Hybrids?

No, I am not going to discuss cars or corn. Neither am I going to write about cross-breeding animals. I have just learned–yeah, I am on the slow side–about “hybrid schools.” Schools that cross-breed low-tech schooling with high-tech learning–or in the argot of techie champions: “bricks and clicks” schools. New York City’s “School of One” is a hybrid. So is San Jose’s Rocketship schools, San Diego’s High Tech High, and Hawaii’s Kapolei SEED Academy.

Using different schedules, these hybrid schools blend time when students interact with teacher lessons with chunks of time where individual students work online with Khan Academy snippets, lectures from college professors, and step-by-step demonstrations of chemistry experiments. Much variation exists among these “bricks and clicks” schools as there is among schools that rely wholly upon “clicks” and those that don’t.

Imagine a high-tech continuum of schools where at one pole there are cyber-schools that use online learning to individualize lessons for students working from home and no face-to-face time with teachers–all clicks. Then imagine at the other pole,  schools with most lessons taught by teachers to groups of students with mobile and stationery computer labs–more bricks than clicks. Then with these examples at each end, the above hybrids hug the middle of this continuum.

Venture capitalists enamored with charters, business-oriented policymakers, and Utopian techies hype these hybrids as a crucial step toward the eventual transformation of public schools, particularly ones with large minority and poor enrollments. Or as the published investment strategy of the Charter School Growth Fund put it:

“These ‘next generation’ school models will combine new advances in …learning technology with the key tenets of successful bricks-and-mortar CMOs (Charter Management Organizations) to deliver outstanding academic achievement, meaningful operational efficiency, and significant scale.”

These hybrids immerse students in a digital world where individual lessons are hand-crafted to fit students for part of or most of the day. In these schools, some teachers teach traditional lessons while others coach individual students to make sense of what they have learned. In hybrids, there are fewer teachers–that is where efficiency enters– with much student time spent online. These hybrids bring the “real” world of digital ubiquity that children and youth experience 24/7 at home, with friends, and elsewhere–into schools for part of the day.

For many technology-enthused policymakers and teachers such hybrids renew the dream of 19th and 20th century pedagogical progressives Colonel Francis Parker, John Dewey, Ella Flagg Young, and George Counts who sought to end traditional classroom drill, rote memorization, and regimented group activities and create student-centered learning connected to the larger world and relevant to students’ lives. That dream, however, crashed as other efficiency-minded progressives, embracing the “scientific management” preached by Frederick Taylor, eventually trumped those pedagogical pioneers and ended up dominating public schools through the 1950s.

But to latter-day pedagogical progressives such as Alfie Kohn, Deborah Meier, Pedro Noguera, Michelle Fine, and others, these hybrids added to the dominant testing and accountability policy consensus carry too strong a whiff of modern-day Taylorism.

Even if “next generation” hybrids smell like earlier efforts of learning-by-doing and student-centered pedagogy, there is a much larger conceptual problem that “bricks and clicks” school have in their long march toward transforming public schools into wondrous learning places. And that problem is the historically narrow view that techno-enthusiasts proselytize as the purpose of public schools: Schools must expose students to more information than teachers and books can provide to prepare them for an ever-changing high-tech world.

And that is the conceptual error that techno-enthusiasts, Charter School Growth Fund investors, online learning entrepreneurs, and many others futurists make repeatedly. They equate access to information with becoming educated–more of one leads to more of the other.  These very smart people ignore other crucial and purposes public schools have served historically in a democracy. Too often, these goals have been taken for granted like the air we breathe and the water we drink. What can be as important as students acquiring information? Try socializing the young, developing engaged citizens, moral development, and, yes, even custodial care of the young.

Schools have never been solely information factories; they have been and are social, political, and moral institutions whose job is to help children and youth acquire multiple literacies,  enter the labor market well prepared, vote, serve on juries, contribute to their communities, think for themselves, and  live full and worthwhile lives. A century ago, these purposes for public schools were obvious; now they remain in the shadows. Few policymakers, few philanthropists, few civic and business leaders have challenged (or are willing to challenge) the decided tilt toward transforming schools into information factories.

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7 Comments

Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

7 responses to “Hybrids?

  1. “Conceptual errors” is generous; I’d describe it as a well designed simulation, or as Roszak termed it “a cult.” As one of the enthusiasts, who also understands our educational system through a critical theories lens, I’m hard-pressed to find others in my ranks using the same lens. As you pointed out a few posts ago, technocentrism is the thought-paradigm of the day. It’s taken some turns for the worse since Papert’s days with Logo. For example market-driven opportunism makes it perfectly legitimate to expect each new device and technology to have an educational application, if only we could discover it, like colleges are doing with their iPad experiments. Of course they’ll find what they’re looking for, but that’s where the inquiry ends.

  2. Bob Calder

    I don’t understand how lessons can be hand crafted like wooden dories for each student using fewer personnel without the tools of mass production. It seems more like vocabulary slippage to me. Whether they’re using k-12.com for sections of curriculum or not. Work is done, ergo somebody was there to do it and somebody is paid for it whether they’re on staff or not.

    Frankly I think it’s just something convenient to hide behind and there’s not really anything amazing going on.

    Let’s step back and look at research and online education. Where is it being done and who does it best? Can anyone say it is being developed by private researchers for online education companies in the US? Anyone who can say that is oblivious to the world outside our borders.

    That said, don’t forget that “techno enthusiasts” are a varied lot and have been learning right alongside you as we have all become immersed in always-on systems. Their views yesterday are not a basis for indictment today.

  3. Pingback: Bricks, clicks and civics — Joanne Jacobs

  4. This time last year, I was a guest at the E-learning Debate at the Oxford Union which debated the motion, “This house believes that the e-learning of today is essential for the important skills of tomorrow.” There was a packed audience from across the industry and I fully expected the motion to be supported, since my own pre-debate view was that the motion itself betrayed the current politically dominant, crudely utilitarian view of education.

    However, the Noes won hands down mainly through the skills of Marc Rosenberg. He fundamentally rejected the vacuous promises made for e-learning and pointed out that the very same promises have been made about new technology all the time…and always without result. What was most impressive was his stance that no one was really suggested e-learning wasn’t useful, what he was interested in was a dramatic and fundamental rejection of the way it has been done to date: the tedious online courses; the deception of pretending something is learning when it is really merely training; the obsessive interest in the technology and not the content, but above all he called for e-learning to be done in a way that accepted the reality of human communications, schooling and work practices.

    • larrycuban

      Joe,
      Thanks for describing the Oxford Union debate on E-learning. I had missed it and looked it up and the various positions taken by largely insiders in the industry. I did read what Marc Rosenberg had to say and some of the other participants. The “distance education” crowd in the U.S. and the UK folks channel the same arguments, it seems.

  5. Joe, Thanks for pointing me back to Rosenberg, who I’ve heard and read, and simply forgotten about since grad school. I mentioning this publicly because he’s someone who’s in the business of “ed and tech” AND critical of it.

  6. Pingback: Politics and school reform: Power, ideology and the use of evidence

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