Posts Tagged ‘On-line learning’

The Digital Divide is Real and Persistent… and Children Raised in Poverty Suffer Most

November 13, 2015 Leave a comment

Another year, another study and no solutions are in sight because only those with the least political muscle and the most need are the ones who suffer the most. As reported in Education Week as well as other news outlets, the third annual CoSN Infrastructure Survey reports that gaps persist in schools and in homes with– no surprise– rural and less affluent school districts and homes having less access to broadband and wifi access than urban, suburban, and affluent school districts and homes. And why is this the case? The second bullet in the Education Week summary by Benjamin Herold has the answer:

  • Cost: Money is still seen as the biggest barrier to robust school connectivity: 46 percent of survey respondents identified the cost of monthly recurring charges as their biggest problem, followed by 34 percent of who cited high upfront capital costs.

E-rate funds, which were expected to help close the digital divide, are being challenged because fewer and fewer homes are using land lines, a factor that the survey indicated would affect 90% of the districts who responded to the survey.

This persistent technology disparity contributes to the persistent disparity between students raised in poverty and those raised in affluent homes as children and schools without readily available wi-fi cannot engage in innovative practices like the flipped classroom or research assignments that rely on internet searches as opposed to leafing through outdated encyclopedias. So the affluent suburban schools issue I-pads to each child while economically challenged schools send home worksheets… and we wonder why the performance gap persists.

Drivers Education: The First Wave of the Outsourcing of Outcome Based Education by Public Schools

November 9, 2015 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch had several posts yesterday on the deficiencies of Outcome Based Education, posts that yielded several strong dissents based on B.F. Skinner’s theories, computer-based individualized instruction, and early attempts at outcome based and self-paced education that relied heavily on handouts. I remain convinced that until we abandon our current mental model of education as one based on lockstep progression based on age based cohorts we will remain stuck in the same arguments I’ve witnessed for the four decades I’ve worked in public school administration.

We’ve used OBE based on common standards for decades in one area that requires students to demonstrate mastery with both academic and performance assessments… and a brief history of the delivery of this content in this discipline might shed some light on this issue and also on the direction public education could be headed.

Everyone in our country who possesses a drivers license passed both an academic assessment (typically a multiple choice test) and a performance assessment (typically an over-the-road review with a police officer). The standards a student must master in order to obtain a driver’s license are universal. The time required to master the academic and performance skills varies widely. Students who fail the assessments can re-take them as many times as is needed, but once an individual masters the skills as measured by the written and performance tests they receive a license that is no different from anyone else’s. Students who received the training in a structured program offered by a certified instructor received an additional benefit: insurers rewarded the completion of such a program with a reduced rate because their data showed that such students experienced a lower accident rate.

Students used to receive training for these OBE assessments in public schools but in most states the responsibility for learning these skills has shifted out of school and into the private sector. The rationale for this shift was two-fold: the cost for providing the equipment needed for training was high and the insurance benefits that resulted from the attainment of certificate would enable parents to fund the program out-of-pocket instead of having the program funded by taxpayers.

When public schools dropped Drivers Education, private drivers education schools proliferated. Some of the schools were staffed by former certified teachers whose compensation ad benefits were lower than those offered by public schools and others were staffed by instructors with credentials determined by insurance companies. Oh… and some of the students who might have experienced the financial benefits of taking a publicly funded course lost the opportunity to do so because their parents could not afford the out-of-pocket costs associated with enrolling in a privately operated school operated by an accredited teacher. Most of them DID get their drivers license but paid an insurance premium for several years thereafter.

I trust that readers of this blog can see how this brief history of drivers education might apply to the trends in public education we are witnessing today… and might highlight the consequence of our obsession with having everyone learn at the same pace. Because we accept the current model of schooling we fail to ask some basic questions:

=>Why do we group students in grade levels based on their age?
=>Why do we group students within a particular grade level based on their rate of learning?
=>Why do we group students at all?
=>Why does school take place in a limited time frame?
=>Why do we believe there is “one best way” to educate ALL children?

All of these practices are in place because they result in “efficiency” in the factory school… and until we change our minds about how schools are organized, until we replace our conception of schools as a factory with a new mental model, we will continue measuring “quality” by giving standardized tests to students grouped in “grade levels” and recycling “new ideas” and “reforms” based on ways to run the factory more efficiently.

Several years ago public schools decided to outsource the attainment of the drivers license “badge”. The “badges” being developed by private sector enterprises (e.g. IT certifications) are superseding the “diplomas” on the back end of the factory. How long before the same phenomenon occurs in public schools?

Micro-schools and Badges COULD Change the Face of Schooling

November 7, 2015 Leave a comment

Over the past several weeks I’ve read several articles in technology related journals and progressive education blogs on the obsolescence of the diploma and its replacement with “badges” that signify “mastery” as opposed to “coverage”. As one who has long advocated mastery learning and was drawn to the idea of having a series of badges replace traditional diplomas, I offered the drivers license as a prime example of how badges might work. One obtains a divers license “badge” by demonstrating a combination of abstract knowledge (the passing of a pencil and paper test) with applied knowledge (the passing of the performance test). This same method of signifying “mastery” could (and I would argue should) be applied to every form of learning.

With that context, I found “The Rise of Micro-Schools”, a post on the Steelemaley blog, intriguing and promising. The Micro-schools described in the post would probably be categorized as “un-schooling” or “de-schooling” since there is no evidence that adults are creating learning modules. Instead, the students in the international micro-schools share a passion for ecology and instead of only reading about it, they are gathering data that scientists can use to inform their research, witnessing ecology first hand, working collaboratively in face-to-face situations and virtual international teams, and putting their findings and ideas into practice. While the post doesn’t say so explicitly, it is evident that the students are working with the guidance and support of adults as opposed to the direction and monitoring of adults.

Could this work for all children? It could if we determined that the purpose of schooling was to create young adults who are capable of working independently with minimal supervision. As long as we sustain our factory model of education, the one designed to churn out compliant employees who will work within defined frameworks, we will undervalue independence and interdependence and persist in our beliefs that anything else is impossible. Without saying so explicitly, blogger Steelemaley is indicating it’s time to challenge the dominant paradigm.

Will Udacity’s Nanodegrees lead to Perelman’s Micro-Vouchers?

September 17, 2015 Leave a comment

In 1993 Lewis Perelman wrote a thought provoking book titled “Schools Out” which described how computer technology could eventual lead to a fragmentation of public education through the creation of “micro vouchers” that would enable students to take courses where they wanted to and when they wanted to. That same year, libertarian writer David Boaz wrote a book titled “Market Liberalism: A Paradigm for the 21st Century” that included a chapter by Perelman titled “The Learning Revolution” that provides a blueprint for what is transpiring today in education.  Some excerpts from Perelman’s essay make eerie reading in today’s world:

The productivity-focused goals of the new paradigm of national learning policy that should replace intrusive and irrelevant “national education goals”(NOTE: This was G.H.W. Bush’s initiative to address “failing schools”) can be summarized in four simple words: More, Better, Faster, and Cheaper. That is, policy needs to ensure the rapid development of HL (Hyper-Learning– a term Perelman coined to define the faster, more focussed instruction that technology could provide. See elaboration on this, below.) systems that enable citizens of all ages to learn more about everything; to learn better, especially those things that are relevant to productive work; to learn faster, with less waste of time; and to do all that at lower and steadily declining cost.

Perelman offered an action plan to make schools achieve the goals: de-credentialize; commercialize; capitalize; and bypass. The section on commercialization is particularly relevant, because it is one concept that conservatives and neo-liberals– both of whom believe in the magic of the marketplace– embrace. In this section Perelman introduces the concept of “micro vouchers”. Some excerpts from this section:

In recent years many politicians, business leaders, and families have begun to appreciate the essential importance of breaking up the socialist monopoly of the government-controlled education system. “Privatization” of public education is much needed and should be a national goal of the new president (i.e. Bill Clinton). But “school choice” is an inadequate strategy for achieving the benefits of a market economy in the learning sector or for unleashing the growth of the strategically crucial HL industry…

Instead, the new administration should be committed to commercial privatization of the entire education sector, based on a strategy of mi- crochoice using the financing mechanism of microvouchers.

To illustrate the idea of microchoice: If our choice of television channels worked the way school choice is proposed to, changing channels from HBO to CNN would require unplugging the TV set, taking it back to the store, exchanging it for a different model, and moving to a new neighborhood. In reality, of course, choosing among dozens or hundreds of video options requires no effort more strenuous than pushing a button. Similarly, modern HL technology can offer the individual even more choices of “teachers” and “schools” than of cable TV channels. HL’s broadband, intelligent, multimedia systems permit anyone to learn anything, anywhere, anytime with grade-A results by matching learning resources precisely with personal needs and learning styles.

Microvouchers that use modern electronic card–account technology can enable individual families or students to choose specific learning products and services, not just once a year or once a semester, but by the week, day, hour, or even second by second. Unlike vouchers for school or college tuition, microvouchers will create a true, wide-open, location-free, competitive market for learning that has the elasticity to efficiently and quickly match supply and demand.

After acknowledging that over 90 percent of funding for U.S. public education is supplied by state and local governments, Perelman suggests “the new president” could take two major steps “…to commercialize the government-controlled education sector and to pro-mote the development of the American HL industry that must replace it.” The two steps were the replacement of the current Federal funding mechanisms with “Federal micro vouchers”. Perelman envisioned the micro vouchers being

…allocated directly to households, in proportion to individual or family need, to be used for the purchase of any service or product that is demonstrably relevant to learning and development needs. The instrument of expenditure would not be paper stamps or vouchers but electronic account cards similar to credit or bank cards. The HL microvoucher program should leave families free to decide how best to distribute the account resources between adults and children and generally among the members of the household. That provision would recognize that the needs of disadvantaged children in many (perhaps even most) cases may be serve best by immediately improving the economic opportunities and status of the parents, as well as by developing the parenting skills.

All of this came to mind today when I read “Udacity Says It Can Teach Tech Skills to Millions, and Fast”, an article in today’s NYTimes by Farhad Manjoo, who, based on his thumbnail picture, was probably in elementary school when Perelman was writing about micro-vouchers. How? Udacity, one of the first organizations to offer MOOCs, has determined that while MOOCs face major obstacles in providing full-fledged degrees, they can provide “nano degrees” that meet the unique and specific needs of businesses. And what is a nano degree?

The nanodegree works like this: Last year, Udacity partnered with technology companies to create online courses geared toward teaching a set of discrete, highly prized technical skills — including mobile programming, data analysis and web development. Students who complete these courses are awarded the nanodegree, a credential that Udacity has worked with Google, AT&T and other companies to turn into a new form of workplace certification.

“We can’t turn you into a Nobel laureate,” Mr. Thrun told me. “But what we can do is something like upskilling — you’re a smart person, but the skills you have are inadequate for the current job market, or don’t let you get the job you aspire to have. We can help you get those skills.”

And how does Mr. Thrun envision them being funded? By students who are willing to pay a relatively modest tuition to get a credential that may, or may not, lead to employment. And so far it seems to be working for Udacity:

So far, Udacity’s new model shows a glimmer of success. A year after the program’s start, the company has 10,000 students enrolled in its nanodegree courses, and the number is growing by a third every month. Udacity charges $200 a month for the courses (students can take as little or as much time as they want to finish). When they successfully complete a course, Udacity gives back half the tuition. The company says that a typical student will earn a nanodegree in about five months — in other words, for around $500.

Because students take several months or longer to complete their degrees, it is too soon to tell exactly how many will finish. So far, Udacity estimates the graduation rate to be about 25 percent. Thousands of workers have earned degrees, and hundreds have found new jobs as a result.

I linked these nano degrees with Perelman’s micro vouchers because I see a connection between them. Thrun’s nano degrees seem analogous to Perelman’s micro-vouchers and both models are predicated on the notion that the market place should dictate what courses are offered and where students might get their education. Both rely more on technology than human interaction, and both aspire to the same four, simple goals set forth 22 years ago by Perelman: More, Better, Faster, and Cheaper… and Perelman’s claim that this would be advantageous for children raised in poverty notwithstanding, I remain unconvinced that this will provide more opportunity for them, be a better way for them to master the content we expect all students to learn, or enable them to learn more quickly. In the final analysis, the students who WILL benefit from opportunities like nano degrees will be those whose parents and districts spent money on… a lot more money than was spent on the children raised in poverty.

The MOOCs Haven’t Materialized… Yet…

September 2, 2015 Leave a comment

Education technology writer Audrey Watters’s post “The MOOC Revolution that Wasn’t” in The Kernel” provides a comprehensive analysis of how Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, have not materialized and have, consequently, failed to deliver the promised inexpensive and equitable post-secondary education that led the NYTimes to declare 2012 “The Year of the MOOC”. While yesterday’s post links to an article by Julia Freedland that would beg to differ, and the nascent trend of unbundling higher education might make MOOCs as originally conceived immaterial, Watters examines the original promise of MOOCs versus the outcomes delivered and finds only disappointment. For example:

  • The pass rates are embarrassingly low. “…the average completion rate (for MOOCs) still hovers around 15 percent, a level that would be unacceptable for a traditional face-to-face college class.” 
  • The successful students were mostly college graduates. “…when the demographics of “successful” MOOC students were scrutinized in one University of Pennsylvania study, it was discovered that 80 percent already had college degrees. Rather than providing opportunities for the educational “have-nots,” MOOCs seem just as likely to further the opportunities of the educational “have-alreadys.” “
  • Start ups flopped. Highly touted Udacity’s program, a partnership with San Jose State University, which was “…hastily assembled” had an abysmal pass rate. “While the pass rate in a traditional, face-to-face SJSU class is 74 percent, “no more than 51 percent of Udacity students passed any of the three classes,” Inside Higher Ed reported. (Consequently) The partnership between SJSU and Udacity was scrapped.” 
  • The ultimate goal of MOOCs, it appears, was the creation of entry level jobs for computer science. Sebastian Thrun, one of the early champions of MOOCs, predicted that within 50 years they would eliminate all but ten colleges. Now? “The latest tagline used by Thrun to describe his company: “Uber for Education.” …and as Watters wryly notes, “…the analogy “Uber for Education” conjures… piecemeal work… it’s contingent and low-paid and unreliable work.” And Thrun’s new MOOC paradigm, according to Watters is based on this premise: Rather than education for all, MOOCs now merely promise education for employability. 

Could MOOCs ever realize the promise they showed three years ago? Not if we accept the world as it is now… the world Thrun and his tech billionaires see this way:

The San Jose State pilot offered the answer. “These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives,” he says. “It’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit.” 

So… rather than provide support to federal, state, and local governments who want to help students get access to computers and meet the challenges in their lives, Thrun and his ilk want to write them off to low wage jobs, consigning them forever to the lowest economic class.

My perspective: if we write off the possibility that MOOCs might provide many students with opportunities for high quality instruction we are writing off what could be a way to transform education. It would be a shame to abandon the potential of MOOCs because some tech billionaires see it as yet another means of reinforcing factory schooling and social Darwinism.

On Line Public-Private Hybrid: Win-Win or Slippery Slope?

August 4, 2015 Leave a comment

Earlier this week, Michigan Public Radio ran a story on how Manistee (MI) Area School District’s newly launched on-line charter school offers programs to 2800 students, more than twice the enrollment in the current district. The result? Manistee students have a wider array of courses to choose from and the school district raked in roughly $500,000 in additional revenue or $300/student. How did a small, rural NW Michigan district pull off such a feat? They did have help from a K12, a national charter chain who, presumably, provided the technological infrastructure the district needed to implement the program. The public radio report glossed over the specifics, but did offer this background information on how charter’s can bring new revenues to a school district:

All charter authorizers take a percentage of their charter schools’ revenue for overseeing the academies they run.

The standard is to take 3%.

For Michigan’s largest charter authorizers, Grand Valley State and Central Michigan Universities, that 3% amounts to more than $6 million apiece.

From this report it sounds as if the State funded colleges are the primary beneficiaries of the charter law in Michigan and that students, presumably, benefit from the offerings. But there are often other entities who benefit as well— and the passing mention of K12 implies the for profit entities gain from the implementation:

…Manistee leaders attracted online education giant K12 Inc, signing a five year contract to run the new Michigan Great Lakes Virtual Charter Academy.

It’s hard to know what services K12 provides and how much they are compensated for their role in overseeing “…the new Michigan Great Lakes Virtual Charter Academy.” But a report from the Detroit Free Press earlier this year noted that “…charters collect nearly $1 billion a year in state aid, often with little accountability, transparency or academic achievement.” The context of this news report was the fact that 11 of the charter authorizers in Michigan were “at risk of being suspended” because of shoddy management practices, an indication that State oversight of the program was lacking.

From my perspective, a partnership between a small rural school district strapped for revenue and an “online education giant” could be promising. Small rural districts often contract with large bus fleets to deliver students to school and many schools and colleges contract with food service firms to provide school lunch programs. If an “online education giant” is providing the technological infrastructure and software needed to manage a virtual academy it seems like a win-win. The students can enroll in more courses, no teachers lose their jobs, the “online education giant” can earn a marginal profit, the district budgets are held harmless and, perhaps, restored to previous levels, and taxpayers are relieved of absorbing additional costs.

But turning some of the operations over to an “online education giant” could be inviting that giant to assume more and more responsibility over time. If a science teacher retires, the “online education giant” could offer to have science instruction delivered on-line… or if a school board wanted to save even more money it could replace the entire staff of a school with “tutors” who would “coach” students working on-line. The “online education giant” is unlikely to be satisfied with 3% of the profit when it might be possible to collect a higher percentage or it could increase it’s profits by increasing it’s “market share”.

As one who has consulted in poor, small rural districts in New England, I can see the promise and the peril… and given the many school boards in most New England states it is easy to see that the promise of on-line partnerships as opposed to the peril. And as one who believes that close government supervision of all government spending is needed I would hope that other states learn from Michigan’s “deregulation”: for-profit entities will cut corners to make a profit if they are given the opportunity.

The Factory School: A “Clear Route” that Creates “Excellent Sheep”

July 12, 2015 Leave a comment

D.I.Y. Before Youtube“, John Grinpsan’s op ed essay in today’s NYTimes, offers a good overview of the kind of schooling students received in the 19th Century, but misses the glaring shortcomings of the factory school model that replaced it in the 20th Century. Grinspan describes how striving children of the 19th Century left school at an early age to work on the farms or factories often continued their education on their own by reading voraciously and attending literary societies to hone their debating and oratorical skills and deepen their understanding of the books and magazines they read. Grinspan’s description of the lives of striving children in the 19th Century undoubtedly glosses over the horrific lives of many children who were pressed into service in perilous mines, grim factories, and hardscrabble homesteads, but it does highlight the value of independent learning. His essay not only romanticizes the life of children in the 19th Century, though, it oversells the virtues of the education “system” that replaced became the focal point of the lives of children since that time:

After 1900, public schools proliferated and child labor dwindled, pushing up graduation rates and making schools truly systematic. This more structured style reduced individual drive, but offered an accessible, mass system that impressively bridged class divisions.

Most of all, it provided a clear route from ages 5 to 18. Well over a century later, we have no sense of how truly pathless life felt before our educational system — and how that uncertainty often inspired young people to set off on their own.

Our “truly systematic” schools have NOT eliminated the feeling of a “truly pathless life” for children today… or for children of the past several decades. The factory model for education created a “clear route from ages 5 to 18” but that route was an artifact imposed from the outside and from the top down. Children who bridled at the loss of freedom such a “clear route” imposed found their own way outside the system and children whose backgrounds did not prepare them for entry into the “clear route” were branded as “failures” and forced to develop their own paths that often led them outside of “the system”.

The testing regimen imposed from the outside and the top down today is making the absurdity of the “clear route” more evident. Consequently more and more disaffected parents are looking elsewhere, augmenting on-line coursework with devices like “the literary” to help their children interact with peers.

To paraphrase Grinspan’s closing paragraph, I hope we can re-kindle the 19th century’s opinionated go-aheadism by abandoning the 20th century’s structure, using technology and small group seminars to provide young people with a chance to find their own path to the 21st century. Maybe it starts AFTER this long, lazy summer vacation as more and more parents abandon the “passive, standardized process” that is creating “excellent sheep”.