering to authorizers.

18:20 Tom talks about the importance of school visits, and how they give a better picture of how a school is actually working.

20:30 Tom discusses the significance of the values and self-image of a school, and the ways that their “core” shapes the way that they are perceived both inside and outside the school.

20:48 Andrew asks Tom to discuss his experience with school networks.

24:47 Andrew wonders if we are likely to see an evolution in education similar to what we have seen in other industries and Tom discusses platform networks in this context.

27:20 Tom responds to Andrew’s question about whether we might expect a “tipping point” with platform networks.

29:25 Tom talks about the possibility that courses as units of education and measurement are becoming outdated and are blocking innovation, and offers some new ideas on how education might advance without them.

31:48 Tom offers parting advice for smaller schools as they undertake the adventure of innovation.


1:10 “A community conversation that leads to a few important goals is the way to start.

3:00 “By starting small, iterating, and learning as you go, you can minimize your risk (as you adopt change).

19:00 “We think that school visits are the way to go. You can watch a video or read about a school, but there is nothing short of visiting a place to see how it actually works.

19:20 “Look for schools that stand for something and that focus on a few core ideas with a common intellectual mission that creates coherence for teachers and kids.

25:35 “I’m bullish on platform networks as being super scalable.

29:25 “Courses - as both the architecture of and the way we measure learning - have been a useful construct in education, but we’ve reached the limits (of their usefulness), and courses are now blocking innovation and integration, and are a lousy form of measurement.

Here are some resources mentioned in our discussion:

Forbes Magazine article by Tom Vander Ark: Organizing Your School as a List of Courses Doesn't Work for Learners

Malcolm Gladwell - “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference”

Seth Godin podcast: How to get into a famous college

David Frank - Executive Director of the New York State Education Department Charter School Office and 2016 National Association of Charter School Authorizers Leader.  https://www.qualitycharters.org/people/david-frank/

Shelley Kurth - School Director at Thrive Public Charter Schools in California

Smart List: The 100 middle and high schools worth visiting - https://www.gettingsmart.com/2017/03/100-middle-high-schools-worth-visiting/

League of Innovative Public Schools - https://digitalpromise.org/initiative/league-of-innovative-schools/

The Pittsburgh Personalized Learning Network - https://www.gettingsmart.com/2018/02/pittsburgh-personalized-learning-network-helping-set-course-regional-change/

Expeditionary Learning - https://eleducation.org/

Big Picture - https://www.bigpicture.org/

New Tech Network - https://newtechnetwork.org/

Where to learn more about Tom Vander Ark:

Twitter - tvanderark

Company Website - openedsolutions.com

Company Website - LearnCapital.com

Blog - GettingSmart.com

Tom on Linkedin https://linkedin.com/in/tomvanderark

Where to learn more about Enrollhand:

Website: www.enrollhand.com

Our webinar: https://webinar-replay.enrollhand.com

Our free Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/schoolgrowth/