Posts Tagged ‘On-line learning’

Net Neutrality Is Dead… and So, Too, is the Opportunity for Technology as a Means of Achieving Equitable Education

November 22, 2017 Leave a comment

To no one’s surprise (or at least not to MY surprise), the GOP dominated FCC yesterday announced that it was repealing a set of regulations that resulted in “net neutrality”. As described in Steve Lohr’s article in today’s NYTimes, this does not appear to be a big deal for public schools. Here’s his description of th backdrop:

The net neutrality rules were passed in 2015 during the Obama administration when Democrats controlled the F.C.C.

The goal was to adapt regulations in such a way as to acknowledge the essential role of high-speed internet access as a gateway to modern communication, information, entertainment and economic opportunity. So the F.C.C. opted to regulate broadband service as a utility — making the internet the digital equivalent of electricity and the telephone.

By making “the internet the digital equivalent of electricity and the telephone” the FCC was guaranteeing that every customer served would receive the same level of service… which means that every customer would have the same rate of uploading and downloading speeds. Thus, presumably, a child who has a smartphone in public housing in the Bronx would get the same speed internet as a child in a posh penthouse in Manhattan and a school with internet access in a poverty stricken community in Appalachia would have the same speed internet as a student at, say, Phillips Exeter Academy.

But with the repeal of net neutrality, these rules no longer apply. As Mr. Lohr writes, the biggest concern of those who support net neutrality:

…is that the internet will become pay-to-play technology with two tiers: one that has speedy service and one that doesn’t. The high-speed lane would be occupied by big internet and media companies, and affluent households. For everyone else there would be the slow lane.

If this rule applied to electricity and telephone service, electrical companies and phone companies could charge higher rates for those in geographically remote areas and, arguably, lower their baseline services to offer different levels of service for different kinds of customers. This is what could easily occur with the internet where homes like mine (and similar “geographically remote” homes) that are not served by cable companies will never get the same level of service as homes a half-mile away that DO have connectivity to the cable system. Moreover, the current speeds for the internet will be the baseline moving forward, which means that those seeking higher speeds (and the computer applications that are available with hose higher speeds) will need to pay more or settle for what they have. This will inevitably result in a widening divide between the affluent and the-rest-of-us and will bake in the existing disparities forever…. and potentially make them worse in rural America where competitive markets do not exist, as Mr. Lohr explains:

But a weakness in the free-market argument, industry analysts say, is that in some regional and rural markets, households have only one internet provider available to them. That undermines the theory that competition will protect consumers.

Roger L. Kay, an independent technology analyst, predicted that larger bills — not content blocking — would be the most likely result. If the big internet and media companies will have to pay their carriers more for high-speed services, the expenses will trickle down to households.

Consumers, Mr. Kay said, “will end up paying higher prices for essentially the same service.”

The parents of children in affluent households will pay the bills and their children will have access to all the advances that occur in the delivery of services… and so will the schools that serve those children. The parents of children in poverty-stricken households and the schools they attend may opt out of the internet altogether… And, as a result, their children will miss out on learning opportunities and the economic divide will widen.


Technology’s Promise, OBE, CBE Thwarted by the Factory Model Which is Reinforced by Standardized Testing

November 8, 2017 1 comment

Blogger Tom Ultican, described by Diane Ravitch as a California physics and math teacher who formerly worked in technology, wrote a post in early October that excoriates the role of technology in public education and decries the failed attempts to introduce various forms of mastery learning into public schools. In doing so, Mr. Ultican, like many technology critics, overlooks the fact that technology’s advantages are undercut by our current factory school model and the standardized tests that reinforce it. Moreover, some of Mr. Ultican’s assertions regarding the outflowing of new money for technology do not appear to be substantiated.

Mr. Ultican opens his post lamenting ESSA’s inclusion of billions of dollars for “blended learning”, which is defined in the law as:

…a formal education program that leverages both technology-based and face-to-face instructional approaches—(A) that include an element of online or digital learning, combined with supervised learning time, and student- led learning, in which the elements are connected to provide an integrated learning experience; and (B) in which students are provided some control over time, path, or pace.”

He then delineates the funding provided for ESSA and, absent any evidence, purports that “…it is clear that Title-I authorizes spending tens of billions of tax payer dollars on education technology.” What is clear to me is that Title I allows districts to use these funds for technology, but since this money is already being spent for existing Title One programs and is only a .6% increase over the baseline it is highly unlikely that funds currently being spent for Title One personnel will be redirected to technology. Similarly his assertion that Title IV is 100% for technology is inaccurate. As the Center for Digital Education notes in an April blog post:

ESSA is authorized to spend up to $1.6 billion on Title IV, which includes provisions of use for access to well-rounded education, school counseling, school health and safety, and education technology. By placing those important areas under the same umbrella for funding, the amounts left to use on education transformation through the use of technology are lower than the funds initially received from Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT), which at it’s peak was allocated $700 million. Based off of initial Congressional proposals, the $1.6 billion authorized seems highly unlikely to come to fruition.

So… where Mr. Ultican sees a treasure trove for technology, the technology industry itself sees a diminishment of funding… and as the closing sentence in this paragraph indicates, the authorization of funding is different from the allocation of funding

Mr. Ultican’s distaste for technology appears to be rooted in his distaste for what he calls “behaviorist education”, which includes some concepts that I fully support:

The behaviorist ideology of B.F. Skinner informs “competency based education.” CBE is the computer based approach that replaces the failed 1990’s behaviorist learning method called Outcome Based Education. Outcome Based Education is a renamed attempt to promote the 1970’s “mastery education” theory. Mastery education’s failure was so complete that it had to be renamed. It was quickly derided by educators as “seats and sheets.” These schemes all posit that drilling small skills and mastering them is the best way to teach. It has not worked yet.

Today’s proponents of behaviorist education hope that technology including artificial intelligence backed by micro-credentials and badges will finally make behaviorism a winner. It will not because little humans are not linear learners. Non-alignment with human nature is a fundamental flaw in this approach. In addition, behaviorism is not known as a path to creativity or original thinking. Those paths are created between teachers and students through human contact; paths undermined by “digital education.”

Earlier in his post, Mr. Ultican writes about the uselessness of standardized testing, yet he bases his conclusion on the failure of OBE on test results. Standardized tests, unlike the “micro-credentials and badges” he derides, assume that all children learn at the same rate. He also fils to see that technology could be used to enable students to progress at their own rate without the “sheets” that made mastery learning cumbersome in the 70s and led to the failure in South Africa where teachers were compelled to develop their own self-paced learning materials for children.

My bottom line is this: technology will not make any difference in public education as long as public education is organized based on the premise that all children learn at the same rate and that, consequently, they should be grouped by age cohorts to facilitate learning. Standardized testing reinforces this notion and the “compensatory” funding that is the ultimate root of ESSA is designed to improve standardized test scores.

And here’s what surprises me the most: the technology industry seeking ever increasing amounts of money has not caught onto this and explicitly advocated a change to the factory model.

Personalized Learning Requires a Change of Thinking About Time

October 31, 2017 Leave a comment

Earlier this month, Julia Freeland Fisher published a thought provoking article for the Christensen Institute Newsletter suggesting that personalized learning can only work if educators and policy makers shed their notions about time. Ms. Fisher notes that in many cases when an innovative technology is introduced, instead of replacing and old way of doing business the organization adds a new layer… in much the same way a bookkeeper who worked for me in the early 1980s persisted in keeping books in a handwritten ledger at the same time as she entered data on the “newfangled” computer. She writes about how this applies to schools who are introducing personalized learning:

This is especially true for traditional systems that may be aiming to adopt new approaches to teaching and learning but less willing to do away with legacy structures. Innovation theory shows us that in industry after industry, existing organizations often default to hybrid innovations that combine new technologies or approaches with old ways of doing business. Put differently, rather than actually making any real tradeoffs, organizations may start doing new things without stopping doing old things.

Ms. Fisher contends that personalized learning that is enhanced by technology will only work if schools abandon one of their deeply held legacies: the time paradigm.

Although schools may manage to add more time on the margins, personalized learning at scale will likely require a massive rethinking of how schools use time, alongside pursuing new efficiencies that can save time. I was reminded of this while reading Silicon Schools’ recent report on its past five years supporting new and redesigned schools in the California Bay Area. In it, the fund’s leaders share actionable insights about the promise and pitfalls of personalized approaches. Among these takeaways, the word “time” appears a total of 39 times in the report’s 27 pages.

Specifically, the report highlights a vital reality on the ground: how schools use time is a balancing act. The report enumerates tradeoffs schools personalizing learning have had to weigh: how much time students should spend working on their own versus in groups; how much time students should be in front of screens versus offline; how much time students should work on content that is at versus above their current instructional level.

Ms. Fisher outlines several ways time can be used more efficiently and different kinds of software products that can facilitate the different uses of time. But ultimately, Ms. Fisher’s advocacy for changing the time paradigm falls short of the mark in one important aspect: she still implies that time will be constant for learners batched in age cohorts. If schools want to truly personalize learning they will need to abandon the legacy structure that insists on grouping students in age cohorts and having them complete curricula based on moving in a lockstep time frame based on objectives linked to those cohorts. Technology makes this possible… but the mental model of the factory school must be abandoned before it can take place.

Canary in a Coal Mine? Ohio Charters’ College Graduation Rates Embarrassingly Low

October 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Ohio has had one the most aggressive charter plans at that State level for several years and, as a result, has been able to collect data on the college graduation rates of charter school alumni… and the results are not pretty. As blogger Stephen Dyer reported in his post on October 16,

Ohio school districts have 5 times the rate of students with college degrees that charters have. And Big 8 urban districts (Akron, Canton, Cincinnati. Columbus, Cleveland, Dayton, Toledo and Youngstown) have twice the rate.

Meanwhile, of the 31 Ohio charter schools that have graduates counted for this metric, 7 (23 percent) had zero graduates with college degrees within six years of graduation.

And the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow? That’s right.

Only 109 of 3,794 ECOT graduates from 2010 have a college degree today. That’s an amazing 2.9 percent. Cleveland — which had about 100 fewer 2010 graduates as ECOT (not to mention far greater rates of poverty, special education, and minority students) — had about 3.5 times as many graduates with college degrees as ECOT.

With these data sets, how and why can legislators in Ohio claim that charters and choice are the solution to so-called “failing schools”? And given the performance of ECOT, how can anyone claim that on-line learning is the wave of the future? At the conclusion of his post, Mr. Dyer writes:

According to this data from the state report card, Ohio charter schools, overall, hurt their students’ ability to achieve the million dollar promise of a college education and instead contribute to their students’ ability to access the social safety net over their lifetimes.

Here’s my hunch: in the coming weeks I expect to read that Ohio is revising its report card to de-emphasize this data and placing a greater emphasis on some data set that shows charters in a more favorable light. TO do otherwise would require the elected officials in Ohio to speak against their donors.

More Unsurprising Headlines: On-Line Learning Enterprise Bilked Student Borrowers

September 24, 2017 Leave a comment

Politico reported earlier this week that the Education Department’s Office of Inspector General found that “…the nation’s leading provider of online competency-based education violated federal student aid rules and should return more than $712 million received in student loans and Pell Grants.

After reading Politico’s description of Western Governors University’s wrongdoing, knowing of current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ tendency to give privatizers the benefit of the doubt, and the current President’s personal experience operating a shady “University”, I would be surprised if anything happens to the college. The fact that Western Governors University had to “…navigate a complicated – and sometimes decades-old – set of federal rules governing when they’re eligible for federal aid” and the fact that Western Governors officials “strongly disagree” with the findings led one college official, Scott D. Pulsihper, to conclude that the education department would not follow through on the IG’s recommendations. Mr. Pulsipher was quotes as saying:

We’re willing to think differently (in delivering education to students) There is no doubt that there will be traditionalists who can see some of the things that we do as a challenge.

This traditionalist has some things that Western Governors University as a challenge. Given that “a central issue in the inspector general’s report is the federal requirement that distance education programs provide “regular and substantive” interaction between teachers and students” and the inspector general found that “more than 50 percent of Western Governor University courses don’t provide adequate faculty-student interaction to qualify as “distance education,” I do not see how the school could possibly qualify for federal student aid.

Politico reported that Western Governors University now has 30 days to submit additional information about the audit report – and then the ball’s in the department’s court. There’s no deadline under which the department has to make a decision on the IG’s recommendation… and then they offer the following:

– But many education observers say it’s difficult to envision the Education Department carrying through with such a crippling – and what would likely be unprecedented – $712 million financial penalty against the school. It’s usually politically challenging for the department to impose stiff penalties against any college, much less one that has powerful and bipartisan allies on Capitol Hill. (Some context: The department’s $30 million fine against Corinthian Colleges in 2015 was one of its largest ever.)

– Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) in a tweet on Thursday that he was “fully confident the Education Department will reject this Education Department OIG report.”

– And the department is already signaling some support for the institution. “We are currently reviewing the OIG’s report,” department spokeswoman Liz Hill said in an email. “It is important to note that the innovative student-first model used by this school and others like it has garnered bipartisan support over the last decade.”

It may have garnered bipartisan support over the last decade for the same reason that the defense department budget, Big Pharma, and the privatizers of all ills get bipartisan support: lobbyists underwrite campaigns and expect something in return… and the something they all get in return is the mantra that the marketplace will sort these kinds of things out. We know how that’s been working!

Sensitizing and Sanitizing Algorithms Essential for Defending Their Broader Use in Schools

August 31, 2017 Leave a comment

Cathy O’Neill, who blogs as Mathbabe and is a regular contributor to Bloomberg, wrote a post yesterday on the pushback “algorithmic overlords” are beginning to receive from researchers and politicians. Ms. O’Neill, who has written extensively about the bias of algorithms, offers some examples in her post:

Objective as they may seem, artificial intelligence and big-data algorithms can be as biased as any human. Examples pop up all the time. A Google AI designed to police online comments rated “I am a gay black woman” 87 percent toxic but “I am a man” only 20 percent. A machine-learning algorithm developed by Microsoft came to perceive people in kitchens as women. Left unchecked, the list will only grow.

This kind of inherent bias can be problematic for those of us who see promise in the use of algorithms in personalized learning. For example, if algorithms direct users to ever narrower learning opportunities that are determined based on inherent biases, young women might be directed away from mathematics and science content and toward content in “kitchen-related” fields while long men would be directed in the opposite way…. and as long as these kinds of algorithmic biases exist it will be impossible to overcome resistance to data-driven personalization.

Ms. O’Neill is no Luddite. She sees promise in the use of technology to enhance education. But she is not enthusiastic about the “algorithmic overlords” tendency to keep their methods secret in the name of proprietary information:

Many researchers and practitioners are working on how to assess algorithms and how to define fairness. This is great, but it inevitably runs into a bigger problem: secrecy. Algorithms are considered the legally protected “secret sauce” of the companies that build them, and hence largely immune to scrutiny. We almost never have sufficient information about them. How can we test them if we have no access in the first place?

Legislators need to intercede… and they are beginning to do so, albeit at a snail’s pace. Here’s hoping they succeed, for if they don’t, biases will persist.

MO “Government Schools” that Introduce On-Line Learning “Proof” That Competition is Needed

August 19, 2017 Leave a comment

An article by Teresa Mull in Townhall, a conservative publication, asserts that a recently introduced on-line learning program by the Springfield (MO) Public Schools “proves why public education, even if taxpayers are paying for it, should act and be treated as though they are companies in the private sector.” She reaches this conclusion, in part, because their Superintendent, John Jungmann, led them there with his explanation for why his district decided to offer 40 courses on line:

Springfield Public Schools (SPS) is hardly acting altruistically. As the News Leader noted, it wants to attempt to “beat for-profit virtual schools to the punch.” Superintendent John Jungmann told the News Leader, “with private companies looking to expand in the state, it was important to come up with a local solution.”

As a conservative columnist Ms. Mull’s article is full of criticism for “government schools”, which, in her world, innovate only because of the nascent competition. Moreover, anything that takes children out of the clutches of union-dominated “government schools” is a good thing: This paragraph offers an example of the reasoning that girds Ms. Mull’s ideas about public schools:

SPS’s online offerings will still align to the state’s learning standards, which means they’ll likely be limited in what they can teach and how, and they’ll have to comply with the silly left-wing ideologies of government school administrators. But at least fewer kids will be forced to spend time in government school buildings, where time is often wasted and bullies cause unnecessary harm.

The article is worth a read if only to gain an understanding of the invalid assumptions that drive the pro-privatization and anti-“government school” movement. In Ms. Mull’s ideal world, where we are “…a nation free from government schools and odious teachers unions, wherein parents responsible enough to bring another human into this world are also responsible enough to ensure that human is educated without the government’s help” we would also be a world where atomistic students are “protected” from children who do not share the identical values of the parents, from exposure to the multiculturalism that defines the public forums in our nation, and from the chance to learn information that might be unsettling and uncomfortable. It is not the world that this “silly left wing” ideologue sees as viable or desirable.