Posts Tagged ‘On-line learning’

Two News Stories from Parallel Universes Illustrate the Challenge of Getting a Unified Front on Connectivity

February 9, 2017 Leave a comment

Over the past few days I’ve read two articles on the e-divide that seem to have been written in parallel universes. eSchool News, which tends to be a reliable (if boosterish) site for developments in on-line learning published an article by Laura Ascione with a title that posed the question “Why are rural schools still struggling with high speed internet access?”

Had Ms. Ascione read Walter Eineckel’s Daily Kos article from last Friday, she’d have an answer in the form of its title: “New FCC Chairman Reverses Course and Prevents Nine Companies from Providing Low-Income People Internet”. Mr. Eineckel’s article describes the decision of the newly appointed Republican FCC chairman Ajit Pai to abandon the Lifeline program instituted last year by the Obama administration. While the Lifeline Program was not specifically set up for rural outposts, it WAS designed to provide a healthy subsidy for those who have economic challenges… and given that schools in rural areas typically have 50% of the students qualifying for free and reduced lunch it is clear that they would have benefitted at least indirectly from this program.

As readers of this blog know, I was among those who were frustrated with former FCC Chair Tom Wheeler’s dithering on the decision to make internet access a utility. His delay deferred action on the rules needed to implement this program and made it possible for it to be undone quickly. Had Mr. Wheeler and President Obama made a decision on the status of internet access earlier, as Mr. Obama did with the ACA, undoing the Lifeline Program would have been as difficult as undoing the ACA. This foot-dragging on the widespread provision of internet services has widened the digital divide and limited the possibility of technology serving as a tool for equity. That will be a sad part of Mr. Obama’s legacy and an even sorrier chapter as Mr. Pai jacks up the cost for consumers no matter what their income is.

Higher Taxes or Robots? Which Do YOU Think We Will Choose?

August 30, 2016 Leave a comment

New York magazine’s Intelligencer blog today featured an article on the decline in spending on public education, a phenomenon writer Eric Levitz characterized as a “disinvestment from our nation’s future”. The diminishment of public education spending described in the article is appalling:

In May 2008, U.S. school departments employed 8.4 million teachers, administrators, and other staff. Today, they employ just 8.2 million, despite the fact that those schools now serve 1 million more students, according to Department of Education estimates. And while those teachers are being asked to serve more students, they’re making less money: According to a new analysis from the Economic Policy Institute, weekly wages for public-school teachers have declined 5 percent over the past five years… Between 2008 and 2014 (the last year for which we have full data), state public-education funding declined 6.6 percent. While the stimulus money was still flowing, Uncle Sam was able to ameliorate this austerity somewhat, but still left schools spending 2.4 percent less per student over that period, when adjusting for inflation. And when the stimulus wore off, state and local governments failed to pick up the slack: In 2012, total school funding fell for the first time since 1977. As FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman notes, this cutback wasn’t concentrated on administrative salaries or extravagant construction — instructional spending has fallen at roughly the same rate as overall budgets.

The New York article covered some of the same ground as the NYTimes editorial I blogged about yesterday, emphasizing the impact (and preposterousness) of State-level Reagonomics. Noting that the graying of America will drive up retirement and health care costs and that the reduction in pay for teachers is making the profession less attractive, Eric Levitz concludes with this mind-boggling choice:

In the long run, it will take either a drastic increase in federal investment — and/or the proliferation of low-cost robots — for American schools to truly leave no child behind.

Given the choice between “pro-union Government run schools” and a robot that can teach children at home or in, say, a church basement, what do you think taxpayers will vote for?

The Broadband Fight Isn’t Over as the Telecom Oligarchs Win in Court

August 29, 2016 Leave a comment

As one who has long ascribed to the belief that expanded broadband is a civil rights issue, I am distressed to read articles like the one by Cecilia Kang in today’s NYTimes describing the recent “victory” in federal courts that prevents local governments from expanding their municipal broadband services to nearby communities who are less affluent. Titled “Broadband Law Could Force Rural Communities Off Information Superhighway”, Kang’s article describes a law passed by NC legislators that made it illegal for municipalities to extend their broadband to neighboring communities even though those municipalities already offer electricity to those communities. Sadly, the federal district court in NC and TN did not buy into the notion that broadband is a utility the same way electricity is and instead bought into the wrongheaded thinking of NC legislators that offering broadband might pose a risk for taxpayers. Here’s the background on the case:

In 2011, companies like Time Warner Cable, represented by the cable lobbying association, asked the North Carolina legislature to adopt a law to limit Wilson’s ability to serve customers outside Wilson County, even though the city serves electricity customers in four additional counties.

Grant Goings, Wilson’s city manager, said the court decision made it unclear “how we can bridge the digital divide and create economies of the future when there are corporate interests standing in the way.”

But some lawmakers and free-market-oriented think tanks say public broadband projects should be carefully scrutinized by local regulators because they are costly and, if unsuccessful, can be a financial burden on taxpayers. In addition, the F.C.C. cannot intervene in state laws, they said.

The court decision “affirms the fact that unelected bureaucrats at the F.C.C. completely overstepped their authority by attempting to deny states like North Carolina from setting their own laws to protect hardworking taxpayers and maintain the fairness of the free market,” Thom Tillis, a Republican United States senator who pushed through the 2011 bill when he was North Carolina’s House speaker, said in a statement.

The bottom line is that those who can afford broadband see their advantage as an example of “the fairness of the free market” while those who look at this issue from afar see those without broadband as unfairly disadvantaged. The small rural communities in NC and TN should thank their lucky stars that Mr. Tillis and his ilk were not in power when FDR decided electrification was needed or else they would be in the dark today since some unelected bureaucrat at the FCC determined they needed to have power lines extended into their towns. Time Warner doesn’t want rural customers to get broadband unless they can pay a premium price for it and they are willing to contribute whatever it takes to make sure the free market’s “fairness” is maintained.

Are Privatized Schools Acceptable in a Corrupt, Kleptocratic Country?

August 10, 2016 Leave a comment

USNews and World Report ran an online article by Diane Ravitch that describes the international privatization movement in public education. In the article Ms. Ravitch describes the roots of the privatization movement in our nation and decries the movement by billionaire privatizers in their efforts to open schools in  Africa. She writes:

The British multinational corporation Pearson has ambitions to open for-profit schools using its products in many nations across the world. In Africa, a corporation called Bridge International Academies (BIA) is opening for-profit schools in poor countries that cost $1 a week. Liberia is considering outsourcing its entire elementary program to BIA, which is funded by American billionaires Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and others from Wall Street.

The Economist magazine wrote a glowing article about BIA’s plan to make low-cost schooling available in Africa, because existing public schools are so poorly resourced. The potential market of hundreds of millions of children is alluring and sure to be profitable. Teachers in the Bridge schools are uncertified; They teach a scripted curriculum from a notebook computer. Many families cannot afford even $1 a week, especially if they have more than one child. Meanwhile, the state is relieved of responsibility to supply what is being outsourced to private enterprise.

Ms. Ravitch then links the international privatization movement to “…ideas and funding that started in the United States” and then describes the way politicians used standardized tests to brand public schools as “failures; how profiteers branded themselves as “reformers” who could fix “failing” public schools by replacing elected school boards with corporate boards and replacing expensive unionized schools with technology-based instruction; and how these profiteers proceeded to pillage state and local school budgets. She was especially (and rightfully) hard on the anti-democratic nature of the charter schools that are tied to the privatization movement, writing:

Charter schools claim to be public schools, but the only thing “public” about them is their funding. They are run by private boards that do not hold open meetings, as elected boards of education do; they are neither transparent nor accountable in their finances.

After reading this paragraph, I was struck by the reality that the governance structure for public education in the United States is unique and anomalous. In most countries there is a national ministry of education that is overseen by the national government. Public school governance is not local, it is not overseen by directly elected boards, and its degree of transparency and accountability is a function of the national leadership. Furthermore, in many parts of the world universal public education is completely unavailable due to infrastructure challenges and/or the kleptocratic and totalitarian leadership at the national level.

If I were an idealistic entrepreneur seeking to increase literacy in the world I would avoid funneling any money to national leaders with a track record of corruption. By providing a means for parents to secure an education for their children such an idealistic entrepreneur could circumvent the national apparatus that skims large sums of money. In doing so, the entrepreneur could greatly expand the number of children in that country who receive an education, albeit an education that is tightly scripted from a notebook computer. In this way the idealistic entrepreneur would be giving parents and their children an opportunity to gain the knowledge and understanding needed to function in a democracy, knowledge and understanding that their current leader might want to withhold from them.

As readers of the blog know, I wholeheartedly share Diane Ravitch’s perspective regarding the privatization in this country. But as I think about the best way to provide education and information to as many citizens of the world as possible as quickly and cheaply as possible, and operate on the assumption that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg’s intentions are grounded in the idealistic belief that knowledge is power and a necessary pre-requisite for the establishment of democracy, I think this market-based approach in undeveloped countries might be the best way forward in some parts of the world. Who knows, once citizens in undeveloped nations gain knowledge and understanding they might seek a more local form of governance for their schools and seek a better way to become educated.

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.