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 AltSchool. In 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.
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.
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.