The website Edutopia (www.edutopia.org) could easily be titled "From Star Wars to the Classroom." Edutopia was launched in 2004 by George Lucas, the director whose Star Wars movies have brought joy to filmgoers and millions in box office receipts. Intent on doing good with the rewards reaped from his movies, Lucas created Edutopia to improve education in the country by sharing innovative solutions. It's a website that includes blogs and videos and publishes a print magazine, but everything is devoted to improving the rather old-fashioned and often resistant-to-change craft of teaching.
Lucas says on the website that as he was growing up in Modesto, Calif., he was an indifferent student who was bored in most classes. Some teachers engaged him, making him wonder, "Why can't all classes be like that?" Edutopia is devoted to making public schools motivating and involving so that students don't fall into the same trap of boredom that Lucas did-though he clearly found his calling. The name Edutopia suggests educational utopia, but Lucas would probably settle for improved public schools.
In establishing Edutopia, Lucas was aiming to create a community of educators, explains Sabrina Smith, Edutopia's communications director, who is based in San Francisco. Lucas wants to explore the future of education and "share knowledge and success stories," Smith says. He established five core concepts: project learning, social and emotional learning, technology integration, integrated studies, and comprehensive assessment. Its tagline, "What works in public education," serves as an apt description of what the site wants to accomplish.
Edutopia's audience started out as primarily teachers but has expanded to include superintendents, administrators, policymakers, parents, consumer advocates, community groups, and, as Smith phrases it, "anyone who has a strong desire to see education flourish in America." The website attracts 300,000 unique visitors a month according to Google Analytics, and the magazine reaches 100,000 readers.
Underlying Edutopia is the belief that technology has changed how the global community learns, but at many public schools teaching remains static, not much different from 50 years ago. A teacher stands in front of a classroom and imparts information to students who are passive learners. The laptops, PDAs, cell phones, and video cameras that have become a staple of everyday life are nowhere to be found in most classrooms. "Our job isn't to change the system politically. Our job is to share and disseminate programs and help educators incorporate innovative programs into schools," Smith says.
When the user enters Edutopia, the site is organized into Core Concepts, Special Reports, Blogs, Videos, and Magazine. The site employs multiple media because people learn differently. Some learn visually; some prefer to read; and blogs offer independent viewpoints on salient educational issues. Hence, Edutopia acknowledges different learning styles and reaches people in their preferential way.
Videos are a major component of the site. For example, a video titled "Edible Schoolyard" shows how an elementary school class in Berkeley expands students' active learning through growing vegetables and gardening. Another video shows an elementary school class in Tucson, Az., infusing arts into every discipline.
Project learning, which emphasizes student and active learning, was introduced about 15 years ago in educational circles, but Edutopia has spearheaded making it accessible to teachers. For example, rather than a teacher saying, "Turn to page 28 in your poetry book and let's analyze these Robert Frost poems," a teacher says, "Let's break into groups of four students. Take four of Frost's poems, decide what media you want to use, and analyze or respond to the poem to show that you fully understand it." In response to the poems, the students can create a video, a script, a newspaper article, or an analysis, or any combination. Teachers "get out of the way and students learn from each other," Smith asserts.
Its digital generation project has struck a chord with users. Edutopia studied the lives of 10 students of different ages, locales, and income groups to see how digital learning affected their lives and learning. Through videos, it showed how students learn, mentor one another, and explore the world.
A diverse range of bloggers contributes to the site including journalist Suzie Boss, Oakland classroom teacher Elena Aguilar, editor Owen Edwards, psychologist Maurice Elias, and Envision School founder Bob Lenz. But the level of discourse on the blogs varies widely from amateurish to sophisticated. One rather self-indulgent posting from a teacher discussed his forgetting the names of students from 10 years ago, but a posting from psychologist Elias about creating a service school was extremely useful and constructive.
Edutopia has made teacher retention one of its main causes since a large percentage of public school educators departs the profession within their first 3 years. Edutopia encourages the sharing of knowledge between experienced teachers who serve as mentors and neophytes to help new teachers "find their footing and have someone to talk to and bounce ideas off of," Smith says.
Since some people prefer reading offline, Edutopia magazine publishes six issues a year. Most articles have already been published on the website. The lead story in a recent issue was "Profiles of a Digital Generation," which supported videos posted on the site. The issue included stories involving students teaching tech and kindergarten serving as the foundation of learning.
Everything on Edutopia-the videos, blogs, and articles-"overlaps and supports one another. If we present a model school program, we'll show it in different media," Smith says. The goal of the site is "getting students to be engaged. We're not identifying bad schools. We're about dealing with the system in a grassroots way to improve education," she says. The goal of Edutopia is to engage students in ways that filmmaker George Lucas never was when he attended public schools.
Gary M. Stern is a freelance writer based in New York City.