Posts Tagged ‘On-line learning’

MOOCs Get Social

April 9, 2014 Leave a comment

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.


Utopian Possibilities

April 9, 2014 Leave a comment

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.

Testing, Homeschooling and Hackschooling

February 1, 2014 Leave a comment

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.

MOOC Abysmal Pass Rates

January 24, 2014 Leave a comment

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….

The Math Babe’s Take on MOOCS

January 22, 2014 Leave a comment

The Naked Capitalism blog often features links to posts by Cathy O’Neill, the “Math Babe”. On occasion I have referenced her posts, but I found her analysis of the impact of MOOCs on college math departments to be one of the most thoughtful ones I’ve read… and as a result decided to sign on to receive future posts from her. Here was the comment I posted after reading her analysis and the 30+ comments that followed:

As a blogger who has written many posts on the potential impact of MOOCs on public education (, I found this post to be one of the most insightful analyses I’ve read. Of all the comments, the one that got my attention was Cathy’s response to a comment, where she promised “…to write a follow-up with a few suggestions on how mathematicians can try to take early and strong control over a definition of success and a design of testing of this so that the debate isn’t completely co-opted by people with purely commercial interests.”

In public education the debate has already BEEN co-opted by privatizers and the effect has been a retrenchment into the status quo by those who are techno-phobic and/or traditionalists… and in public education we have decided to measure what is easy to measure instead of what is important to measure… mainly because it is cheaper to use multiple choice tests for most content and scanner-friendly algorithms for essays. My advice to colleges: keep your eye on USDOE! They will be developing the metrics and designing the tests that will be used to define “success”… and if the proposals I’ve read so far are any indication colleges, too, be on the defense. USDOEs “Race To The Top” has resulted in a race-to-the-bottom for wages and some nice paychecks for privatizers.

Babies and Bathwater

January 22, 2014 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch’s blog post this morning reports on a terrible piece of legislation proposed by the North Carolina legislature. The legislature takes two good ideas— career ladders and technology enhanced individualized learning— and corrodes them with two very bad ideas— the notion that teachers are like the wait staff at McDonalds and the notion that public school’s primary purpose is the dispensing of information. Basically, the NC legislature is using technology to put the factory school model on steroids instead of using technology to transform the mission of schools.

The notion of having a career ladder with three tiers is not unlike the structure used in colleges… and having the tiers be labelled “Apprentice/Master/Career”, as proposed in the NC legislation, is supported by research and mirrors what is in place in most school districts across America. Teachers need 3-7 years to learn their craft after which their performance remains at a uniformly high level. Some teachers, who are recruited to serve as “coaches”, are compensated for their expertise and their willingness to assist in evaluations. This is not substantially different from our current arrangement. The typical teacher contract differentiates probationary teachers from teachers who are on continuing contracts and offers a stipend or released time for department heads. It would make sense to me for teachers who achieve continuing contract status to receive a significant bump in pay upon achieving that performance level instead of incrementally advancing in pay over a period of years, a part of the NC legislation. Unlike the NC model, which proposes a 60/30/10 distribution of teachers, I would envision a career ladder model with a 10/70/20 distribution. This mirrors the reality of most districts where roughly 10% of the work force is on probation striving to achieve continuing contract status, 70% of the work force earning a solid middle class wage; and 20% receiving a stipend for coaching or team leadership responsibilities either currently or in the past. This model is based on the fact that most teachers are doing a good-to-excellent job of teaching… a fact that has been substantiated by every method used thus far to evaluate teacher performance.

The notion of using technology to personalize or individualize instruction is one that is happening now… and it’s not all bad… and it isn’t going away. Engaged parents are buying software for their children to help them learn how to read before they enroll in school, how to do well on the tests that public schools use to identify “gifted and talented” children (tests that districts embraced long before Pearson, NCLB or RTTT) and how to acquire skills not offered in public schools (e.g. foreign language, astronomy, etc). Many of these educational software packages are in the form games that are far more interesting than stand-and-deliver instruction and effectively allow the child to progress at their own pace. Disaffected parents— home-schoolers and un-schoolers— are developing DIY education programs for their children using technology. In years past these parents often sent their youngsters to public schools once the content advanced.  But as a result of the multitude of on-line courses available, the relentless emphasis on standardized testing in public education, and the expansion of parent networks, more and more parents are homeschooling all the way through high school. Public schools need to find ways to integrate technology into the classroom and individualize learning the same way the commercial software packages an computer games do.

I believe that when those of us who oppose privatization should make it clear we are not rejecting reasonable ideas like career ladders and the use of technology. If we argue against reasonable ideas embedded in unreasonable legislation we play into the notion that we are defenders of the status quo. We need to avoid throwing out babies with the bathwater.


MOOCs: Point, Counterpoint

January 11, 2014 Leave a comment

Years ago 60 minutes had a feature called “Point-Counterpoint” that featured two talking heads representing the conservative and liberal perspectives on various issues. While I usually sided with the liberal perspective, every once in a while I’d find myself persuaded that maybe the person representing the right side of the spectrum was onto something. Two recent articles on MOOCs (Massive Open On-line Courses) found me leaning toward the right.

Insider Online, a publication of the Heritage Foundation, featured an article by Edward Tenner titled “Higher Education’s Internet Revolution” that reflected the latest thinking on MOOCs. In the article he recounted that the biggest problem with the anticipated MOOC revolution is that only 5% of the students who enroll in the on-line courses offered by “star” professors complete the coursework successfully. He also described some of the surprise consequences of MOOCs, which contradict some of the original fears of elite colleges:

In the end, the biggest surprise about MOOCs is how conservative they are. They work to the advantage of elite universities, first in providing a social benefit at a time when some critics wonder whether they are truly charities, and second in further stimulating overseas interest in enrolling for the conventional residential course at full tuition. While in principle they increase opportunities, in fact a large proportion of students are professionals who already have degrees. And there’s a third unexpected finding. Far from replacing conventional textbooks like Sedgewick and Kevin Wayne’s Algorithms, fourth edition (600,000 copies sold), it has resulted in record orders. Sedgewick expects his royalties to double between 2011-12 and 2012-13.

MOOCs will succeed or fail depending on the willingness of gifted instructors to forgo other opportunities. It would be more exciting if they were as transformative as some advocates claim, or as sinister as many critics fear. The prosaic fact is that a course, no matter how sophisticated its mode of delivery, is labor-intensive – for both the professor and the students. That makes MOOCs potentially valuable. It also makes the movement, for better or worse, self-limiting.

So Tenner does not foresee a wholesale means of MOOCs supplanting traditional college fare nor does he see them upsetting the pecking order of colleges….

…which leads to the concern of the counterpoint Atlantic article by Timothy Pratt titled “We Are Creating Walmarts of Higher Education”. Pratt’s article looks at MOOCs from the social-political angle, suggesting that as politicians from the President to cost cutting Republican Governors look to technology as the best means of saving money and expanding college attendance, state funded and for-profit institutions that serve non-traditional students are watering down their graduation requirements, narrowing their focus toward “career preparation” in response to new metrics, and hiring more adjuncts and fewer tenured professors. Pratt reports on the findings of a group of “…100 university faculty-members from all over the country plan to meet in January in New York under the umbrella of the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, a national movement that aims to “include the voices of the faculty, staff, students and our communities—not just administrators, politicians, foundations and think tanks—in the process of making change.” 

The group says the push for more efficiency in higher education often leads to lower quality, and that reforms are being rushed into practice without convincing evidence of their effectiveness. Some of the association’s members point out that there has been little research into the effectiveness of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, for example, even as the number of students enrolled in them skyrockets.

At the end of the article Pratt quotes Debra Humphreys, vice president at the Association of American Colleges and Universities:

In the end, says Humphreys, when it comes to “getting students through more efficiently, more quickly and with the learning they need, we need to pay attention to all three. Otherwise, at least one will suffer.”

Readers of this blog know that I love Adlai Stevenson’s observation that given the choice between agreeable fantasies and disagreeable truths Americans will always choose the agreeable fantasy… and MOOCs are an agreeable fantasy at this point. The politicians seem to think that computers can replace teachers in the same way that robots replaced assembly line workers in part because they reinforce the public’s conception of schools as factories and teachers as dispensers of information. They seem to think that MOOCs can bring about change quickly in schools because they brought about change (relatively) quickly in the workplace. The disagreeable truth is that MOOCs can provide content more cheaply and arguably more effectively than some teachers, but they cannot provide the motivation to learn that a good teacher offers even the most disengaged student. Tenner implicitly acknowledges this, but doesn’t explicitly support the notion that face-to-face instruction is invaluable.

Teller’s arguments, which focus more on the systemic changes that MOOCs can bring, have more depth than Pratt’s, which focus more on the political challenges MOOCs face. For me, the most unsettling part of Teller’s thesis is that MOOCs will not change the pecking order as it exists today: Harvard and MIT grads will always be better opportunities for success than community college grads. The hope for MOOCs was that ANY student could benefit from the lectures and instructional techniques offered at Harvard and MIT… and that COULD happen if publicly funded institutions capitalized on their human resources to provide the kind of personalized learning Harvard and MIT offer and used the lectures of Harvard and MIT to provide the content. That kind of change isn’t discussed in either article because both writers are looking at education through the lens of the 1900s….