Can outside experts fit into classrooms? Turns out it’s a tight squeeze


Oct 21, 2015

Last year, I had the pleasure of presenting at a WBGH event on the future of STEM education. I shared my latest thinking on how we might leverage technology to enhance STEM education, particularly through new blended-learning models. I also posited that technology could bridge the stubborn divide between industry experts and classrooms: using simple video chat technology, for example, could allow students to interact on a far more regular basis with real-life scientists and engineers who could explain concepts, describe the day-to-day of their jobs, and even assess student work. The payoff could be three-fold: First, we could mitigate the chronic teacher shortage in STEM by supplementing classrooms with human capital assets beyond the teaching force. Second, experts could provide meaningful content on real-world applications of otherwise abstract concepts that would satisfy the new Next Generation Science Standards’ emphasis on applied understanding of science. Third, students could expand their networks by meeting and getting to know—perhaps for the first time—professionals across the STEM industry.

But during the Q&A that followed, an audience member stood up and described her thwarted efforts to offer her expertise as a geophysicist at her daughter’s elementary school. When she volunteered to help build the school’s STEM curriculum, deliver lessons, and even share her equipment, she was essentially told by school officials, “We don’t have time for you to be involved.” “My question,” she pressed me, “is how can I slot in?”

I’ve wrestled with her question over the past months while conducting further research on how we can expand students’ access to social capital. In theory, bringing outside experts into classrooms ought to be dually beneficial in allowing schools to remain focused on academic outcomes, while simultaneously expanding students’ networks. But in reality, it’s proven difficult to square initiatives to grow students’ relationships with working professionals with the incredible pressure that K–12 schools face to deliver standards-aligned content on a rigid schedule. Where, then, to the geophysicist’s point, are the “slots” in the current system? And where could new slots emerge in the future?

Through a series of conversations over the past months, I’ve taken a first pass at identifying some such slots where experts are fitting in. Below is a chart of some of the more interesting experiments I’ve come across that aim to integrate outside experts into classrooms across the country. I suspect that I’m only scratching the surface—surely there are systems and individual teachers that have found creative ways to involve friends and parents on a one-off basis. But these experiments point to how a school or district might systematically draw in and leverage vast reservoirs of human capital outside the education system.

OrganizationModel for engaging expertsSlot?
AltSchool[Forthcoming] AltSchool plans to build a marketplace of experts who can supplement students’ projects and teach co-curricular topics. Teachers may have a per-student budget to pay experts for their time as aligned to each student’s projects and progress.Student- and teacher-designed projects
Connect with STEMConnect with STEM brings guest speakers into STEM classrooms. To match experts to classrooms, an unpaid volunteer “connector” meets with teachers to assess their needs and then recruits STEM expert guest speakers who can meet those needs. Experts complement teachers’ existing lesson plans.Teacher’s lesson plans, co-designed with volunteer connector
EducuriousEducurious’s “Expert Network” allows experts to guide students virtually over the course of a project or engage with students live in the classroom over video chat. Experts are embedded into standards-aligned projects as part of Educurious’s full project-based learning curriculum. Integrated into a full project-based curriculum
NeprisNepris is a web-based platform that virtually connects industry experts with classrooms. Teachers create a request based on a curriculum topic or activity that would benefit from an industry connection and the platform then automatically matches the skills of industry professionals. Teachers can select the expert who best matches their lesson plan.Teacher’s lesson plans
EnrichedEnriched offers a marketplace of substitute teachers and guest speakers who can fill substitute teacher slots. Many of these experts are industry professionals who prepare lessons that educate students about real-world projects and challenges. Experts engage face-to-face with students in brick-and-mortar classrooms.Substitute teacher openings
Summit Public SchoolsAs part of Summit’s school year, all students participate in two- and four-week “expeditions,” which are taught by a mix of outside “providers” and Summit teachers. Summit recruits experts and partner organizations to teach these primarily face-to-face elective courses based on student interest. Expeditions, in turn, free up Summit teachers’ time for PD.Time dedicated to electives, as well as teacher PD time

A few trends are worth noting.

First, most of the time, to incorporate outside experts, programs or individuals will have to jury-rig a human experts’ broad base of knowledge, skills, and support to align with the current priorities of the education system—in public schools, this often means alignment to standards or lesson plans. In these cases, experts can serve as sustaining innovations relative to our existing education system—they can hopefully bolster student engagement in otherwise dry or abstract material or motivate students to perform well in order to follow similar career paths. Slots like these will only emerge at scale once we know how experts can best drive student outcomes that schools are accountable for producing. Until we measure these effects, however, it may be difficult to justify incorporating outside experts into existing curricula. Organizations that control both curriculum and experts—such as Educurious—may be best positioned to research and develop the top ways that experts can enhance instruction.

Relatedly, school systems are short on time to incorporate experts into classrooms. This could justify direct-to-teacher tools and efforts. But efforts that rely on individual teachers slotting experts in on a one-off basis may struggle to scale, unless teachers manage to make lesson planning more efficient or effective. Some of the efforts listed above—like Nepris and Connect with STEM—are trying to solve for this by creating an intermediary—either a human “connector” or an online algorithm—that proactively plays matchmaker for teachers and experts.

Finally, there may be another story afoot. By targeting non-academic “slots,” experts may stand to play a disruptive role in terms of both instruction and network building. This may involve leveraging outside experts in non-tested subjects, along the lines of AltSchools’s emerging co-curricular marketplace or Summit Public Schools’s elective expeditions program. In these cases, expert slots don’t suffer the same time and scope constraints that academically oriented slots do. In a similar vein, experts may gain greater traction in newer disciplines, like computer science, where teachers want to supplement their core curricula with real-time developments in the industry.

Both sustaining and disruptive models for incorporating experts into classrooms are worth investigating as inroads to solving the geophysicist’s question about how to engage in her daughter’s school, as well as for answering the broader question of how amenable our K–12 schools will be to outside expertise.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Her work aims to educate policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks"