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The Case for Broadband for ALL – Part 2 Urban Schools

January 10, 2016 Leave a comment

Friday’s Nation on line featured an article by Maya Wiley describing how New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has taken steps in the past two years to bridge the digital divide. The problem in NYC is not access to the broadband lines themselves but poverty. Wiley eloquently describe the importance of broadband for urban children and the obstacles the mayor faced to bring it to all residents:

Few would debate that the information superhighway is both an on-ramp and HOV lane for the global economy. Whether a resident needs to get online to access homework or supplemental educational tools, to search for a job or start a business, broadband is a necessity. Most may not realize how many can’t afford it. Jillian Maldonado, a South Bronx single mom who was earning $300 a week as an Avon representative is an all-too-familiar victim of the digital divide. After a long day, she would come home, make her young son dinner, and then take him past the check-cashing store, a small grocery, and the occasional drug dealer to get to the library to get him online to do his homework.

A family that doesn’t know how it will make its monthly rent payment may not have $75 a month for in-home broadband, let alone a computer. More than a third of low-income New Yorkers still do not have broadband at home. It’s why this year, for the first time in the history of the city, we added a broadband category to the capital budget and pledged $70 million over the next 10 years towards free or low-cost wireless service for low-income communities. These investments are part of the mayor’s aggressive approach to expanding broadband access.

There is no off-roading to solve income inequality for people of color. They must have broadband. And the solutions for neighborhoods where most residents struggle to make ends meet require accountability and fair play by large telecommunications firms. Mayor de Blasio has been unflinching in his demand that firms like Verizon and those trying to enter the New York market, like Charter and Altice (which has entered into a deal to buy Cablevision that will require City approval), play by the rules, be transparent, and demonstrate that they will contribute to the public interest, not solely their own. Verizon, in particular, which is under contractual obligation with the City to bring high-speed fiber-optic service to all New York households that want it, is key to ensuring more competition.

But the large incumbent firms tend to lack business models that make services available to those who can’t pay for their broadband packages. Bringing costs down substantially requires many more market entrants than we currently have in New York. We can work on that.

There are two common threads to the problem of providing internet access to rural and urban areas. First, as Wiley charitably noted, “…large incumbent firms tend to lack business models that make services available to those who can’t pay for their broadband packages”… which is to say there is no profit involved in providing internet services to poor people unless it is through the collection of interest on unpaid bills, a practice that effectively penalizes poor people for their poverty. Secondly, some level of government funding is necessary. Later in her article Wiley describes how community organizations can band together to provide the “last mile” of the broadband highway, but as she notes the local government will be budgeting $700,000,000 of capital costs to provide broadband for all.

Ms. Wiley doesn’t say so explicitly, but her article does make it clear that the provision of broadband is not just an economic issue… it is a social justice issue. We cannot expect children born into neighborhoods and communities without internet access to compete with children who use technology from the time their parents believe it is acceptable.

The Case for Broadband for ALL – Part I: Rural Schools

January 9, 2016 Leave a comment

I’ve written several earlier posts on the requirement that broadband be available to ALL if we ever ope to use technology effectively in education, and three articles in the past week underscore the urgency to do this and directly or indirectly underscore the fact that only the government can make this happen.

Earlier this week “Salvaging Education in Rural Tennessee” Rachel Martin’s article in the Atlantic described how broadband brought wider horizons and more success to students in Fentress County, a remote rural Tennessee school district. Focussed on the efforts of Phil Brannon, the Principal at York Institute, the one high school in that region, Martin describes how rural poverty impacts students:

As the Southern Education Foundation announced last January, a majority of the schoolchildren attending the nation’s public schools now come from low-income families. The implications, for rural, urban, and suburban children alike, are serious. Students who come to school hungry often find it difficult to focus on learning. Students without computers or Internet access may have trouble with their homework. Students who are homeless or need clothing or lack medical care can develop behavioral problems.

She describes the persistent poverty in Fentress County, which sounds much like the economic conditions communities face in the North Country of NH and the Northeast Kingdom of VT, and asks Mr. Brannon to explain what helped him turn around the school he leads. Here’s his response:

It’s been a bit more of a challenge to integrate technology into York’s classrooms. By next semester, the school should have 300 Chromebooks, a set of servers to replace the 10-year-old ones the school currently uses, and a new wi-fi system that won’t crash from overuse; ultimately, the goal is to equip each student with a computer. Brannon worries that without that daily computer use, his students will fall behind their urban and suburban peers. Plus, technology is economical. According to Brannon’s calculations, the school spends almost $80,000 a year on textbooks, but e-books are a third that cost.

The school is lucky because the local service provider in Fentress County used the Recovery Act to wire the community, so Brannon just needs the hardware. This is one place York has an advantage over some other rural districts. According to a recent study by Education Week’s Benjamin Herold, rural districts pay up to 2.5 times as much as urban schools for internet service, and then it is too slow for teachers to use in their classrooms. This means 21 million students lack access to adequate Internet service.

And while technology isn’t, as Herold told me, “an automatic panacea for rural schools,” experts say access to the Internet can offset rural students’ disadvantages through dual-enrollment classes, adaptive-learning software, distance learning, and access to communities of educators.

So… how did a remote Tennessee district get internet access? The same way that same county likely received electricity: the federal government underwrote the initiative using stimulus funds. Would the children in this remote TN outpost have gotten high speed internet without ARRA funding? Given the high rates charged by the private sector to string fiber to areas where few paying customers live it is unlikely. And the result of not having internet: an entire group of students and teachers would not have access to “…dual-enrollment classes, adaptive-learning software, distance learning, and access to communities of educators”.

Education Technology in ESSA? Dream On!

December 27, 2015 Leave a comment

Last week the Google Public Schools feed led to “Education Technology in the Every Student Succeeds Act” an article written by Doug Mesecar for the American Action Forum, a self-described Center-Right Think tank. In the article Mesecar describes the kind of personalized education that could be delivered given the technology available to teachers today:

Yet we’ve known for decades that personalized learning is a vastly better approach.  A 1984 study led by education psychologist Benjamin Bloom found that students given one-on-one instruction consistently performed two standard deviations better than their peers in a regular classroom. That’s enough to vault an average student to the top of the class.

Until recently, technology advancements that may have seemed far-fetched a decade earlier have made this personalized approach possible….

Powerful, adaptive edtech means that all students can have — as part of their instructional team — a digital instructor to help them learn what they need to know, when they need to know it, at their own pace and place.

There is no excuse for doing things the old way, and federal legislation is trying to ensure the old way goes away.  ESSA strongly encourages personalizing education, including through blended learning, as well as attempting to ensure more equitable access to technology and digital learning experiences. It also highlights blended learning as a practice that can help struggling students.

Mesecar then proceeds to make a case that ESSA somehow provides the means for States to use Federal funding to launch a program that will personalize education in the way he describes in these paragraphs, an argument that overlooks two major mitigating factors: the funding provided is paltry and the testing regimen that is continued in ESSA contradicts personalization.

In the opening paragraphs Mesecar throws around funding figures that sound robust. He writes that “Up to 60 percent of the grant funds — almost $900 million — can be used for innovative edtech strategies (importantly, though, no more than 15 percent can go toward technology infrastructure).  This is approximately 4 percent of the overall authorized funding in the bill.” It is the phrase in parenthesis that is crucial: if only 15% can be used for infrastructure that means that only $135,000,000 will be available to connect 23% of the schools that lack any internet services and the countless schools that lack wi-fi within the schools. How will students have “…a digital instructor to help them learn what they need to know, when they need to know it, at their own pace and place” if their school lacks an internet connection or wi-fi? And how will ESSA “…ensure more equitable access to technology and digital learning experiences” if it provides less than $3 per pupil per year for technology infrastructure?

Mesecar’s biggest oversight, however, is the impact ESSA’s testing will have on the notion of providing each student with “…a digital instructor to help them learn what they need to know, when they need to know it, at their own pace and place.” Standardized testing measures students progress against a predetermined “pace and place” and penalizes any student who fails to be at the right place at the right time.

I share Mesecar’s desire to use technology to increase personalization… but do not share his belief that ESSA will move us any closer to that vision. Until some legislator or Governor champions the vision Mesecar describes and provides the funding and accountability model needed to implement that vision I do not foresee any way to get out of the test-and-punish rut that NCLB created over a decade ago. Until someone takes the leadership on this the change will have to happen from the bottom up… through parents who decide that schools are incapable of providing the kind of learning opportunities their children need and go it alone.

MOOCs To Date: Minuscule not Massive, and NOT Broadening Opportunity

December 21, 2015 Leave a comment

As one who believes that access to computers is a social justice issue and on-line learning might provide equity of opportunity, I was dismayed to read two recent articles on the state of Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs.

Earlier this month, Sindya N. Bhanoo, a writer for the NYTimes, reported on a study by John D. Hansen,  a doctoral student at Harvard who found that the majority of those taking advantage of Harvard’s MOOC offerings came from affluent neighborhoods, which was not the target audience.

“Just because it is free and available online, it does not necessarily mean that the chief beneficiaries or users are going to be the less advantaged,” Mr. Hansen said.

Last week the Wall Street Journal reported on the experience Georgia Tech is having with its MOOCs, and they are finding that students are taking longer to complete the on-line programs and the demographic of those taking the courses is not what Georgia Tech anticipated:

Nearly 80% of students in the online program are from the U.S., with many already employed. The campus-based program, meanwhile, overwhelmingly attracts international students who move to Atlanta and enroll full-time.

But like the campus version, the online degree still skews heavily male and has a small share of under represented minorities. Mr. Isbell said Georgia Tech is becoming more “intentional” about attracting women to help diversify the talent pipeline.

While MOOCs are providing a low-cost alternative means of attaining a degree, they are not graduating as many students as hoped for nor are they attracting  wider demographic, which was another anticipated result.

The Wall Street Journal headline for it’s article is “Online Degree Hits Learning Curve”. Time will tell whether it is hitting a wall.

Metrics and Mental Models, not School DISTRICTS, Impede Advent of Network Schools

December 14, 2015 Leave a comment

Writing in Tech Crunch, Anthony Kim does an excellent job of describing the factory model used in school districts and describing the way that model blocks the advent of the technology-based individualized learning used in AltSchools, a for -profit charter chain “…backed by the likes of Andreessen Horowitz and Mark Zuckerberg.” First, a brief description of the kind of schooling AltSchool provides, which is close to the kind of Network School model I would envision:

At the location I visited, the school schedule was written on a white board and could be changed in real time. Students flowed between grade levels and classes based upon what they wanted and needed from teachers.

To me, it seemed a bit like a 21st-century version of a one-room frontier schoolhouse. But no matter — AltSchools “has been anointed by the top minds in Silicon Valley as the best hope for the future of education,” according to WIRED.

The reason why is AltSchools’ use of technology. Instead of textbooks, students in AltSchools’ mixed-grade classrooms work through “lesson playlists” on iPads or Chromebooks that are tailored to their proficiency level and learning style. Teachers supplement tech time with group or individual instruction, an approach known as blended learning.

Having provided this synopsis of the AltSchool model, Kim contrasts it to the factory model in place in the typical US school district and draws a wrongheaded conclusion:

Based on my experience, the biggest barrier to rolling out an AltSchools model more broadly would probably be the district itself. I’ve found that districts’ layers of complex and siloed workflows and vast systems of checks and balances often get in the way of implementing personalized learning through edtech, especially when technology changes so fast.

Before we revolutionize the classroom or the school, we need to revolutionize the school district.

Mr. Kim is right about “siloed workflows” and “checks and balances”, but much of that is driven by the public’s conception of schools, the political decisions that are based on that conception, and the accountability measures that policy makers implement based on public and political conception. And as readers of this blog realize, I believe the biggest impediment to introducing any form of individualized learning is the grouping of children by age-based cohorts and our seemingly intractable practice of holding children, teachers, schools, and school districts accountable for having students learn the same content at the same rate of speed.

Sorry, Mr. Kim, flattening school districts’ hierarchies will not pave the way for the kind of innovative practices AltSchool seeks. Before we can break through the departmental and organizational silos of school districts we need to abandon the age silos we use to contain students and the tests that we use to determine each child’s “knowledge” compared to others in that silo. We need to change peoples minds about schooling first… and the technology titans who want to make a profit on schooling could serve public education better if they helped lead the way to the kind of schools where “students flowed between grade levels and classes based upon what they wanted and needed from teachers by designing metrics that would encourage that kind of schooling.

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?