Richard Elmore’s Inside Higher Ed blog post titled “The Future is Learning, But What About Schooling” describes his entry into the world of MOOCs after teaching at Harvard Graduate School of Education for two decades. The post describes the kind of schooling– or more accurately DE-schooling or UN-schooling— that I see evolving in the next two decades as more and more parents and students opt out of “school” and opt into “learning”. What’s the difference?
The future of learning in society is virtually unlimited, at least for the foreseeable future. Learning is the conversion of information into knowledge; information, in the digital age has become a vast sea of ones and zeros; information becomes knowledge by passing through some medium that transforms the ones and zeros into a conceptually organized form.
Students are schooled for adult approval and conformity to highly standardized, institutionalized expectations, created by people in positions of public authority who have no knowledge whatsoever of how learning works as an individual and social activity.
Stated differently: learning is an individuating activity; schooling is a norming activity… and in this day and age where children and adults— particularly with technological know-how— can design custom radio and TV stations, receive customized news feeds, and expect high quality service when they shop, norming activities are an anathema. In the coming years, as technological literacy spreads, more and more parents and children will become accustomed to customization and individualization and be less and less open to receiving standardized instruction…. and technology makes it possible for all instruction to be individualized with one notable exception. The transmission of the “…skills required to negotiate this increasingly complex world” which do not hinge on “…adult approval and conformity to highly standardized, institutionalized expectations” but rather the ability to interact with peers and the ability to analyze the information that is learned.
After reading Elmore’s post I left the following comment:
I re-read Deschooling Society a few years ago… and it is amazing how prescient Illich was. Illich, too, was “fascinated with the future of learning as a social activity” and skeptical “about the future of institutionalized schooling as a setting for learning”. Many of the trends in on-line learning point to a time when decentralized seminar groups will replace classrooms on campus, when ad hoc certificates for specific skill sets replace “courses” and “diplomas”, and ad hoc certificate providers replace rigid institutions that offer credentials. The decentralizing trend will only be accelerated if we continue to use our test-centric method of accountability because it IS “…hard to imagine an institutional structure for learning that is less suited for the future than the heavily institutionalized, hierarchical world that education reformers have constructed.”
Readers of this blog know that I have long advocated the need for ALL homes to have broadband access if we ever expect public schools to take full advantage of technology and ever hope to use technology as a means to provide equitable opportunity. Today’s NYTimes reports that Obama will be pushing to pass federal legislation that overrides state laws that prohibit or limit broadband expansion.
A sidebar: I am beginning to sense that Obama has waited until NOW to push legislation that will be disagreeable to the private sector because he no longer needs their campaign $$$. If my conclusion is accurate. it is further evidence that Citizens United needs to be repealed. Here’s hoping THIS Congress, which appears to be beholden to the telecomm business, will not throw a monkey wrench into Obama’s charge to the FCC.
Just before Christmas blogger Audrey Watters posted an essay titled “What is Competency Based Education” that defined that term as follows:
Rather than moving students together through materials for a fixed duration of a class, CBE enables students to move at their own pace through the curriculum. They are assessed along the way, and if they can demonstrate “competency” on a particular skill, they can move forward to the next. This is seen as an alternative to traditional models where students receive a grade — and credit — at the end of the course, but that grade can range from A to D, meaning that students have attained very different levels of understanding of the course materials.
I’ve used a set of questions she posed at the end of that article to write a series on the topic of CBE, which is the instructional backbone for what I call “Network Schools”. This post is part of that series.
What support systems — people and technology — need to be in place for schools to successfully move to CBE? What other frameworks need to be in place to promote a “progressive” CBE?
CBE schools may not require additional staff… but… CBE schools WILL require the re-deployment of existing staff at all levels. As noted in earlier posts, in CBE schools students will not be assigned to “classes” in age-based “grades”. Instead of having a sequence of “grade-level” teachers or content area teachers, CBE students will be assigned to an academic advisor-coach who would follow their progress through the mastery of fundamental competencies (i.e. what is currently expected of students leaving eighth grade). While this kind of extended advisor-coach relationship is uncommon in public education, it is typical in Waldorf Schools where an age cohort of students is instructed by a single teacher through eighth grade. In such an arrangement student progress more anecdotal and not wholly determined by test results and, most importantly, the student and parent have a sustained relationship with an individual who gets to know a student well. This requires a different skill set than the factory school teacher: it values nurturance and developmental psychology over knowledge of a specific skill and test construction and administration.
In order to provide the kind of asynchronous learning described in earlier posts, CBE schools would require broadband access in all student and teacher residences and would require an airtight student information systems that ensure confidentiality between the student and academic advisor-coach and/or between the academic advisor-coach and parent. Many teachers and parents are rightfully concerned about the sharing of data with for-profit enterprises, yet the pushback against the mandated data management systems in the health area has been minimal. The CBE data management system described above, where the information is not shared with for-profit enterprises, is analogous to the way a pediatrician or other health professional stores and shares information with parents, patients (e.g. children) and other health professionals. If we can entrust health information with medical personnel of all educational backgrounds, we should be open to doing the same when it comes to educators and related service providers. An essay I wrote several years ago, A Homeland Security Bill for Education, describes how interagency communication might facilitate learning for students who are part of the social service web. In the intervening years since the publication of that article the capability of data sharing has increased but the interagency firewalls remain in place.
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.