Connecting School Reform to Online Instruction in K-12 Classrooms: The Next New Thing

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Why have the results of computers entering schools in the past thirty years so disappointed champions of high-tech?

From Europe (OECD Report 2008) to the U.S., from developing nations buying One-Laptop-Per-Child (OLPC) to developed nations counting on schools preparing children and youth for a high-tech world, the same dreary statistics and conclusions emerge: teacher and student use of high-tech devices in daily lessons is minimal and even where usage is optimal, student outcomes in improved achievement and other indicators fall well below expectations.

Blame for this dismal outcome has fallen on resistant teachers, traditional administrators, mindless policymakers, eager philanthropists, and self-promoting vendors. Taking a step back from finger-pointing and the self-indulgent I-told-you-so is hard to do since bloggers and pundits offer splendid one-liners and quotable phrases that make for great bumper stickers. But if analysis means breaking down a problem into its constituent parts and reassembling those parts in ways that explain better what is going on than do slogans, then pausing to take one step back is crucial to understanding a problem before rushing in to solve it.

For many years I have written, spoken, and taught about the history and the intricacies of school reform in the U.S.  Readers, audience members, and students have asked me about computers in schools and the directions that technology has taken in the larger society and its limited use in schools for instruction. Every time, without exception, I have replied that the history of technological innovations in schools is a sub-set of school reform, not an exceptional case at all. If you want to understand what happens to technological innovations when they are adopted and end up in classrooms, know what occurred to major school reforms that succeeded and failed.

Although skeptical looks and words, albeit polite ones, came from those who asked the questions, I plunged on and said that anyone determined to transform schools, especially classroom teaching and learning through technology should first understand that the history of school reform is filled with recurring efforts by promoters of one reform or another to adopt and put into practice the next “new” thing.

For example, nearly two hundred years ago the major structural school reform was to establish the common school for everyone; a half-century later it was  age-graded schools; in the early 1900s, reformers pressed for social/medical services, adult education, and vocational education in schools.

All of these structural reforms were successful in eventually becoming part of the contemporary U.S. school. Yet there were many launches of innovations that had little staying power.  Recall the non-graded school, the open classroom, instructional TV, programmed instruction, vouchers, and too many others to mention. I could go on but the point is made.

And that point is that bringing high-tech devices in schools to transform teaching, learning, and bring schools into the 21st century must be seen within the larger picture of U.S. public schools as targets of structural reform for the past two centuries.  Here is the place, then,  to note that K-12 online instruction is being promoted as a “disruptive innovation” that will transform, even eliminate, the age-graded school–introduced over 150 years ago–into places that will permit students to proceed at their own pace in learning and achieve at higher levels than in self-contained classrooms with one teacher and 25 to 30 students. Online instruction in K-12 will revolutionize teaching and learning. Again, the technology is the lever that will upend the traditional world of schooling, the overall target of reformers.

Online education, promoters claim, can “disrupt” K-12 learning and create an entirely new system of tax-supported public schooling. No surprise, then, that amid post-2008 cuts in educational spending, many cyber schools (e.g., Agora), blended schools (e.g., Carpe Diem) and similar ventures (e.g., Flex Public Schools) have attracted great interest among entrepreneurs, CEOs, educators, academics, and many policymakers from both sides of the political spectrum. These reformers are determined to have U.S. students perform better on international tests and be better prepared for jobs in an information-based economy. Online instruction joins Common Core Standards, charter schools, evaluating and paying teachers on the basis of student test scores on reformers’ to-do list.

Of course, there is no one version of K-12 online instruction. Credit recovery programs,  rural students taking Advanced Placement courses,  blended schools like Rocketship charters, the School of One, and even mandating high school students to take courses online in schools–all come under the umbrella of online instruction. But the dream of all students clicking away at computer screens at home or elsewhere lures reformers into believing that existing school structures and habits will melt away.

Those high expectations for online schooling, like earlier incarnations of technological  “new things,” will fade as the political realities of wholesale restructuring of schools and classroom practices without widespread cooperation of teachers become apparent. More disappointment is around the corner.



Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

14 responses to “Connecting School Reform to Online Instruction in K-12 Classrooms: The Next New Thing

  1. Note how the online learning agenda you’ve identified relies heavily on marketing rhetoric, not evidence, for its impetus. One of the most worrying side effects of the net has been the speed with which new terms and ideas can be misappropriated. Far from creating a generation of digitally literate “readers,” so much innovative new technology has rendered many, illiterate victims of vacuous language.

    But I also think there is a worryingly covert anti-schools agenda hiding behind many of the most recent, technology driven initiatives. I could name a number of influential individuals whose experience of schooling was entirely negative. An experience they have carried with them into their professional lives as an axe to grind at every opportunity.

    • larrycuban

      You might be right or wrong about the motives of those behind recent technology initiatives, Joe. I just do not know. I find it hard to figure out motives of reformers (or even friends). I do rely on language and action and, of course, asking questions if the context is right. Much of the current hype–marketing rhetoric in your phrasing–for online learning in public schools, I believe, is integral to the larger current reform movement which is schizophrenic in its anti- anything that smacks of mainstream or traditional schooling and teaching yet must rely on public funding and existing schools with their teachers and administrator to institute reforms they want. Charters, vouches, home-schooling, “disruptive innovations,” and other ventures will not replace public schools. So reformers are, ironically, dependent upon the system that they want to replace.

  2. The irony isn’t lost on me Larry. It often goes hand in hand with a time sensitive, commercial objective that simply doesn’t grasp how much difficult concepts like stability, longevity and ethos contribute to good schooling.
    On individuals and motives. My favourite example is a leading figure in the new school design movement who is completely open about his own appalling experiences at school and about a PhD entitled, “School as Prison.” Oddly, he doesn’t seem to connect the two with his reforming zeal.

  3. Sometimes technology does have an impact:

    And from some successes a movement can build.

    • larrycuban

      The link you cited, Mitch, is an interview with a technology director in a rural district in Iowa who reports her impressions of what is occurring in her district. The “successes” she reports are mixed, at best, and, to be frank, only her impressions.

  4. Pingback: Connecting School Reform to Online Instruction in K-12 Classrooms: The Next New Thing | Teaching Trends |

  5. Perhaps Seymour Papert was right when he argued that merely adopting technology into old models of education is like strapping powerful jet engine to a horse and buggy and then expecting great accomplishments. Perhaps until we decide to fly rather than just keep measuring how far the horse and buggy can take us we really won’t be addressing whether digital technologies can advance learning in any worthwhile way.

  6. Pingback: Today's Reading List – Schools of Thought - Blogs

  7. Theodore Hoppe

    A Computer for Every Student
    Sixty educators from all across the country recently gathered in Erin Holsinger’s fifth-grade math class at the East Mooresville Intermediate School in Mooreville, North Carolina. They were their searching for the secret formula of how to reform education. They may have found it. They were there to witness how Mooresville schools have made steady gains on state tests in reading, math and science, an average of 88 percent of students across grades and subjects met proficiency standards, compared with 73 percent, since issuing laptops three years ago to the 4,400 4th through 12th graders in five schools. The graduation rate was 91 percent in 2011, up from 80 percent in 2008.
    The New York Time reported the most amazing part of this secret formula: “Mooresville ranks 100th out of 115 districts in North Carolina in terms of dollars spent per student — $7,415.89 a year — but it is now third in test scores and second in graduation rates. “Other districts are doing things, but what we see in Mooresville is the whole package: using the budget, innovating, using data, involvement with the community and leadership,” said Karen Cator, a former Apple executive who is director of educational technology for the United States Department of Education. “There are lessons to be learned.”

    Despite the fact that $7,500 is half the amount my state spends per pupil, many I have shared this article with balk at the idea of putting computers in school. Why, because they think children should not spending so much of their time on computers? They seem unaware of the message President Obama keeps repeating on the radio that we have a 30% drop-out rate on average in this country, or that taxpayers are shelling out an estimated $20 billion (with a “B”) annually on textbooks that are outdate by the time they research children hands, and that children need to carry in packs that make them appear ready to topple over. And what’s worse is, these textbooks are no longer effective for motivating children to learning. Part of this is addressed by Ali Carr-Chellman

    Ali Carr-Chellman is a former third-grade teacher. After realizing that traditional elementary classrooms weren’t for her, in part because she was frustrated by the lack of innovation, agility, and readiness to change in traditional schools. She’s now an instructional designer, author and educator, working on how to change and innovate within schools to make education work better for more kids. She teaches at Penn State University in the College of Education, working primarily with doctoral-level students to help produce the next generation of faculty with inspired research ideas and methods.
    In a talk she gave at TEDx PSU, in October of 2010, she provided some very compiling numbers for why we need to be doing something, and soon:
    “The Hundred Girls Project tells us some really nice statistics. For example, for every 100 girls that are suspended from school, there are 250 boys that are suspended from school. For every 100 girls who are expelled from school, there are 335 boys who are expelled from school. For every 100 girls in special education, there are 217 boys. For every 100 girls with a learning disability, there are 276 boys. For every 100 girls with an emotional disturbance diagnosed, we have 324 boys. And by the way, all of these numbers are significantly higher if you happen to be black, if you happen to be poor, if you happen to exist in an overcrowded school. And if you are a boy, you’re four times as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD — Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.”
    She addes: “We have to change the culture and the feelings that politicians and school board members and parents have about the way we accept and what we accept in our schools today.”

    Jane McGonnigal is the author of the book, “Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How they Can Change the World.” She just happens to know a secret about our children that most parent do not realize. In her TED talk from February 2010 she tells us:
    A researcher at Carnegie Mellon University says: “The average young person today in a country with a strong gamer culture will have spent 10,000 hours playing online games by the age of 21. Now 10,000 hours is a really interesting number for two reasons. First of all, for children in the United States 10,080 hours is the exact amount of time you will spend in school from fifth grade to high school graduation if you have perfect attendance.
    So, we have an entire parallel track of education going on where young people are learning as much about what it takes to be a good gamer as they are learning about everything else in school. And some of you have probably read Malcolm Gladwell’s new book “Outliers.” So, you would have heard of his theory of success, the 10,000 hour theory of success. It’s based on this great cognitive science research that if we can master 10,000 hours of effortful study at anything by the age of 21, we will be virtuosos at it. We will be as good at whatever we do as the greatest people in the world. And so, now what we’re looking at is an entire generation of young people who are virtuoso gamers.

    Sherry Turkle is Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT. Professor Turkle writes on the “subjective side” of people’s relationships with technology, especially computers. Her most recent book is “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.” She too worries about the fact that we are all becoming ‘hyper-connected’. But whether we want children to be spending so much time on computers does not seem to be the point. Teens and young adults are hyper-immersed in technology. A total 95% of teens ages 12-17 are online, 76% use social networking sites and 77% have cell phones. Of the slightly older age group (18-29 year olds), 96% are Internet users, 84% use social networks and 97% have cell phones. More than half of those users have smart phones and 23% own tablets such as the iPad. This is the findings of a new Pew Research Center study just released February 29, 2012

    Click to access PIP_Future_of_Internet_2012_Young_brains_PDF.pdf

    Among the recommendation in the report:
    “Reform of the education system is necessary to help learners know how to maximize the best and minimize the worst. Reform could start by recognizing that distractions of all kinds are the norm now. Educators should teach the management of multiple information streams, emphasizing the skills of filtering, analyzing, and synthesizing information. Also of value is an appreciation for silence, focused contemplation, and “lessons in ignoring people,” as futurist Marcel Bullinga put it.”
    Susan Price, CEO and chief Web strategist at Firecat Studio and an organizer of TEDx in San Antonio, Texas, is optimistic.
    “The amazing plasticity of the brain is nowhere as evident in the rapid adaptations humans are making in response to our unprecedented access to electronic information,” she wrote. “Those who bemoan the perceived decline in deep thinking or engagement, face-to-face social skills and dependency on technology fail to appreciate the need to evolve our processes and behaviors to suit the new reality and opportunities. Young people and those who embrace the new connectedness are developing and evolving new standards and skills at a rate unprecedented in our history. Overall, our ability to connect, share and exchange information with other human beings is a strong net positive for humanity.”

    It would be easy to labor the point I am making with more quotes and more research to support the types of innovations we see in Mooresville’s schools . (See Sugata Mitra, Charles Leadbeater, Dan Meyer, and Conrad Wolfram’s TED talks at I’m sure there was a time when people feared that the youth would be spending all their time reading books instead of working in fields. Perhaps using computers on the classrooms can teach students something parent forget to impart: technology is a tool, just like a book. It’s all about how one uses the tools we are given. From a taxpayer standpoint, it’s a no-brainer; cheaper and with better results. What’s not to like about that?

    Finally, Sir Ken Robinson, author, and an ardent advocate for education reform says, ” Every education system in the world is being reformed at the moment and it’s not enough. Reform is no use anymore, because that’s simply improving a broken model. What we need — and the word’s been used many times during the course of the past few days — is not evolution, but a revolution in education. This has to be transformed into something else.”

  8. cha

    Hi Larry,

    Could you please provide me a link of your previous research report on 1). transform schools, especially classroom teaching and learning through technology; 2). history of technological innovations in schools 3). any related Literature Review.

    Do you have a chance to manage such projects for schools in the past or in the near future?

    I have invested an innovative technology for this field, and would like to locate a partner to implement it for teaching productivity and learning effectiveness.



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