David Dwyer is serious about change.
It’s a focus that has grown out of a distinguished, decades-long career as an entrepreneur, educator, researcher and technologist, and one he brings with him to his new position as the USC Rossier School of Education’s first Katzman-Ernst Chair for Educational Entrepreneurship, Technology and Innovation.
For Dwyer, a commitment to sparking innovation in American classrooms came early.
“My graduate school admissions essay was about my passion for improving the learning lives of kids,” Dwyer recalled. And since receiving his Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis in 1981, Dwyer has channeled that passion into tangible results, racking up an impressive string of accomplishments pioneering new educational technologies at companies such as Apex Learning, the Computer Curriculum Corp. (a division of Simon & Schuster) and Apple Computer.
Most recently, as co-founder and chief operating officer of KD Learning, he developed an imaginative virtual world for children 6-12 years old, providing them simple and safe means to socialize, as well as the opportunity to engage in a range of creative and altruistic activities.
Dwyer’s track record of achievement highlights a unique approach to his varied research endeavors. “I have always been about the practice,” Dwyer said. “The thrill for me, throughout my career, has been synthesizing an idea into a practical action – and then going and doing it.”
It is precisely this dedication to changing outcomes that attracted him to USC Rossier.
“What’s very unusual about my position is that it is a research professorship where research is important but not the primary emphasis. The goal is really to make something happen – to generate products, or spinoff companies, that will have a dramatic impact on the manner in which learning is accomplished in the U.S. and beyond.”
Though he has just begun his work – he joined the USC Rossier faculty on July 1 – Dwyer has already hit the ground running. Central to his efforts has been reaching out across campus and the broader academic community to foster “strong collaborative relationships that translate to real innovations for kids and teachers.”
One such potential innovation, still in the preliminary stages, is a game approach to helping elementary school students acquire a better understanding of science and, at the same time, develop and improve their reading comprehension and vocabulary. “I’ve been in very early conversation about this with colleagues at USC Rossier, folks at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, the Wrigley Institute and UC Berkeley,” Dwyer said.
Another area in which Dwyer sees potential to make a vital difference for children and educators alike is re-envisioning the urban high school. “The current situation is disastrous,” he said. “The 10 largest cities in this country report that 50 percent of their students are dropping out.”
And it’s no wonder, Dwyer asserted: “There is a tremendous mismatch between what kids are doing in high schools and what they need to be competitive today. Our education system is out of synch with kids’ contemporary reality, and they know it.”
In Dwyer’s view, addressing this will require the creation “of a completely revolutionary model of the urban high school experience” – something he has begun contemplating since arriving at USC Rossier.
“I can imagine a school that’s open 10 hours a day, six or seven days a week,” Dwyer said, “where students can go at their own rate, with no bells or semesters. It would be a place where students connect with a great curriculum and master teachers via virtual collaborative online technologies while working locally on interdisciplinary projects with the support of local teachers and counselors.”
These changes, Dwyer said, would do more than just set a new standard of excellence. They would go a long way toward lowering the dropout rate and “making sure students are 100 percent college-ready at graduation.”
Dwyer believes that technology will play a vital role in reaching this goal. “Kids today have more access to more kinds of interesting information when they’re not in school than when class is in session,” he said. “That’s a tragedy. Not having access to the tools they’re so familiar with is one of the disconnects for them; it’s one reason they don’t believe the school experience has anything to do with the real world.”
Bringing technology into the classroom, Dwyer said, engages students on a whole new level and offers other important benefits. “With online kinds of experiences for kids, you get a lot of organizational flexibility that you don’t see in a traditional brick-and-mortar facility.”
As Dwyer sees it, the key to maximizing technology’s impact – and a crucial focus of his work at USC Rossier – is learning to ask the right questions. “Rather than focusing on the technology first, we need to examine how the nature of the kids’ experience should change in order to produce a new kind of learning more aligned with the challenges of the 21st century.”
Only then, he said, will it truly be possible to determine what technology is necessary to achieve these new goals.
“In the past,” he said, “what we have seen is that we’ve brought powerful new tools to classrooms, but what people have tried to do with them is the same old thing.” The bottom line, he said, is that “in order to change the nature of the outcome, you have to change the nature of the work.”
It is a characteristic insight that sums up the secret of Dwyer’s own success.