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Go Deep – An Educational Hail Mary Pass

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Having attended college and eventually worked in Carlisle, Pa., I was well aware of the Carlisle Indian School and Jim Thorpe’s time there. What I was not aware of until I read Sally Jenkins’ 2007 article in Sports Illustrated was that Pop Warner and the Indian School football team were some of the greatest innovators in the history of the sport. The evolution of the game begun by the Carlisle team reached its crescendo this season in the NFL, when several quarterbacks threw for more than 5,000 yards and defense was relegated to second-class status – possibly forever. But how has this transformed the game of football, and more importantly, what can we learn from it in regards to sparking real change in our own playing field of education?


(The Carlisle Indian School Football Team – Cumberland County Historical Society)

A Historic Lesson
Prior to 1905, football was strictly “ground and pound.” It was a brutal sport where finesse was illegal and 18 players lost their lives that year alone (Morrison, 2010). The violence of the sport led to reform in the rules, spurred on by President Theodore Roosevelt, and those reforms opened the door for the Carlisle Indians — led by coach Pop Warner — to become a football juggernaut.

The major rule change to come out of the tragic 1905 season was that the forward pass was made legal. Warner and his undersized, but quick and skilled Native American players adopted the forward pass as their secret weapon, and took the football world by storm.  In their first season using this new tactic, they defeated perennial powerhouse Penn 26-6 and went on to outscore opponents in the first five games of 1907 by a collective margin of 148-11 (Morrison, 2010). Their supremacy continued until the school was eventually closed, but the spirit of innovation behind their rise to dominance has lingered in football to this day.

Recent rule changes to make the sport less violent have again changed the game, and for the first time in league history, two poor defensive teams are playing for the Super Bowl championship. The New York Giants ranked 27th in the league in yards allowed per game, and the New England Patriots ranked 31st. Yet these two teams are playing for the world championship in a few short days. How can a league which has subscribed to the unwritten rule "defense wins championships" suddenly change so dramatically? The answer is innovation, forward-thinking, and timely legislation. The calls for reform in higher education to start this century parallel the rule changes in football at the start of the previous one and may inspire the same sorts of innovative thinking.

The Importance of Innovation
The most successful franchise during this time of transition has been the New England Patriots, and what’s interesting to note is that they started their run of championships as a defense-first team. Since 2007, however, when new league rules went into effect, the Patriots have slowly morphed into an offensive juggernaut, establishing many records for offensive production along the way, including most points scored in a season, most touchdown passes thrown, and most touchdowns caught by a wide receiver and tight end. They have been able to capitalize on the changes in the rules because their head coach is an innovative thinker. He, like Pop Warner of the Carlisle Indians before him, adapted his personnel and approach to the game to take advantage of the changes. Online education is poised to do the same by taking advantage of recent calls for educational reform.

This brings me back to education. Our global, connected economy has left very little room at the table for Americans, and one of the last things we have to offer is our ability to think creatively and to innovate in the face of adversity. There is no better place to cultivate this characteristic than in the classroom, and no better classroom venue in which to do it than online.

Grab the Ball and Go
Like the forward pass for the players at the Carlisle Indian School, innovation, both in what we teach and how we teach, needs to be the hallmark of 21st century education in America. The rules have been rewritten by the connected world in which we live and we can either adapt to them or become extinct. The following are several facets of an information age (IA) education that should be considered as we begin adjusting to the changes confronting us:

  • Social/Cultural – One of the distinguishing things about education in the IA is that it is operates largely via social media and digital social networks. Education must take advantage of these networks to transmit instruction and as a means of communicating within the system to enhance learning.
  • Systemic – IA technology is integral to almost all other human systems through its ability to facilitate communication and interaction. Our social, political, economic, education, and other societal systems rely on, or are strongly influenced by, technology. An understanding of the interrelated systems and how they affect one another is an important part of a contemporary education.
  • Participatory/Learner Centered – Because of the incredible diversity of resources available, learning with and about computers and the Internet necessitates user input and interactivity to work. Education in the IA requires that the learner be an active participant in his or her own knowledge formation.
  • Power Conscious – Technology and information are both the source of power and the vehicle by which it is created and transmitted. Understanding the relationships of power inherent in IA communication and technology is central to learning in the 21st Century.
  • Critical – The sheer volume of information available to the IA student and the complex systemic relationships that technology produces require that learners be critically aware of systems, how systems may be manipulated, and their own roles within those systems.
  • Economy Driven – Information and the technologies that facilitate its growth are not only a product for the economy, but also provide new markets and the channels of distribution for the economy. One cannot be educated in the IA without an understanding of the complex relationship between information, media, power, and the economy.
  • Evolutionary – Because of the rapid pace of technological innovation, education in the IA is in a constant state of change. Being literate in the 21st century entails cultivating an ability to adapt to changes in the technology around us.
    (From  Information Age Education –Currently Available Online Only, Marquis, 2011)

Online learning is not the only way to adapt, but it is well-positioned to be a force for positive change. Efforts such as MITx and Sebastian Thrun’s Udacity.com are making moves to take the opportunities that a changing world and the power of the Internet have presented them. Online learning could well prove to be to education what the forward pass was to football – an innovation that moves beyond the archaic methods of the past to establish an exciting new way to play the game.