Hack Education, Audrey Watters weekly blog, is always engaging and chock full of articles that are not typically covered in the mainstream press. Like one of my other favorite bloggers, Yves Smith who writes the Naked Capitalism blog, Watters offers an array of links with pithy, funny, and occasionally obscene commentary on each of the articles. Her one word comment to a link to a post from Heartland Institute’s “Somewhat Reasonable” titled “How On-Line Education Can Save Conservatism” was: “Shudder“. After reading it I had the same response.
Heartland Institute is a Chicago based “30-year-old national nonprofit research organization dedicated to finding and promoting ideas that empower people.” A quick inspection of it’s home page indicates the website has a trove of articles on the climate change hoax, the benefits of free enterprise, the importance of liberty, and the idea that liberals are taking over. Here is it’s mission statement, with my emphases added:
The mission of The Heartland Institute is to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems. Such solutions include parental choice in education, choice and personal responsibility in health care, market-based approaches to environmental protection, privatization of public services, and deregulation in areas where property rights and markets do a better job than government bureaucracies.
The Heartland Institute is a national nonprofit research and education organization based in Chicago. Founded in 1984, it is tax exempt under Section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code. It is not affiliated with any political party, business, or foundation.
Heartland has gained the endorsement of some of the top scholars, thinkers and politicians in the world – including Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman, former Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus, Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist, radio talk show host and constitutional scholar Mark R. Levin, and conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC). See all the heavyweights who praise Heartland here.
Here’s what made me shudder: some of the ideas advocated in the article written by Justin Harkin echo ideas advocated in this blog and many other blogs written by those who believe that technology could make it possible to individualize education… and underscores the reality that if public education does not encourage cross communication among different economic classes and among children coming from households with markedly differing views on the world, technology will ultimately lead to a nation that is even more divided and more contentious than we have today.
The article begins with a litany describing how “U.S. education is rife with liberalism” because, as presumably everyone knows, “Teachers colleges and teachers unions have worked tirelessly to ensure that school systems across the country are stocked with educators that reject traditional free-market and liberty-focused curricula.” It goes on to provide survey data from UCLA faculty indicating the majority of them identify themselves as “far left” or “liberal”. At the end of the opening section it poses the question of how conservative parents might deal with this reality, answering that question with this paragraph:
The obvious answer is for parents to send children to private schools that embrace personal responsibility and liberty or to start homeschooling. In both situations, however, time, funding, and the teaching ability of the parent may stand in the way as nearly insurmountable obstacles. This is where the advancement of online education could save the day.
The rationale for using mediated on-line learning is very similar to the rationale often advanced in this blog:
Digital learning stands on its own or adds great blended value because it can adapt to the capacity and speed of individual learners, provide minute-by-minute feedback on learning progress, and provide rewards suitable for individual learners. It is similar to an imaginary inexhaustible, highly skilled tutor.
Justin Harkin then outlines how on-line learning to “…advance the cause of liberty”, describing the “astounding” results achieved by “highly successful private and charter schools (that) have taken advantage of this new technology,” offering Rocketship as an exemplar. His article concludes with this call to arms:
…It’s up to conservatives, Tea Party groups, private schools that espouse liberty, and homeschools to build educational systems that promote the values that built America. Technology has made the once-reasonable excuses of cost, location, and time no longer applicable.
With some hard work and innovative thinking, conservatives now have the opportunity to combat the liberal tide that has swept across the country’s education system over the past 50 years.
The call to arms to abandon public schools on the right is mirrored to a degree by the call to arms to abandon the testing regimen among progressives and the fact that technology DOES make it easier to home school, to offer alternative education programs for children, or to “un-school” could lead to a generation of students who never hear viewpoints that are antithetical to those held by their parents.
I may have a romanticized view of my schooling. I recall being in classes taught by both liberal and conservative teachers, both progressive and traditional teachers, and teachers of different races and ethnicities. I was in classes with “gifted” and “average” students— or more accurately classes with classmates whose parents attended college and classmates whose parents worked in the local factories or on the local farms. I was exposed to a full spectrum of political views and Western religions.
I may also have a romanticized view of the era I grew up in, the late 1950s and early 1960s. I was allowed to explore the woods near our house, play pick-up ball games with kids of all races and backgrounds, and went on family camping vacations across the United States. I was active in our church youth fellowship, played piano and guitar, acted in school plays, and, in retrospect, was generally happy with the opportunities I had in public school. More importantly, I had a sense that the community cared about our generation and wanted us to have a better life. There was a hope that we would not have any more wars, that we would achieve racial harmony, that everyone would have a chance to get ahead, and we had a responsibility to help those who were less fortunate. Did I get that sense from my parents? From the three major networks who broadcast the news and offered TV programs? From the teachers in my school?
The homeschooling and charter schooling advocated in the Heartland blog and the Opt Out and Un-Schooling movements are all driven by disenfranchised parents who believe that public schools are too constraining or inculcating the wrong values. As technology advances, public education needs to make it clear that one of it’s primary functions is to teach children how to live in a democracy under the rule of law. It cannot do that if the school district boundaries segregate students based on economics and— yes– race, or if parents who espouse “liberty” and “Christian values” withhold their children, or if parents who value creativity and despise the regimentation resulting from standardized tests abandon public schools. It cannot do that if children stay at home working in front of computers or attend seminars with other children with like-minded parents. The fragmentation that is envisioned in the Heartland blog… that makes me shudder.
A post from Diane Ravitch yesterday provided a link to a report by UCLA professor Noel Enyedy titled “Personalized Instruction: New Interest, Old Rhetoric, Limited Results, and the Need for a New Direction For Computer Mediated Instruction”.
At the outset of the report, Enyedy offers his definition for Personalized Instruction and differentiates it from Personalized Learning:
It is critical to note that “Personalized Instruction” is not the same as “personalized learning,” even though promoters and vendors of technological systems often use the terms interchangeably. Personalized instruction focuses on tailoring the pace, order, location, and content of a lesson uniquely for each student—as when a software program introduces a quiz at some point during instruction and then, based on the student’s score, either presents the student with new material or with a review of material not yet mastered. It is a rebranding of the idea of individualized instruction first promoted in the 1970s, before the widespread availability of personal computers.
Personalized learning, on the other hand, places the emphasis on the process of learning as opposed to attending exclusively to the delivery of content. Personalized learning refers to the ways teachers or learning environments can vary the resources, activities, and teaching techniques to effectively engage as many students as possible—as when, for example, students with a stronger intuitive understanding of the topic are assigned to small groups and given a challenging task to independently extend their understanding while the teacher concurrently works directly with a small group of students who have less prior knowledge of the topic. This interpretation of “personal” does not imply that each student receives a unique educational experience, but instead that students are provided with multiple entry points and multiple trajectories through a lesson.
Enyedy, after emphasizing that the scope of this study is limited to personalized instruction, does an admirable job of outlining the rationale for expanding the use of technology supported “Personalized Instruction”. He describes and analyzes the shortcomings of the factory school model, noting its inability to provide students with the “critical thinking and independent agency” needed to function in a democracy.
In his description of on-line and blended personalized instruction, Enydey identifies one major problem with its implementation to date: inequity.
Research has found that schools in less affluent areas are more likely to use the technology for remedial instruction and for drill and practice, whereas affluent schools are more likely to use technology in ways that advance problem solving and conceptual understanding. These choices, often left up to individual teachers, have serious implications for equity within the classroom and across schools and districts.
Enydey then attempted to perform a meta-analysis of personalized instruction models, an analysis that he acknowledged was limited because there were not a sufficient number of K-12 systems in place. This meant the lion’s share of the studies he analyzed were at the college level where student agency was arguably higher. But the meta-analysis also incorporated one other flaw, which this paragraph flags:
The study examined the standardized test scores for the same three blended learning schools compared with three other schools in the district to see if the gap between high and low achievers was closed by using blended instruction for one year. The study showed that neither blended learning nor face-to-face instruction in this district was particularly successful at improving the performance of lower achieving students. The gap closed 3% in the blended learning schools compared with the 2% improvement in the comparison schools that used conventional teaching methods.
The flaw is that Enydey, like most policy makers, cannot shake the age-based grade-level paradigm that is the basis of the factory school! If we are to abandon the factory model, we have to also abandon the notion that time is constant and learning is variable…. and therefore abandon the use of our current standardized tests to measure “student learning”. That is, we should not measure how much a student has learned in one year, but devise a means of measuring the extent to which a student is making progress in learning-how-to-learn. To date, we have no means of measuring that and so we continue to measure what it EASY to measure instead of what is IMPORTANT to measure, relying on a factory metric instead of a more holistic metric.
Another flaw in the study is the failure to acknowledge and advocate for more access to technology in schools and, more importantly, in the homes of students nd teachers. This paragraph touches on that topic:
In one RAND study,40 based on the actual expenditures of schools that transitioned to an Intelligent Tutoring System for Algebra 1, the cost increased an average of $120 per student for the one course. This increase was reduced to $70 per student per class in schools with a good existing technological infrastructure. However, as many as half the schools in implementation studies undertaken by SRI Education41 and RAND42 were found to need a substantial investment in their technological infrastructure before they could take advantage of Personalized Instruction.
Presiden Obama’s support for a new surtax on phone services to raise $3 billion for schools is a step in the right direction if we ever hope to address the inequities among schools… but in order to provide each and every student with the same opportunities to learn, as emphasized repeatedly in this blog, we need to provide each and every student and teacher with high speed internet at their doorsteps. Until every child can access the power of the internet in their home and every teacher can access the comprehensive data packages outside of school we will be stuck with the models for teaching and learning we have today.
Enydey does note near the end of his paper that the current models in place: on-line instruction and personalized instruction, may be replaced with something different in the future:
The type of computer technology that many believe will lead to transformational change will be technologies built around the process of learning and that attempt to enhance human-to-human interaction, not supplant it: technologies that spark conversations and inquiry; technologies that support these conversations with tools for visualization, simulation, analysis and communication; technologies that allow the students to create physical or computational objects; and technologies that allow students to share their ideas and solutions with their peers and larger social networks for feedback and refinement. There are many promising new models for how computers should be used to support learning.
These promising new models are predicated on two major changes: one a change of thinking on our part and the other an investment in technology. We need to change our thinking by abandoning the factory school model, which will lead to the abandonment of age-based student cohorts and the abandonment of standardized tests as the measure of “learning”. And, we need to make a he investment in our nation’s technology infrastructure by ensuring that each school and home has the means of providing personalized instruction AND learning to students.
Each week I get a “Hack Education“, a compendium of news stories entertainingly complied by blogger Audrey Waters. Waters’s stories tend to focus on education technology but they often range into other fields and, like Yves Smith, are presented with witty and occasionally snarky commentary. One commentary in this week’s Hack Education caught my attention:
This is pretty much the worst piece of writing about education technology I’ve ever seen published in a major publication. Didn’t stop Edsurge from covering it and strangely attributing it to the WSJ and not Forbes. But hey.
Needless to say, I HAD to click on the link and read the article by Forbes contributor Phil DeMuth that was bad but maybe NOT the worst piece I’ve read— but I may be less selective in reading about EdTech than Ms. Waters. I must confess that DID find myself nodding in agreement with some of the ideas it presented… lectures ARE boring and an inefficient means of teaching and MOOCs that consist solely of lectures are thus ineffective. And I agree that B. F. Skinner’s concepts are germane to on-line learning and should not be ignored. But I feel that DeMuth was too dismissive of Sal Khan’s work and oversold B.F. Skinner’s programmed learning as an efficient and effective means of replacing the direct instruction method we have in place.
From my perspective,Khan Academy-style teaching and learning holds the greatest promise for providing high quality supplementary instruction to large numbers of students. Sal Khan, unlike B.F. Skinner, acknowledges that he cannot replace the work of a classroom teacher. Rather he believes he can transform the teacher’s role. Instead of delivering chunks of information to groups of students batched by age cohorts and grading those students on their performance on periodic examinations the teacher can allow students to progress through lessons in content areas where information is hierarchically organized. This frees the time of the teacher to serve as a tutor in many content areas, using their accumulated skill and content knowledge to match the presentation of the materials with the child’s intellectual maturity and their accumulated skill and knowledge of child psychology to connect with each child in a fashion that motivates them to want to learn. The shift from “sage on the stage to guide on the side” could actually occur if the teacher was no longer required to BE on a stage. The Khan Academy approach provides each student with a master teacher who can patiently provide an array of approaches so that each child can learning skills in step-wise progression or hear presentations of factual content in a fashion that will reinforce assigned readings. In effect, the large group instruction and lecture format could be replaced with supported self-directed learning— which is how self-actualized adults continue learning.
DeMuth’s biggest flaw notion that B.F. Skinner’s programmed learning is different from the traditional stand-and-deliver approach to teaching. Like the traditional model, Skinner assumes that knowledge is something that is pre-determined and poured into an individual. The lecturer splatters the content on a hall full of students while Skinner directs the stream more precisely… but in both cases the prescribed content is externally defined and imposed. The promise of education technology is that the teacher can help the student learn how to learn so the student can be the agent for learning and not a passive recipient. The current system of schooling, the factory model, insists that all students learn prescribed information at the same time. A network model would allow students to seek out the knowledge they want to master when they want to and allow the teacher to help the student to understand when mastery is accomplished. We need to use technology to help us move beyond factory schools instead of using it to make the factory school more efficient.
This BBC article about how online students have gravitated toward face-to-face “learning hubs” reminded me to the perhaps apocryphal story of how architects design walkways: instead of determining their placement in advance they wait to see where students walk and THEN put them in place.
Coursera, faced with high drop out rates, has subcontracted the operation of learning hubs to partner organizations who provide “…a place where students following Coursera online courses can come to study together and get help from mentors.” While anyone familiar with student learning could have told Coursera that most students would not thrive in a completely isolated independent learning environment, the fact that these hubs grew organically is a testament to the fact that an organization committed to disruption can modify its approach much more quickly and effectively than institutions like colleges and– yes– public schools can. Oh… and formal “learning hubs” are quickly being overtaken by self-organized “meet-ups”, as described in the BBC article:
As well as the more formal learning hubs, self-organised “meet-ups” for Coursera students have sprung up in more than 3,700 cities around the world, based around specific Coursera online courses.
For example, in London there are groups meeting in cafes at the British Library and the South Bank Centre. In Paris, there are meetings in the Pompidou Centre and in university buildings.
Meet-ups are held in a whole range of public places, where students want to discuss and debate these digital courses.
They’re scheduled and arranged online, with the only vital ingredients being a laptop, wi-fi and somewhere to talk.
From where I sit and write this… in the Howe Library in Hanover NH, this is the future of education.
I recently reblogged a lengthy post from blogger Bob Shepherd that dealt with the relationship between the CCSS and the big data, adding a dystopian overview based on the current trajectory of “schooling”. A very brief summary of his analysis: when publishers saw that open source course materials could undercut their business they decided to develop a uniform set of curriculum guidelines that would enable them to retain a stranglehold on the sales of curriculum materials. My comments envisioned a world where 20% of the students were home schooled or unschooled, 40% attended for-profit charters using some form of vouchers, and only 40% of the students remained in “government operated” schools. i concluded my dystopian outlook with this sentence: The likelihood of this trajectory increases as long as we define “good schooling” as “high test scores” based on age-based grade-level groupings… and for that reason we need to de-couple “schooling” from “testing”.
What would a Utopian future look like? I think that it is possible that open source advocates and progressive educators could develop a De-schooling platform that would enable students to progress at their own pace through learning materials that are readily available on-line. “Schools” would be replaced by “Community Learning Centers” where teacher/counselor/coaches would help students master fundamental reading and mathematical skills and help students find materials that interest them, compel reflective thinking, and foster intellectual growth. The Community Learning Centers would also house offices for public social service and health agencies and provide before and after “school” child care. Classrooms where students are efficiently batched by age and grade level would be replaced by ad hoc seminar rooms where teacher/counselor/coaches guide dialogues.
This kind of future might be possible for some students without public schools… well educated homeschooling parents have already created their own version of this utopian platform (without the health and social services) by pooling resources to rent space and create “learning centers” where their children are free to learn at their own pace. The parents of these students recognize the value and importance of divergent thinking, creativity, and dialogue and see that those elements of schooling are not valued in schools where testing dominates the environment. If we are not encouraging divergent and creative thinking we are leaving an entire portion of a generation behind… and at this point in time our mania with testing is doing just that.
Three posts from three different sources illustrate the emerging and irresistible trend of parents resisting the “reform” that is really “hyper-standardization”.
The first post, by Rebecca Mead of the New Yorker, “The Defiant Parents: Testing’s Discontents”, describes how the Brooklyn New School is supporting and assisting parents of 5th graders who want their children to be able to opt out of the standardized tests that are used to rank schools and, increasingly, rate teachers. The fifth grade social justice curriculum at the New School asked students to consider the question “What are we willing to stand up for?”… and seizing on that question the Principal invite parents to opt out of the mandated tests and instead take two 45 minute “alternative tests” that the NYC district administers. Mead describes the “…burgeoning opt-out movement, with parents, teachers, and administrators questioning the efficacy of the tests as they are currently administered, in measuring both the performance of teachers and the progress of students.” The post also provides an overview of the shenanigans of testing giant Pearson and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s derisive comments about “white suburban moms who—all of a sudden—[find] their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” Mead’s synopsis of the opt-out movement is different from Duncan’s:
Parents in this year’s opt-out movement are standing up for something larger than their own child’s test-day happiness: the conviction that all children have better things to do with their days than fill in bubbles on a multiple-choice sheet, and that all children have better things to do with their heads than bang them against a table in despair.
“Owning Up to Being a Homeschool Parent”, the second post, is written by Jennifer Kulynych in the January 22 NYTimes Motherlode blog. Dismayed with the lack of challenge her daughter experienced in the public schools in NYC but unable to afford the pricy private schools, Kulynych describes her reluctant decision to homeschool her child. She was initially unwilling to acknowledge to her employer and co-workers that she was undertaking this role, and describes the daunting schedule she faced once she decided to homeschool, but on balance she found the experience extremely rewarding:
What bolsters my wavering confidence are my daughter, who begs to continue home schooling, and, surprisingly, how much fun we are having. Our educational collaboration transcends the mother-daughter conflicts of impending adolescence: Together we are co-conspirators in a counterculture adventure, eating our academic dessert first whenever we like.
Kulynych concludes with this paragraph, which succintly describes the expected expansion and anticipated result of Network Schooling:
… I can’t help thinking that there must be others like me: working professionals who, out of necessity, because the economics are so compelling, or simply for the fun of it, are home-schooling their children sotto voce, on the quiet. If we spoke up, maybe we would dispel the skepticism and the stigma. And we might argue we’re in the vanguard of educational progress: According to Wired magazine, researchers find that children make the greatest academic gains when we spend less time lecturing them and more time equipping them to teach themselves. Done right, that’s home schooling at its best.
The final link in this post comes from a post by Diane Ravitch on “Hackschooling”. Ravitch’s post included a link to this TEDx Talk by a 13-year old self-proclaimed “Hackschooler” from Nevada named Logan LaPlante. While LaPlante’s educational and life goal— to be happy and healthy— is probably unattainable, it is in the final analysis more worthy that that of Race to the Top or any outcome sought by, say, the Business Roundtable or the US Chamber of Commerce. Ravtich concluded that LaPlante’s talk
…is a plaintive and passionate protest against the factory model, industrial age in which he cram information and instructions and tests down the throats of bright young people and expect them to like it. They don’t.
Earlier in the post, though, Ravtich made a statement that I thought missed a larger point, and responded with this comment:
You write that this form of schooling “…is not for everyone, only for those who are very self-motivated, curious, energetic, and industrious…” but this is precisely what schools need to turn out for the jobs of the future. Our schools today are designed to squelch self-motivation, curiosity, and energy and we are surprised when students are not industrious. Kids like Logan know they can learn more looking at screens that interest them than they can by looking at books that prepare them for tests on the common core. Schools need to change the way they do business to encourage this kind of self-directed learning instead of insisting on batching students into age-based cohorts.
And here’s what’s REALLY perplexing: the business community that clamors for standardization in schools is simultaneously clamoring for “self-motivated, curious, energetic and industrious” workers. What’s wrong with this picture?
I believe the testing regimen will soon be behind us, and the factory model of schooling might not be far behind. Once parents like those in the Brooklyn New School, like Jennifer Kulynych, and like Logan LaPlante’s leave the reservation it will be hard to get them back… and easy for them to find disillusioned kindred spirits in the ranks of public education. Here’s hoping that those students remaining in public education have an opportunity to seek happiness and health.
A Bloomberg Technology article reports that only 5% of those who signed up for MOOCs offered by Harvard and MIT completed those courses, using that data point as evidence that MOOCs are not all they are cracked up to be. I’m not so quick to jump off the MOOC bandwagon for several reasons:
First and foremost, I believe the reason for these MOOCs low pass rate is that K-12 education requires compliance and teacher oversight while MOOCs require initiative, self-direction, and the ability to learn independently. The irony in this is that the business community claims it wants creative, self-directed and independent thinking employees and yet it insists that schools use standardized tests to measure the effectiveness of K-12 schools and teachers.
Secondly, these aren’t just ANY MOOCs: they are ones offered by MIT and Harvard, neither of whom watered down the course they offered nor, to the best of my knowledge, made any effort to make their courses appealing to a broader audience. Roughly 5% of those who apply to Harvard and/or MIY get in. Is it any surprise that only 5% of those who TRIED a course from those institutions COMPLETED the course?
Third, as the article noted, getting a certificate of completion may not have been the goal of those who registered for free. I have one retired friend who watches philosophy lectures given at an elite institution with his wife and afterwards they use the material from the course as a springboard for discussion. I’m sure that somewhere there are “MOOC Clubs” springing up the same way there are “Book Clubs” and folks are convening meetings to learn from each other in addition to learning from the lectures.
Finally, the fact that only highly educated people signed up for MOOCs is not evidence that they will not eventually be a democratizing force. At this point, only a few technologically informed individuals are aware of the opportunity to take on-line courses for free. Once more guidance counselors, home school parents, and parents who want to provide supplementary learning opportunities for their children learn of MOOCs, their enrollment base will expand and the availability of free courses from leading institutions will expand opportunities. Indeed, even with a 5% completion rate, 43,000+ students completed courses at Harvard and MIT: that’s FAR more than attend those colleges and even more students will be registering once the word spreads.
I am still convinced that the curve for MOOCs will bend upward like the curve for the use of cell phones. MOOCs, like cell phones, are marginally lower in quality but drastically higher in convenience and in meeting individual needs. Don’t count them out yet….