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Unsurprising Results in Online Courses: Self-Actualized Learners Do Fine… Others, Not So Well

January 21, 2018 Leave a comment

The NYTimes featured an op ed article by University of Michigan professor Susan Dynarski earlier this week with the unsurprising headline: “Online Courses Are Harming the Students Who Need Help the Most“. The article describes a study that concluded that “…the growth of online education is hurting a critical group: the less proficient students who are precisely those most in need of skilled classroom teachers.” But, as Ms. Dynarsky notes, these are the very students who are being steered into online coursework in the name of efficiency and equity.

Online learning is more efficient. After all, a single teacher— or in some cases and single teacher and an algorithm— can oversee hundreds of students working online. But too often, online courses are used for the purpose of credit restoration, and when students “pass” an online credit restoration course they gain far less understanding than students who take the same content face-to-face. But passing as many students as possible is important when the metric for “success” is pass rates and if one can achieve a pass rate using computers it saves a substantial amount in the budget.

Online learning can provide equity, but only if the students are highly motivated. As Ms. Dynarsky writes:

Online courses have many real benefits… They can help high achievers in need of more advanced coursework than their districts provide through other means. This is especially true in small, rural districts that offer few specialized, traditional courses for students working ahead of their grades.

A study in Maine and Vermont examined the effect of online courses on eighth graders with strong math skills in schools that didn’t offer face-to-face algebra classes. Students were randomly assigned either to online algebra or to the less challenging, standard math offered in traditional classes.

Both groups of students were tested at the end of the school year. The online algebra students did substantially better than their counterparts in standard classrooms. They were also twice as likely to complete advanced math later in high school.

Having worked in rural schools, this result is unsurprising. Often small schools enroll weaker students in a course labelled as “Algebra” in order to provide the course for children in their school… but many of the students in the course are only marginally prepared for the rigors. The online courses, though, are often limited to those students with “strong math skills”, which would account for the differential in performance at the conclusion of the course.

The real damage done to struggling students occurs at the higher education level:

n colleges, especially in nonselective and for-profit schools, online education has expanded rapidly, too, with similar effects. These schools disproportionately enroll low-income students who are often the first in their families to attend college. Such students tend to drop out of college at very high rates. Students with weak preparation don’t fare well in online college classes, as recent researchby professors at Harvard and Stanford shows.

These scholars examined the performance of hundreds of thousands of students at DeVry University, a large for-profit college with sites across the country. DeVry offers online and face-to-face versions of all its courses, using the same textbooks, assessments, assignments and lecture materials in each format. Even though the courses are seemingly identical, the students who enroll online do substantially worse.

The effects are lasting, with online students more likely to drop out of college altogether. Hardest hit are those who entered the online class with low grades. Work by researchers in many other colleges concurs with the DeVry findings: The weakest students are hurt most by the online format.

And to make matters worse, these for-profit “colleges” often use false advertising to entice enrollees who take out loans to pay— or more accurately OVERpay– for the courses they take. Ms. Dynarksy leads this conclusion out of her analysis: This scam, more than anything, adds to the student loan crisis facing our country.

 

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Christensen Institute’s Julia Freedland Makes An Important Distinction: Behaviorism vs. Constructivism

January 14, 2018 Leave a comment

In her recent Christensen Institute post flagging the “5 Big Ideas for Education Innovation in 2018“, Julia Freedland encourages critics of disruption to focus on the distinction between constructivism and behaviorism in their analyses. Under the heading “Stop debating technology, start debating constructivism and behaviorism” she writes:

The ever-simmering edtech debate is starting to boil over. Commentators are stuck arguing whether tech is good or bad, whether personalized learning is synonymous with robot teachers or high-touch teaching, whether technology is under-researched or offers a high payoff. I worry that these debates draw false dichotomies. They risk entrenching different camps in their feelings about the form a tool takes rather than its function. I suspect that the deeper tension undergirding these debates may have less to do with technology itself and more to do with competing behaviorist and constructivist philosophies. I’m hoping that mainstream edtech conversations dedicate more time to examining these competing pedagogical philosophies—and how edtech tools do or don’t support each—in 2018. This year I’ll keep following thinkers like Larry Cuban who have become more vocal about this distinction.

In the article Mr. Cuban wrote, he contends that “personalized learning” is used to describe programs that range from de facto programmed instruction where students more through teacher-constructed playlists at their own pace to technologically enhanced Summerhill-like approaches– where students dictate both content and pace. I think his nuanced perspective, one that eschews “value-loaded” words, is far superior to that of those who bundle all technology into the Skinnerian end of the spectrum.

As one who advocates the elimination of age-based grade levels and the open-ended opportunity for students to explore subjects that interest them in depth once they’ve mastered reading and mathematical skills, I tend toward the constructivist side of the spectrum. But as one believes there is a place for technology in school improvement, I also hope educational critics will heed Ms. Freedland’s dictum and “Stop debating technology, start debating constructivism and behaviorism“.

“Micro credentials” for Teacher Recertification COULD Open the Door to Mastery Learning in the Classroom, OR Micro-Vouchers

January 7, 2018 Leave a comment

Earlier this week  Education Week published an article by Stephen Sawchuk titled “Inching Toward Relicensurc, One Microcredential at a Time”. In the article, Mr. Sawchuk describes a re-certification process Tennessee is piloting whereby teachers can get their teacher’s license renewed by completing a series of “microcredentials”, which he defines as “badges (teachers earn) by submitting evidence that they’ve mastered small components of instruction; their submissions are scored by outside reviewers. It strikes me that the concept of micro credentials would help teachers transfer the concepts of mastery learning implicit in the awarding of micro credentials to teaching in their classroom. Instead of “covering” material in a set time frame and then assessing students on that material using a pencil-and-aper test, teachers might see the value of assuring that the students are fully prepared by “…submitting evidence that they’ve mastered small components” of the course and have that evidence reviewed by outsiders. That could be a very favorable outcome of this pilot program.

There is a downside to this concept, though, unless public schools fully embrace mastery learning. Namely, the awarding of micro credentials for teachers could lead to the awarding of micro vouchers for students. Longstanding readers of this blog might recall reading about this similar concept that was presented in a book by Lewis Perelman in his 1992 book titled “School’s Out: Hyperlearning, the New Technology, and the End of Education”. Perelman envisioned a day when employers and colleges would focus more on the demonstrated mastery of material instead of the issuance of a diploma, and envisioned a day when something akin to wait badges would serve as the vehicle for demonstrating mastery. He took this a step further, suggesting that instead of public schools being the sole source of certifying mastery, private enterprise might step in and the marketplace would winnow out the purveyors of worthwhile credentials from those who were issuing slipshod “badges”.

Obtaining micro credentials is analogous to on-line learning in that it is far more convenient than traditional coursework at a college or university that requires travel time and fixed times for courses. Once teachers discovered on-line alternatives to traditional courses they flocked to them, with some earning Master’s Degrees in less than two years. Their use of on-line courses to earn credits made it difficult for them to push back when students sought the same opportunities… even though those on-lne opportunities could ultimately result in fewer jobs at the high school level. If teachers begin earning micro credentials, will that similarly open the door for students to seek the same kind of avenues? And, if so, will that open the door to the micro-vouchers Lewis Perelman wrote about over 25 years ago?

Technology is Fast and Cheap… but it Isn’t Good.

January 6, 2018 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch’s posts yesterday included on that had a link to an article she wrote recently for EdSurge, a pro-technology website. In the article she identified five major risks associated with the use of educational technology. After reading her article I left this comment with a link to this post:

The tech industry is serving shareholders, politicians and, alas, voters who don’t want to spend more for education. Technology is currently cheap and fast… but it isn’t good.

A consultant whose name escapes me gave a presentation to the administrators in the MD district I served in the early 1990s. She wrote three words on the board (this was pre-powerpoint era): “fast”, “cheap”, “good”. She said that in any undertaking you could only choose two of these. (NOTE: I just learned from my friend “Google” that this is now called the “Iron Triangle”— and example of technology’s utility).

Technology promises to provide all three… but it really only provides “fast” and “cheap” means of covering the curriculum that is measured by standardized tests. It’s faster than the laborious face-to-face tutoring it supposedly replaces. Its’ cheaper because it lowers the costs to school districts by selling the data it collects to third parties. But because it is fast and cheap it isn’t good: it takes the “costly” human interaction out of teaching; it has a limited scope because it only delivers instruction in areas that can be measured by standardized tests; and it requires schools to compromise the principle of student and parent privacy in order to secure the low costs valued by politicians and voters.

Like Diane Ravitch and several of her commenters, I was an early adopter to technology applications. As a public school administrator I found technology a godsend for scheduling, tracking budgets, preparing cost-benefit analyses, calculating the impact of collective bargaining proposals, and especially for writing. And while the introduction of the internet was a mixed blessing (emails tended to eat into my daily schedule on the job and outside of it), it did provide a means of making every decision transparent and disseminating information rapidly. And as one who tends to think in bullet points and one who used an overhead projector as a teacher, I found powerpoint to be very useful in preparing presentations on everything from budgets and building projects to future directions I hoped we might be able to take.

But unlike Ms. Ravitch and her commenters, I was a school superintendent and, as such, witnessed the intense pressure to suppress costs while simultaneously introducing children in schools to the technology school board members and I were using every day on our jobs. One thing I learned was that the use of technology required some degree of standardization.. and some teachers and parents bridled at any form of standardization. In devising schedules and linking the schedules to computerized report cards, for example, I needed to demand that teachers re-name some of their courses to “fit” the fields “the computer” allowed. In implementing a computerized parent portal that enabled parents to monitor their child’s progress in various subjects periodically we needed to ensure that teachers entered grades into their grade books regularly and not at the very end of the grade period. In collective bargaining, we needed to make certain both parties were using the same spreadsheets to calculate the impact of changes in compensation. Each of these “standardization” efforts resulted in faster and more efficient operations… but whether it was BETTER was debatable in the minds of some people in virtually every case.

My bottom line is that the effectiveness of technology is limited by the factory paradigm we insist on retaining in public education. As long as we group children by age and measure their progress by tests that are linked to their cohort group we will continue to mis-use and abuse technology. The ideals espoused by progressive educators like John Dewey are not based on operating an “efficient” (i.e. cheap and fast) system in the fashion the industry leaders envisioned at the turn of the 20th century. We need to let children roam free in the real and virtual worlds and not be limited to pre-programmed electronic worksheets that quickly and inexpensively move them through a standardized curriculum. Doing so might be slower and/or more expensive than what we are doing now, but it would be better.

Elizabeth Mason Posits Three Ways AI Could Remove Poverty… One Looks Promising, All are Chilling and Unlikely

January 2, 2018 Leave a comment

Yesterday’s NYTimes featured a thought provoking article on the promise of AI in addressing the intractable problem of poverty by Elisabeth A. Mason, the founding director of the Stanford Poverty and Technology Lab and a senior adviser at the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality. Ms. Mason posts three ways AI could help address the three underlying causes of poverty: joblessness; lack of education; and dependence on government programs. Of the three ideas Ms. Mason presents, I completely agree with her ideas about education but found her ideas about joblessness and welfare chilling.

First, Ms. Mason’s thoughts on how technology could assist education mirror mine, which, naturally, makes them appealing to me. She suggests that AI could be used to completely differentiate instruction, matching learning preferences to each child and pacing instruction in a fashion that enables all students to progress through the curriculum successfully. Here’s her description of how we currently treat students in K-12 schools and how AI might help:

We bundle students into a room, use the same method of instruction and hope for the best. A.I. can improve this state of affairs. Even within the context of a standardized curriculum, A.I. “tutors” can home in on and correct for each student’s weaknesses, adapt coursework to his or her learning style and keep the student engaged.

Today’s dominant type of A.I., also known as machine learning, permits computer programs to become more accurate — to learn, if you will — as they absorb data and correlate it with known examples from other data sets. In this way, the A.I. “tutor” becomes increasingly effective at matching a student’s needs as it spends more time seeing what works to improve performance.

I do NOT believe “machine learning” can replace teachers. But I DO believe “machine learning” can provide a better means for students to master hierarchical subjects like mathematics and basic science, rule-based topics like grammar, and skill development that is acquired through repetition. That, in turn, could free teachers to cultivate higher order thinking skills and develop interpersonal skills.

Ms. Mason’s idea for job-matching and welfare reform, though, are problematic. For job creation she asserts that AI is ideally suited for matching job seekers with job vacancies and further contends that AI can “…take the guesswork out of which jobs are available and which skills workers need to fill them.” As for welfare reform, Ms. Mason believes AI can “…predict which programs help certain people at a given time and to quickly assess whether programs are having the desired effect.

My problem with these algorithmic “solutions” is that they all require the collection and storing of massive amounts of data by a third party who would, presumably, use the data to achieve noble purposes. In the world as I know it now, I would expect our legislators to see the private sector as the ideal collector and manager of data, which would provide some corporation with a wealth of data that could be used to advance the unending consumption of resources so that corporations could achieve ever higher profits. Moreover, in their desire to achieve profits, I doubt that shareholders would place the public well-being over earnings. If that was the case currently, there would be no poverty or joblessness.

As an educator who has espoused individualization of instruction since I attended graduate school in the early 1970s, I despair at the idea of changing the existing paradigm of schooling where, as Ms. Mason describes, “we bundle students into a room, use the same method of instruction and hope for the best.” As long as we group students by age cohorts and use some form of standardized tests to measure their progress we will never achieve the kind of individualization Ms. Mason advocates.

Finally, as one who believes that AI could be used for beneficial ends, I despair even more that our current government dismisses evidence-based decision making… and that use of evidence-based decision making is at the heart of Ms. Mason’s conviction that AI has promise. Here’s her argument, presented near the end of her article:

Even Congress occasionally wakes up from its partisan slumber to advance the cause of technology in public policy decision-making: In 2016, Congress voted for and President Barack Obama authorized the creation of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policy Making. The act creating the commission was sponsored by Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat, and Paul Ryan, the House speaker. Before the commission expired in September 2017, it used government data to evaluate the effectiveness of government policy and made recommendations based on its findings.

This just in, Ms. Mason: the commission expired in September and none of its recommendations have been heeded, no laws have been introduced to implement any of the recommendations, and scores of evidence-based concepts have been abandoned by the current administration.

In the end, I do not see much promise in “evidence based” decision making, particularly if we maintain the toxic partisanship in our government and in our media coverage. In general, people can only absorb evidence that confirms their beliefs and validates their personal experiences. Until voters are willing to open their minds to the possibility that the narratives the political parties are promulgating are invalid, we will continue to muddle along basing our conclusions about “what works” on the convictions we hold.

Virginia Newspaper Hails Internet Access in Schools… but Notes that Home Access, End of Net Neutrality Pose Problems

December 25, 2017 Leave a comment

News Virginian reporter Bob Stuart writes of the success the MacAuliffe administration in upgrading the bandwidth in the public schools in his region, but also notes that the lack of access at home and the recent FCC decision could compromise equity of opportunity… and that’s before the Virginia legislature faces the effects of the tax reform package.

Mr. Stuart’s article opens with the good news:

Seventy-five percent of Virginia’s public schools — including those in Waynesboro, Augusta County and Staunton — now have internet access that meets or exceeds the minimum standard set by the Federal Communications Commission, according to Gov. Terry McAullife.

That figure is dramatically higher than the 14 percent that met the FCC minimum in 2015. Efforts by the McAuliffe administration to improve access has helped boost the number of schools with access, officials inside and outside government say. The  Virginia Department of Education’s Learning Infrastructure Program alone has helped 70 school districts achieve upgraded bandwidth.

But he then notes that school access alone is insufficient:

…once the students in those divisions leave school, gaps in broadband internet access, particularly in Augusta County, remain. The county board of supervisors has sought state grants the past two years to bridge the county’s digital divide. The county received a $279,000 grant in March, and has applied for a second grant of $233,040.

Mr. Stuart also reports on the workarounds some schools have devised to mitigate the lack of internet at home, with a local director of instruction and technology indicating that “…students can work on a Google document offline after leaving school” as long as they upload that document before leaving school, a “solution” that strikes me— as a homeowner who has no access to broadband whatsoever– as inherently unfair. In my case the lack of access to broadband isn’t a question of wealth: it just isn’t available at all! Based on what I divine from this article, the same in true in the rural Virginia counties.

Mr. Stuart also flags another problem rural schools and children raised in poverty might face:

Last week’s 3-2 FCC approval regarding net neutrality could have an iimpact on K-12 schools across the country.

The question is how much of the current unrestricted access to web-based lessons, videos, curriculum and other teaching tools will continue.

Despite identifying two obvious problems, Mr. Stuart overlooks a third one: the impact of the new tax bill on the ability of state and local governments to undertake costly initiatives like the grants Augusta County received in previous years. The question there is how much affluent communities in Northern Virginia will be willing to increase their taxes when their deductions are limited to $10,000 per year. That could stifle revenue for State and local governments at the same time as their demands increase due to cutbacks at the federal level.

For those who already have broadband and those who can afford the “web-based lessons, videos, curriculum and other teaching tools” none of this poses a problem. For those lacking broadband or those lacking the funding needed to get into the fast lane? Plan to spend lots of time staring at a spinning rainbow colored wheel!  

E-School News Analysis of Technology Access Misses Point: Without Internet Access at HOME Economic Disparities Will Persist

December 18, 2017 Leave a comment

Laura Ascione’s E-School News synopsis of an analysis provided by BrightBytes trumpeted the access to technology in rural schools, but downplayed the impact of the lack of access in the homes of rural children. The BrightBytes analysis, “…which analyzed more than 180 million data points collected via a national survey gauging educational technology access, use and effectiveness across 8,558 U.S. schools” , concluded that “…rural schools outpace urban and suburban schools when it comes to providing technology to students and teachers.” But the details on the findings do not lead to the conclusion that this access to technology at school necessarily translates to equitable access overall:

Rural schools were disproportionately represented among schools scoring in the top 5 percent for access at school, while suburban schools were disproportionately represented in the bottom 5 percent.

Conversely, suburban schools were disproportionately represented in the top 5 percent of schools for access at home, suggesting that suburban students, who are more likely to have devices of their own, could benefit from policies that allow them to bring their devices to school. Rural students still struggle with access to internet and devices in their homes.

Schools with high rates of students receiving free or reduced price lunch scored lower across all domains analyzed except professional learning, indicating that teachers have the freedom to influence their own professional development regardless of their school characteristics.

The conclusions I would draw from this synopsis are:

  • Rural children do not have the same opportunities to use technology to advance their learning as suburban children because they do not have the same internet services or devices
  • Children raised in poverty have fewer opportunities to use technology than ANY students
  • Equity of opportunity in terms of technology will not occur until robust broadband access is available to ALL students and funding for technology is equitable in all schools.

Ms. Ascione and BrightBytes drew a different conclusion regarding the children raised in poverty, though:

However, the data… suggest that teachers are having difficulty transferring new skills and strategies to the classroom due to the impact of administrative decisions on technology integration.

Brightbytes, the author of he report, like all data analysis firms, is more interested in administrative uses of technology than in making certain that EVERY school or EVERY child has access to technology 24/7. Their motto, “turn big data into big benefits for students”, would compel administrators to acquire computers for data analysis before it acquires then for students and it would also prioritize computerized instruction in school over the provision of computers for every student. For those reasons— and from my own observations in rural school districts, I am not persuaded that their findings are trustworthy. 

 

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