As middle class, affluent and aspiring parents despair at standardized testing and the lockstep schooling that results from the emphasis placed on them in public schools, I expect to see more and more of them seeking alternatives to the status quo. One alternative emerging from the set of new approaches is the creation of home-school (or un-school) alliances of parents who work collaboratively to provide learning experiences for their children. In the region where I live, two institutions are beginning to serve children who are home schooled in a semi-systematic fashion: the local library and the Montshire Children’s Museum for Science in Norwich, VT. Libraries, which generally have high speed internet and extensive book and media collections are a natural resource for parents of home schoolers and can become an ad hoc meeting place for parents who provide home schooling for their children. The Montshire is a local treasure. As grandparents, my wife and I take our grandchildren there whenever they visit and no matter their age (they currently range from 2 to 11) they find some activity that engages them for hours. On a recent weekday visit to buy gifts for one of our grandchildren I observed that the museum scheduled ad hoc sessions for home schoolers when they realized that there was a critical mass of them needing opportunities to work collaboratively on projects.
This post was inspired by a Facebook post from my daughter that included a link to KQED’s Mindshift blog post titled “How Libraries are Advancing and Inspiring Schools and Communities”. After reading this it became clear to me that if they so desired, public libraries and small local museums like the Montshire could become learning hubs for those parents who are seeking an alternative to the mindless test-preparation going on in schools… or could be agents for change within schools by helping them redefine the role and mission of the library spaces and science classrooms in our digital age. Imaginative, creative, and aspiring parents are looking for a better way to engage their children… this could be pat of the answer.
For the past several days my wife and I were camping in AZ and NM, trading mud season in New England for the bright skies, dry air, and warmth of the Southwest. In our travels we met a fellow New Englander for breakfast with a group of his friends at a small Mexican restaurant outside of Tucson. Among the group was a grandmother and her two grandchildren who she was homeschooling, one of whom, nine year old Joseph (I am not using his real name), sat next to me. Joseph’s parents both have arduous work schedules: his mother works the night shift at UPS and his dad has a job that takes him out of the area for weeks at a time. In this day and age, unfortunately, these kinds of schedules are not atypical: the private sector wants to optimize personnel usage and family and community life takes a back seat as a result.
Joseph’s family decided to take him out of public school because it was overcrowded and underfunded (and, in all probability, “failing” by NCLB standards). They subsequently decided to take him out of the (undoubtedly for-profit) charter school he was accepted into because it required him to do three hours of meaningless homework each night when he was in second grade and provided no time for him to be outdoors. He is now enrolled in the Arizona Virtual Academy, operated by for-profit K-12 but accredited by the State. He’s happy in his new school. He is able to do projects he is interested in (his current “research paper” was on the effects of too much homework) and is able to progress at a faster pace than he experienced in either of his previous schools. While Joseph doesn’t get to interact regularly with students face-to-face or via Skype, he does have periodic on-line chats with a group of learning peers and plays weekly with a group of fellow fiddlers. His grandmother reported he was more motivated than he was in the public school and far less stressed than he was in his charter school and had nothing but praise for the Virtual Academy.
Joseph and his sister seemed happy to be home schooled… but I couldn’t help but note that when they learned that the restaurant owner’s son was off from school they eagerly left our company to play with him in an adjacent empty room.
Based on my reading about the state of public education in AZ, it is evident that the legislature has accomplished their mission: they’ve driven parents out of publicly funded schools into lower cost for-profit institutions that offer either rigid test-driven curricula or completely flexible and arguably less accountable virtual schools. But Joseph may be an example of a new kind of student… and may offer a way for public education to reinvent itself so that it meets the needs of children. How so?
Virtual learning could be a means of breaking the age-grade cohort factory model of schooling and if public education fought to have that outmoded model replaced with individualization of some form it could capture students like Joseph who are frustrated with the lockstep pace of the factory school and the regimentation of charter schools. Virtual learning could be the means of providing the kind of tailored education progressive educators imagined decades ago but eschew today because it is only being provided by for-profit corporations seeking to maximize profits. Here’s hoping that educators get over the current implementation of virtual learning and see the possibilities it offers for students to master material at their own pace.
Earlier this month, Kevin Carey wrote an Upshot article that, if anything, understated the value of “badges” or “verified certificates” as opposed to degrees. As noted in several earlier posts and described in Carey’s article, “badges” are earned by the completion of a series of courses or activities embedded in a course, and when these “badges” are recognized as bona fide credentials the MOOC movement will gain irreversible traction:
Free online courses won’t revolutionize education until there is a parallel system of free or low-fee credentials, not controlled by traditional colleges, that leads to jobs. Now technological innovators are working on that, too.
The Mozilla Foundation, which brought the world the Firefox web browser, has spent the last few years creating what it calls the Open Badges project. Badges are electronic credentials that any organization, collegiate or otherwise, can issue. Badges indicate specific skills and knowledge, backed by links to electronic evidence of how and why, exactly, the badge was earned.
Some of the commenters criticized Carey’s naiveté or his desire to turn higher education into a utilitarian enterprise that turns out “cogs in the machine”. From where I sit, “badges” have tremendous promise for students— especially those students who are NOT engaged in formal education past high school or those directionless students who enroll in college because it is what their parents expect. Moreover, from my perspective as a former employer and a current consumer I can think of several places where “badges” are already in place:
- Technology repairs
- Auto repairs
- Medical providers
- Real Estate
The list could be extended endlessly because we are obsessed with credentials, many of which, as Carey notes, are meaningless at worst and obtuse at best:
… H.R. departments know what a bachelor’s degree is. “Verified certificates” are something new. But employers have a powerful incentive to move in this direction: Traditional college degrees are deeply inadequate tools for communicating information.
The standard diploma has roughly the same amount of information that prisoners of war are required to divulge under the Geneva Conventions. College transcripts are a nightmare of departmental abbreviations, course numbers of indeterminate meaning, and grades whose value has been steadily eroded by their inflation.
Instead of the diploma being the coin of the realm for HR staff, a detailed summary of the skills learned at college would take it’s place… in effect a portfolio of the work completed in college would replace the numeric GPA and single sheet of course listings. Once that takes place, HR staff members will likely place a diploma bearing applicant on equal footing with a non-degrees applicant who has superior job-specific skills as evidenced by a certificate. This happens already in technology-related areas where an applicant with a specific product certification is deemed superior to someone with a generic computer technology degree when they are applying. In our school district which used Apple computers, for example, we sought “Apple Certifications” in all applicants and valued experience in a school environment over a generic technology degree. I imagine auto dealers seek the same kind of product-specific training in their applicants and trust that the phlebotomist at my doctor’s office has certification in that area.
As Carey reports, the details on “badges” are being worked out in an organic fashion… and once they are worked out and in place the MOOC revolution will happen rapidly and education at all levels will need to adapt just as quickly.
A few days ago, Kevin Carey wrote an op ed article that I wrote a post on. Today, NYTimes columnist Joe Nocera wrote a piece on “The End of College”, a book Carey has published. Nocera basically recounts the information from Carey’s earlier column, and concludes his essay with Carey’s assertion that “…it was inevitable that we were going to see an increased educational experience at a far lower cost.” I hope Mr. Carey is correct… for if he is it will signal the end of the factory school and the advent of the kind of Network School I described in “Reformatting New England Schools“. As I noted in the comment I left on Nocera’s column, Carey’s thinking echoes that of Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, published in 1971 and fittingly available for free on line:
As I’ve noted in several previous posts, chapter 6, “Learning Webs” which envisions a pre-internet version of experiential learning that is now feasible given the reach of web, is especially prescient. And, as noted in several earlier posts, what is particularly distressing to those of us who valued the thinking of “radicals” like Illich is this: technology COULD be a force for creativity, individualization and innovation in education. Instead we are using technology to administer standardized tests and keep records on children that reinforce the factory model of education.
My hope is that at some juncture we’ll appreciate what schooling COULD look like if we abandoned our current model of batching children by age cohorts and pouring information into them… and whether he knows it or not, Joe Nocera just got on the bandwagon to move beyond factory schools!
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.