Edson Barton: When the Magic Starts to Happen

An edtech founder makes the case for personal relevance in education.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Combining aptitude-based guidance with industry-recognized certifications and direct industry and post-secondary connections, YouScience empowers individuals to uncover their natural talent, validate their skills and knowledge, and pursue purposeful and personalized education and career pathways. Not bad, right? And logically speaking, deeper engagement results in increased graduation rates, increased post-secondary start and success rates, and improved workplace skills vital to our economy – very desirable outcomes. Hence, the platforms, products, and services from this company make critical connections for learners, educators, and industry employers to truly achieve next-level engagement. 

In fact, YouScience was created to help answer some of life’s biggest questions: “Why am I learning this?” and “What do I want to be when I grow up?” From the initial conception as an innovative aptitude and career discovery tool to the company’s 2020 merger with Precision Exams to incorporate industry-recognized certifications, they’ve dramatically changed the way students, educators, and employers view talent and possibility.

“We instill hope, purpose, and direction by connecting natural talent, skills, and knowledge with in-demand education pathways and careers,” says founder and CEO Edson Barton, a BYU grad with a strong interest in philosophy, business, and keeping students engaged and on a purposeful path. “Join us to help find the makers, doers, artists, and thinkers who will help solve the problems of tomorrow,” he says.

‘We instill hope, purpose, and direction by connecting natural talent, skills, and knowledge with in-demand education pathways and careers…’

In this interview, Edson goes deep to answer questions about the state of post-pandemic education, what edtech companies can do for student engagement, the power of career and technical education, and what’s next for edtech.

We know interrupted student learning has been a big topic of conversation since the pandemic started. Why is this an important issue for edtech companies to address?

Of course, this is a critical issue for all of us as the potential long-term negative impacts on society could be severe. And I believe that edtech companies are really the only ones that may be able to address and minimize the education impacts of the pandemic. Pre-pandemic we already had an education system built in a way that perpetuated the systematic pushing through of students to the next grade or learning level regardless of content proficiency, let alone content mastery. What the pandemic did was exacerbate an existing problem and acutely focus attention on our inability to serve individuals within their individual needs.

To help individuals “catch up” from falling so far behind due to the pandemic will require incredibly innovative solutions delivered in new ways that the education system is not able to accomplish in its current state. Edtech companies will have to step in and fill that learning gap, not just over the next couple of years, but on a continuous basis over the next decade or more and will need to do so on an individual student learning basis.

To be clear, this is not due to educators not wanting and striving to help solve the problem – the educators I interact with desperately want to help each of their students. But the fact is the problem is too large to solve within the current education framework.

As a society we need to internalize that the issues the pandemic laid bare are much larger than the education container we may want to place them in. The ever-widening labor and skills gap we have both here in America and throughout the rest of the world will only get wider and wider due to the significant pandemic-induced learning deficiencies. These deficiencies will impact students, and thus families, businesses, and communities, for literally decades.

Without closing the skills gap in significant ways our economy will increasingly become impaired by the limitations of our workforce. Closing the gap will become a national crisis if not solved.

How can edtech companies, including yours, keep students engaged in their education when learning is being disrupted?

I believe the most fundamental way we can keep students engaged is by helping them identify on a personal basis the relevance of their education. Without understanding why they’re learning what they’re learning, students do mentally and often physically check out.

On the flip side of that, when we can engage a student by helping them understand why they’re doing something, they work much harder to accomplish the goals that they have set for themselves. This is fundamental to our human nature and is no different in kids or adults. We should embrace this need for purpose in education, and we shouldn’t be surprised when we continue to have poor educational outcomes when clarity of purpose is not provided to students.

‘We should embrace this need for purpose in education…’

The key to answering a student’s personal why – or their purpose – is in helping each student, individually, identify who they are, what they’re capable of, what they want to accomplish with those capabilities, and how they can go about achieving their now intentional goals. As we’re able to do that then we can help students get on a course that becomes meaningful and purposeful to them.

And, importantly, it is now possible to provide direction to parents and educators on how to best help their students achieve even more. Without identifying and making actionable the student’s why, we will continue to see increased disengagement by individual students and continued drops in post-secondary enrollment and completion rates – which are at dismal levels today.

Very importantly, increasing student engagement is directly connected to aligning student learning to their future career opportunities. A significant amount of student problems manifest when a student fundamentally does not understand how their classroom work will help benefit them in their future. If I was to boil it down, we need to answer that universally asked question, “why am I learning this?” As we help individual students answer that question, we will be well on our way to solving the engagement issues we see at school, at work, and in society at large.

How can Career and Technical Education or CTE programs increase college and career success? 

CTE programs fundamentally help answer the question, “why am I learning this?” They are making direct connections between the classroom experience and the student’s future. They combine both the practical and the academic aspects of learning into a context that’s understandable and relatable for student success. I think one of the most harmful things we have done is separating CTE programs from academic programs.

The truth is everything we do in education should be leading to a meaningful career. Why we’ve tried to separate education experiences as either academic or vocational has always been baffling to me – and to most people. Humans need to know the personal ROI for what they are doing and CTE programs provide that. If you were to ask college students why they are going to college, the number one reason they provide is to get a good job. By combining the real world into the classroom through career and technical experiences, we can bridge a mental divide for students.

Surveys of employers have shown for years that they are having the same problem as students – that of connecting the relevancy of education to their employment needs.  By connecting real-world career experiences into the classroom, we’re creating a much-needed bridge from education to the workforce.

And, the great thing is, when students participate in career connected learning students’ academic results dramatically improve across the board. I can walk into any governor’s office, any superintendent or principal’s office, meet with any parent or any business leader and say emphatically that one of the fastest ways to improve the economy, improve student outcomes, and increase educational engagement is to get more students into career-oriented classes!

For example, studies have proven that participating in career-oriented classes increases graduation rates by 15 percentage points on average! For minority students the improvements jump anywhere from 15 to 25 percent. For English as a second language learners, it’s a 25 percent graduation rate improvement. These are significant changes that directly improve people’s lives! They improve our economy, improves our tax base, lowers societal problems and expenditures, and strengthens families and communities.

Keeping the pandemic in mind, how can edtech companies prepare for future challenges education may face?

I think the pandemic primarily helped edtech companies and educators realize there needed to be much more collaboration between those two groups. In general, educators have had a view of businesses as outsiders or “vendors” rather than valued partners in education. As the needs of educators became overwhelming during the pandemic, it became clearer that edtech companies really provided desperately needed and viable solutions to help solve some of these dramatic problems.

The more that educators and companies collaborate to develop new ideas, new ways of doing things, the better prepared we will be to face future challenges.

‘The more that educators and companies collaborate to develop new ideas, new ways of doing things, the better prepared we will be to face future challenges.’

If we revert to a vendor vs. educator mentality, rather than a partnership mentality, we will continue to face many of the same problems again and again.

What is next for edtech? What problems do you think will help solve in the next five years?

Two significant problems that edtech is specifically designed to help solve is 1) personalized education, and 2) the looming teacher shortage. Both are fundamental problems that if not solved, will continue to create crises inside and outside the classroom.

Without moving to a personalized education approach, we will see an increased disengagement from the education system, an increased questioning of the ROI of education, a widening of the skills gap, which will exacerbate the wage and earnings gap. Really, for the first time in history we can provide a personalized education for everyone – it is now functionally possible and will get increasingly easy to do over the next several years. This movement towards personalized education has a dramatic impact into the lives of individuals for educators and for society at large.

A technological solution for personalized education will become necessary because we are on the precipice of the teacher shortage cliff in the United States and throughout the world. Over the last several decades we have done a horrendous job of elevating the status of the professional educator – in fact, we have dramatically diminished the status of this noble profession. This has resulted in fewer and fewer individuals joining the education field.

While the need is desperate for all teachers, it is particularly acute in specialized areas which are needed to better bridge the skilled worker gap. The teacher shortage will require the education system, legislatures, public and private organizations, and especially edtech companies to look at the delivery mechanisms for education in new ways.

It will be the combination of technology creating scalable personalized education programs and maximizing expert teachers across larger student populations that will be the major education drivers within the next five to ten years.

It’s been a wild ride these last few years. Broadly speaking, what is the state of education today? What makes you say that?

The state of education today is at a tremendous inflection point. I wouldn’t say that education is in disarray or that it’s in great shape – it’s a mixed bag across the board. Educators are as dedicated as ever to helping individuals to succeed. They have been given tremendous challenges to which they were ill-prepared to address during the pandemic, and which they are ill prepared to address in the future. Frankly, it is due to educators’ pure dedication and determination that we fared as well as we did over the last two years. I am so grateful for their efforts.

The education community is at a point where some very important decisions need to be made. Are we going to continue to do things the same way that we always have? Or, are we willing to move outside of the box we’ve known for the last 100 years and shape a future that addresses the issues we’ve long known? The success of students and educators over the next decade hinges on educational leaders and companies working together to solve those questions in open-minded and technologically advanced ways.

To me, this is not a bleak outlook of the future of education. It’s an optimistic and hopeful outlook that knows we can do better. We have done great things in the past – we have an immensely educated society beyond which any other diverse society in history has been able to accomplish – yet, we have more to do. Because of unique forces in the economy, within school systems, because of advances in technology, and within individuals themselves we have an opportunity to change history for the better.

What’s tech’s role in education? How about your efforts with this?

Technology’s role in education is to scale the means to accomplish a truly personalized education for every person and align that to meet the future needs of the economy.

[My company] is accomplishing this by helping every individual discover who they are and what they’re capable of doing – then helping those individuals get placed on a personalized path that most efficiently helps them achieve their career goals. By helping individuals at this fundamental level, we believe we can create a more personalized and successful education system that is meeting the needs of both the individual and society at the same time.

There are tremendous inefficiencies in the system today that don’t allow an individual to connect with their best fit future. When we remove those barriers and connect an individual to what they were made to do in their life, magic starts to happen.

‘When we remove those barriers and connect an individual to what they were made to do in their life, magic starts to happen.’

The individual comes alive within their education because it now has purpose. They see what they can accomplish in ways they never have before. This spurs them to work harder. They make better connections with their peers and with their teachers, which eventually leads to a more productive and satisfied workforce.

As a society, we get the benefit of an engaged individual who is doing their best work and living up to their full potential. As this happens, we will see an amazing future.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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