Posts Tagged ‘On-line learning’

This Just In: Some Cyber Charter Schools Rake in Profits, Fail to Deliver Results

May 19, 2016 Leave a comment

Mokoto Rich of the NYTimes reports today on the fact that some cyber charter schools are making huge profits while experiencing horrific graduation rates. This is not news to anyone who reads Diane Ravitch or progressive blogs like Truthout… and is certainly unsurprising given the privatization movement. When States like WI, OH and PA bought into the notion that education was a commodity that should be marketed like breakfast cereal and regulated as lightly as possible why should anyone be surprised that inexpensive, inferior, and highly profitable products would crowd out expensive, customized, and artisanal ones. One only needs to see the low quality of products available on the shelves of grocery stores, Walmarts, and mini-marts where the unregulated free market reigns to understand why the free market will not yield the kind of eduction needed today. MAYBE articles in the mainstream like Ms. Rich’s will lead people to see that snake oil salesman like Mr. Lager, who is profiled in Ms, Rich’s article, are not seeking to “…make public education more efficient and effective“. Rather they are seeking a way to make a quick buck at the expense of students who struggle to succeed in school and are hoping for a fast and easy way out.

NEPC: Virtual and Blended Schools Need a Re-Boot. Will Legislators Heed This? Probably Not…

April 23, 2016 Leave a comment

The National Policy Center just released a report that was comprehensive in its analysis, careful to note the limitations of the data gathered, and thoughtfully measured in its language. But the data it DID gather and analyze led to an alarming conclusion:

…even though the outcome measures available are not as rigorous as desired, and even though the data reported by virtual schools and blended schools are not as complete as they should be, the findings still reveal that across all school performance measures, most virtual schools and blended schools are lacking. There is not a single positive sign from the empirical evidence presented here. Given this picture, continued expansion seems unwise. More research is needed; and to enable such research, state oversight agencies need to require more, and better refined, data.

Because the NEPC researchers are careful to avoid reaching conclusions when their data is incomplete, they did not underscore the fact that state legislatures are the ones who need to be held accountable for the unrestrained growth of virtual and blended education despite evidence that they underperform traditional public schools. These legislators are driven by four forces, three of which are “story lines”: faith in market economics; compelling lobbying by for-profit virtual school operators; their continued belief that schools are factories and students are widgets that need to be filled with knowledge; and the low price tag of these schools, which enables them to sidestep the tax increases.

Many legislators believe that an unregulated marketplace will result in a fair and just opportunity for everyone to succeed. They believe this even though the marketplace denies families in impoverished neighborhoods and communities the same array of choices for groceries, apparel, and dining as families in affluent neighborhoods and communities because they also believe that everyone had a choice to work hard and earn money and those who worked hardest gained the right to choose to live in an economically segregated environment. I’m lucky: I made the “choice” to be born to two college educated parents. Some of my age cohorts made a “bad choice” at the time and their grandchildren are, in all probability, still making “bad choices”.  Legislators need to see that children don’t have a choice where they are born but should have an opportunity to have access to the same kid of education as everyone else their age.

Lobbyists for the for-profit virtual and blended schools have done an admirable job of persuading legislators that freed of government regulations they are more successful than traditional public schools. As the NEPC report notes, they can do this in part because there are no clear benchmarks for measuring the success of virtual and blended schools which makes it possible for them to cherry-pick data points that make them look better than they really are. The story line they sell is that every child they educate is given the chance to succeed… and the legislators buy this agreeable fantasy despite all evidence to the contrary because it is so heartwarming (and inexpensive, as noted below).

The virtual and blended schools as they are conceived today also reinforce the current mental model of education, the factory school. A child (raw material) enters at one end and 12-14 years later a “college and career ready” adult emerges. What happens in between is a function of efficient engineering… and what could be more efficient than the replacement of humans with robots— or in tis case the replacement of a teacher standing in front of 35 students with a teacher orchestrating 200+ students sitting at computer terminals.

Finally, and most compellingly, virtual and blended schools as they are constructed now are inexpensive compared to “government” schools that require face-to-face interaction with children…. and in a factory, if the same level of product can be delivered less money productivity increases and the sales price can be lowered. Oh… and in the marketplace if a cheaper, lower quality product can be delivered at a lower price, sometimes that product will get a larger market share and consumers will adjust their expectations accordingly. That’s the model Ray Kroc adopted and the virtual and blended McSchool’s are acceptable to legislators so long as taxes don’t have to increase and power is taken away from “the government”.

NEPC offers a series of thoughtful recommendations at the conclusion of their paper… but the researchers, like me, operate on the assumption that evidence is an important consideration, that equity is important element of democracy, and human interaction is a crucial element of teaching and learning. Sometimes I fear that those assumptions are no longer valid.


Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker Article on AltSchool Describes Paradoxes of Technology

April 10, 2016 Leave a comment

I’m several weeks behind in reading New Yorker articles and am therefore late to the game in reacting to “Learn Different“, Rebecca Mead’s article on AltSchoolIn the article Ms. Mead describes AltSchool’s model for teaching and learning, which combines progressive education’s assumption that children learn best when they study materials that interest them at their own pace and in their own way with Big Data’s assumption that the collection and analysis massive amounts of information on teaching can make the delivery of content more efficient and effective. The article is full of observations Ms. Mead made in AltSchool sites in Silicon Valley and Brooklyn and does an excellent job of describing the promise and perils of progressive personalized schooling that might replace the factory model in place today. The main characters in the story Mead weaves about AltSchool are its founder, Max Ventilla, a former Google technologist who is the founder of AltSchool, and an AltSchool lead teacher, Christie Seyfert, described as “…an energetic young woman with green hair“. Ventilla was dismayed over the standardization he witnessed when his children began school and decided to bring his technology background (and considerable access to funding) into play and create a new model for schools:

The more Ventilla thought about education, the more he thought that he could bring about change—and not just for his own children. Instead of starting a “one-off school,” he would create an educational “ecosystem” that was unusually responsive to the interests of children, feeding them assignments tied to subjects they cared about. Ventilla’s vision fit the prevailing ethos of middle-class child rearing, in which offspring are urged to find their enthusiasms and pursue them into rewarding nonconformity.

Ventilla also wanted students to focus on developing skills that would be useful in the workplace of the future, rather than forcing them to acquire knowledge deemed important by historical precedent. “Kids should be spending less time practicing calculating by hand today than fifty years ago, because today everyone walks around with a calculator,” Ventilla told me. “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to do math—I shouldn’t have to whip out my phone to figure out if someone gave me the correct change. But you should shift the emphasis to what is relatively easier, or what is relatively more important.

Later in the article Mead describes a day in Seyfert’s life and the way she and her colleagues use technology tools to continuously and rapidly improve the curriculum:

Like other AltSchool teachers, Seyfert was drawn to the startup because of its ambition to make systemic change. Two or three times a week, she told me, she gives colleagues feedback about the school’s digital tools. The Learner Profile, Stream app, and other tools are only about a year old, and AltSchool’s personalization still requires considerable human intervention. Software is updated every day. Carolyn Wilson, AltSchool’s director of education, told me, “We encourage staff members to express their pain points, step up with their ideas, take a risk, fail forward, and fail fast, because we know we are going to iterate quickly. Other schools tend to move in geologic time.”

Ventilla’s vision is to use the power of Big Data to change the role of a teacher:

Ventilla told me that these tools were central to a revised conception of what a teacher might be: “We are really shifting the role of an educator to someone who is more of a data-enabled detective.” He defined a traditional teacher as an “artisanal lesson planner on one hand and disciplinary babysitter on the other hand.”

But Ventilla and the hedge funders who are backing his school also have another intention: they want to monetize public education and change the motivation of teachers. Not only are teachers expected to become “data-based detectives”, they are shareholders in AltSchool and therefore especially invested in its success.

I’ve written three previous posts on AltSchool, each expressing full support for AltSchools efforts to move away from the Factory School paradigm but expressing some un-ease with the funders’ ultimate rationale. Mead puts her finger on the source of that un-ease in this paragraph describing the paradoxical underpinning of AltSchool:

Personalized education promises an escape from the more recent Gradgrindian practice of standardized tests. In a world of personalized learning, the argument goes, every child’s particular genius will be permitted to shine. But AltSchool’s philosophy of education is also essentially utilitarian, even as it celebrates the individuality, autonomy, and creativity of its students. It holds that children should be prepared for the workplace of the future—and that the workplace of the future will demand individuality, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking.

As an advocate for the liberal arts, it is at once unsettling and heartening to find that the kind of education liberal arts promotes is “utilitarian”… It is unsettling because he liberal arts promote unconventional and creative thought and education for its own sake, not as a means to and end. But it is heartening because having more open-mindedness and open-heartedness would be a welcome development in schools.

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.