“Zombie Ideas” and Online Instruction

“Zombie ideas” are “beliefs about policy that have been repeatedly refuted with evidence and analysis but refuse to die,” according to Paul Krugman. The astonishment that Krugman expresses about the return of erroneous ideas again and again that simply won’t die regardless of how much  evidence there is to destroy them springs from Krugman’s belief in policymakers being rational beings. Policymakers consider research studies and rational argument, logic, and evidence to inform, make, and determine policy. As anyone in political life knows, however, such analyses do not destroy zombie brains with laser-like rationality. Erroneous ideas trump rationality and account for the zombie phenomenon again and again.

The repeated return of mistaken ideas captures well my experiences with technologies in schools and what I have researched over decades. The zombie idea that is rapidly being converted into policies that in the past have been “refuted with evidence but refuse to die” is: new technologies can cure K-12 and higher education problems of teaching and learning. The most recent incarnation of this revolving-door idea is widespread access to online instruction in K-12 education cyber-charter schools, blended schools where online instruction occurs for a few hours a day, and mandated courses that children and youth have to take.

Here is a brief list of those K-12 problems that promoters say will get solved through virtual instruction.

* Traditional whole-class instruction. Teaching lessons to the whole group of 25-30 students at one time generation after generation has resulted in tedium and boredom for students who already know the content or are too far behind to grasp the lesson. It has been difficult for teachers with these size classes and district and state requirements to cover to hit the sweet spot of learning that brings all students along at the same time.

With online instruction, lessons finally become individualized. Online instruction and blended learning provide “differentiated instruction” that can take each student from where he or she is and go to where each one can be–the Holy Grail pedagogical reformers have sought for generations. Moreover, these technological innovations permit some regular classroom teachers to “flip” their lessons, that is, students see teacher lectures or lessons at home and then come to class where teachers help individuals and small groups work through difficulties in understanding the lesson and strengthen skills of critical thinking, analysis, and problem solving.

*Disengaged and underachieving students. Online courses and blended learning will motivate individual students to work harder, gain more knowledge and skills, and embrace learning. Engaged students will achieve higher grades and graduate high school. Online instruction will bring such student up to speed in knowledge and skills necessary to finish academic courses and enter college or careers in a highly competitive global economy.

*Disconnect from world of work. Current content and skills taught in academic subjects seldom have real-world connections. Moreover, while high-tech devices continue to spread in schools, student use is often restricted to low-level tasks hardly tapping the enormous information and communication power of these devices. Students graduate unprepared for an information-driven labor market. Yet digital competence is expected of anyone working in an information-based economy.  Taking online instruction then becomes a normal part of daily learning. We need to close the gap between schools, what students do in daily lessons, and what youth will face when they graduate, advocates say.

Rising cost of schooling children and youth;  The single largest item in K-12 budgets are salaries for classroom teachers.  Acknowledging the variety of online course in virtual schools, cyber-charters, and in regular bricks-and-mortar schools, average expenses for online schooling still comes in lower than costs for teachers in regular age-graded schools. The national average expenditure for instruction in regular schools runs around $10,000. Costs for virtual schools range between $5100 to $7700 and for blended schools $7600 to $10,200. While there are dueling studies over costs among policy advocates and opponents, few would question that online instruction is cheaper than providing a teacher for every class in an age-graded school (The-costs-of-online-learning-1).

Campaigners for online instruction, then, pitch this instructional approach as solving heretofore intractable problems. It is an idea, they say, whose time has come.

But, of course, these ideas appeared before. Consider the 1950s with the promise of instructional television solving problems of  teacher shortages and over-crowded schools. Or the promise of providing access to children and youth through distance education in the 1960s with airplanes flying over the Midwest beaming lessons in schools. Or shall we forget the frenzy over desktop computers put into schools in the 1980s and laptops in the 1990s.

Again and again, new technologies in schools are promoted as solutions to grave educational problems. The evidence of past failures of technology transforming teaching and learning in schools didn’t happen then and, yes, here we are again welcoming the return of a zombie idea.



Filed under school reform policies, technology use

45 responses to ““Zombie Ideas” and Online Instruction

  1. Larry,

    Love the notion of “zombie ideas” – many of them are indeed still walking around our schools – dead n’ kicking!

    The problem, I find, is that these ideas are not always as obvious to the untrained eye (nor as easy to bash over the head) as actual “zombies”.

    Many of these policy, practice and process zombies have stuck around so long because we do not question them – put simply, why do not ask “why” enough. For example – Why do we have class periods of 45 minutes (all over the bloody world)?

    It’s a simple enough question – but a question that so few of us ask. If the question (and many others like it) is not asked, the zombie remains “hidden”.

    We need more “Why-guys” (and gals) to take on these zombies!


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  4. Reblogged this on goodbyteaching and commented:
    The ‘sexiness”of computers. I have recently heard of a principal who feels that traditional art classes should be replaced with some type of computer art class. I am not a Luddite; I see a time when textbooks will be online because it’s cheaper and saves paper but anyone who has been in a classroom for awhile knows that education is a lot more than transmission of information and that kids don’t work or tune out for a variety of reasons.

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  6. schoolfinance101

    Actually, I might refute that on an “apples to apples” comparison, online costs substantially less: http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2012/01/10/misunderstanding-misrepresenting-the-costs-economics-of-online-learning/
    The Fordham report does the usual [junk] comparison of providing the summed expenses for a) a set of core academic online courses versus b) providing the full array of services embedded in brick & mortar schooling (including arts/athletics/counseling, etc.). The more appropriate comparison would look at the brick and mortar costs of providing only that same set of core academic courses. Then, of course, there are the costs passed on to the end-user/student & parent, including related utilities, equipment and parental opportunity costs if they provide supervision.

    [that is, real “cost analysis” as per Hank Levin’s early work on computer assisted learning] Sadly, most modern hack pundits promoting this zombie apocalypse have neither read Hanks work on cost analysis… nor do they care. I hope to be doing a thorough report next summer.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Bruce, for the reminder of hidden costs that are often absorbed by users that skew comparisons of online instruction and regular classroom instruction. Often the up-front costs for development of online software are substantial and seldom calculated into the comparison also. Readers can read your post and references to Hank’s work. I appreciate your taking the time to comment. I look forward to your analysis of cost-effectiveness of online instruction.

  7. Reblogged this on David R. Taylor-Thoughts on Texas Education and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

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  10. Interesting article, Larry, and I agree that we have a lot of “zombies” in education. I think the overarching problem we have is that, as a community, we don’t have enough of an emphasis on demonstrating what instructional approaches work with effectiveness data….and I don’t mean multiple-choice, standardized tests. If, as an education community, we could agree on what performances we expect of students and then measure those performances in the context of different instructional approaches….online, offline, distance, blended, whatever…then we’d be in a much better position to assert what works and what doesn’t. But as it stands now, I think we rely too much on our opinions and informal observations, trusting, probably naively, that they are representative of students’ entire skill repertoires. Thanks for the opportunity to participate.

  11. Larry,
    You might find this recent zombie news item about a wasted £1.4 billion on educational ICT from the UK interesting. What astounds me is that the very organisation making the news here (NESTA) was itself parent to the most vociferous peddler of zombie thinking on educational ICT in the entire field, Futurelab.

    • larrycuban

      Irony is so prevalent that it is almost a cliche nowadays but in NESTA’s slamming of high-tech investment garnering few changes in teaching–well, that is rich. Thanks, Joe.

  12. maryproud

    Reblogged this on Mary's Place and commented:
    No matter which medium we choose to use; the chalkboard, pencil & paper, or tablets, the best learning happens in small class sizes.

  13. Blogged about your article here: https://www.edsurge.com/n/2012-11-20-zombie-ideas-in-k-12-edtech-reform-arguments

    Summary of my comments: I’d agree that we need to ask some tough questions about the effectiveness of pure online instruction. More broadly, no one should believe claims that serious problems, especially those rooted in deep social ills such as poverty, can be “cured” with a dollop of silicon chips and touch screens.

    But thoughtful criticism of badly designed programs doesn’t mean we should chuck technology out of school altogether. The monster lurking under the zombie disguise isn’t technology–but the gaping disconnect between technology development and what we know about teaching and learning. It’s time to figure out how educators and developers can work together to address life’s really monstrous challenges.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the thoughtful commentary on my post about “zombie ideas.” You quote Krista in your extended comments “Technology is not pedagogy.” She is correct. But why is that truth so often ignored by software developers, vendors, reform-driven policymakers, researchers, and practitioners?

      • Thanks Larry. it’s a great question — and one that I’m trying to explore every day. There have certainly been communications gaps (“developers are from Uranus, educators are from Saturn?”). Call me an optimist but I do think it’s possible to bridge the divide!

  14. unsatisfied with school

    Please tell me what your answer is? The largest zombie notion in education is that the same format and progression works equally for all children at all ages.

    Speaking as a former student: did I have remarkable teachers who engaged and caused me to engage with subject matter I might have otherwise discarded? Certainly. I also had many teachers who lacked even the basic interest in the absorption of the information they were conveying. In other words, looking back on my K-12 experience- and watching my son progress through his- it is at best hit or miss.

    Sure reformers can be annoying. Sure they can be full of themselves and the promise of their approach, but what is more annoying are people who in the face of all evidence are convinced that the way it has always been done is the only valid way it can be done.

    Take Coursera for instance. Will it replace institutions of higher education? Of course not. But speaking as someone that grew up in a mostly rural area, it would have provided me with access to vast amounts of material in an instructional sequence to which there was simply no other access.

    What is your answer to disengaged students? In my case, it was an hour of “gifted education” that was one hour out of the day that I was allowed to talk to my peers about subjects of common interest instead of sitting through a soul-deadening lecture on the same short stories the teacher had discussed for the last thirty years. Getting a masters degree did not help the classroom experience in the least.

    So please, instead of carping about how ambitious thinkers are too ambitious and out of touch politicians are too out of touch with the realities you face. Please provide some new ideas. All modern adults went through basically the same education system as children in the 1700s. We understand what school is like. Some have fond memories, others have terrible memories. Instead of sitting around patting yourselves on the back as you look at efforts that have not resulted in transformation- often due to intransigence- please lead by example. What is the way forward?

    • larrycuban

      Dear Unsatisfied with School,
      The way forward is three-fold:

      First, policymakers concentrate on staffing classrooms with rookies and mid-career people who know (and love) a discipline–yes even for kindergarten teachers and those who teach AP Calculus–are skilled in connecting whatever content they teach to the different ways that children and youth grow and learn,know about child and youth development and the role that public schools play in a market-driven democracy.

      Second, Once such teachers are in classrooms–this is not the place to talk about universities teacher preparation but it deserves a place nonetheless–policymakers construct school calendar where continual and sustained professional development, shaped by teachers, aims at improving teacher knowledge of their subject, how children and youth grow and change, and further develop teacher skills in connecting that knowledge to differences among students.

      Third, alter the working conditions that teachers face in U.S. age-graded schools. From teaching too many subjects in elementary schools and five to six classes a day in secondary schools to providing time for teachers to plan and teach together to changing the age-graded school to permit students of different ages to learn and work together.

      Please note that technology plays a part in each of the above but is connected only insofar as it helps teachers achieve each step forward.

      How’s that for starters?

      • I’m a bit confused about how these are not “zombie” ideas as well. We’ve been trying to improve teacher quality, training, and conditions for a long time now with little avail. I get that you think various attempts at improvement through technology have failed – they largely have – but I don’t understand why you think future attempts to improve using technology will fail while future attempts at teacher-side improvement won’t. I understand an argument for a new solution, but the solutions you’ve proposed aren’t new.

      • larrycuban

        Fair point, Rachel. Old solutions to persistent problems of teaching and learning that I described get at the fundamental relationship between student and teacher and is at the core of what happens in effective classrooms. However, they have not been largely embraced by policymakers and politicians; they are expensive, labor-intensive, and require substantial changes in how daily business is done in schools and classrooms. Old does not mean obsolete or lousy. Technology-driven solutions in schooling–as mentioned in an earlier comment I made–try to end-run around this fundamental relationship and, for this and other reasons, have failed. That lesson has yet to be learned by policymakers who seek efficient and cheap end-arounds.

  15. Hi Larry,

    Read your post with great interest. I agree that experience from the past should provide sufficient warning that technology is not a magic silver bullet that will solve every issue we face in education.

    Though I would put forth the argument that today’s technology has the potential to be more interactive than ever, allowing students to interact with the device/software, parents, teachers, administrators and each other. I think it gives us a better chance of making those “zombie” ideas work.

    I do see many EdTech professionals and entrepreneurs work independently from educators, ignoring pedagogy altogether. The result of which creates some “misguided” education tools that could end up making matters worse. As an EdTech entrepreneur myself, I can see how it is easy to get lost in trying to get a minimum viable product while balancing the often tedious task of trying to get teachers involved. Sometimes I think the challenge is trying to blend two very different working schedules together.

    Speaking from our own experience, it takes a lot of discipline to always measure yourself by how much you add value to the education process because of limited finances.

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  17. Just wait till the Robot instructors come along and the idea rises once again.

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  21. unsatisfied with school

    Those are all fine starting suggestions- except that they are not in any way starting points. They are the same complaints lodged by teachers since the time of Socrates. If only I had more training or fewer students or more time? Where is your evidence? The spending on teachers has increased well beyond inflation and demographics, yet little improves. Every other profession has had to change over the last 30 years but somehow teachers are to be left unchallenged. Why not throw in a need for more docile students just for completeness?

    None of your suggestions addressed anything I asked. All of them revolve around easing the lives of teachers. None of them suggest changes to the way in which students engage with their classes or school. None of them suggest changes in how teachers participate in the system of education. The reason the traditional community support for teachers is crumbling and politicians are proposing changes unthinkable even a decade ago is because all but the most well off of us have more difficult lives but teachers alone seem unwilling to recognize new realities.

    Why are teacher metrics so popular right now? Because it is currently impossible for a dedicated, passionate teacher to be recognized in terms of success relative to a peer. All someone can do to improve their income is take more school and wait. When the layoffs come, the people that have waited the longest and are the most expensive have the least to fear. K-12 instructors do not lack for academic freedom, so why do they get tenure? Job security. Everyone wants that. If you do not want a system that teaches to the test and assesses to the common standards, come up with an alternative. Be a partner.

    Instead, you sit in your dim lighthouse, smirking as boats of reform crash on the rocks below.

    I work with dozens of teachers a year that go to the ends of the Earth for their students- long hours, long drives to round up homeless students, and so on- and they are often underpaid relative to teachers presenting the same material in exactly the same fashion as they did 20 years ago. How much prep time does that require? How much training would it take to get them to change? Why should the teachers I provide tools for not be demoralized by colleagues unwilling to anything beyond the bare minimum?

    I have lost count at the number of in service or conference or training days that my son loses a school day for. He can learn little more about computers than I could back when I was the only one in my class that owned one. And he is in a good district. It provides that people in the meat of the bell curve will do fine. Nothing special but also nothing harmful. You are telling me this is perfection? There is a reason that Ed schools in most universities have lower admission criteria than other professional programs.

    So I ask again, where are your posts about exciting ways in which teachers are partnering with administration or posts showing that giving students the ability to progress at their own pace improves self concept?

    Anything beyond the clever derision of the new and the celebration of biggest zombie of all?

    • larrycuban

      Dear “Unsatsified with School,”
      Those starters are the best that I can do. Since I do not have a monopoly on “exciting ways in which teachers are partnering…” what do you propose? As for me, I will work on going beyond “clever derision.”

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  23. anonymous

    Larry, I agree with you if people are selling this as the “ultimate solution.” But unless we are talking about education crooks, most people are instead selling online education as a means to reach each of the ends you described. If you look from that perspective, online education (and its precedents such as like tv-based education) have been getting progressively closer to each one of these objectives.

    To take just a couple examples: Traditional whole-class instruction has been significantly improved by models such as the Khan Academy where students can watch the videos at their own pace, ask questions, and now even get personalized mentors who donate their time to support them. Disconnect from world of work has been substantially improved given the wide range of options that are currently available. Take for example a computer science student in a developing country a few years back: She would be out of luck trying to learn whatever modern language instead of some old fashioned language with little market appeal just because the latter was the only thing offered at their local college.

    So, I don’t see these as zombie ideas, but instead as goals that are being progressively achieved. Having people saying that they have found the holly grail happens everywhere, we just need to look at the lay news on people saying that the cure of cancer is near. Little they know …

    • larrycuban

      Perhaps you are correct about the notion of “progress” that you nicely offer with, I might add, fine examples. I certainly agree that there has been “progress” toward access to schooling but from what I know of the history of public school reform in the U.S., cycles of hype and policy action have occurred as policymakers and politicians turn to schools to solve economic, social, and political problems in the larger society.For me, that is where “zombie ideas” recur. Thanks for the comment.

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  25. John

    You’re right. Technology isn’t the answer, because Americans still don’t know the question. When it comes to education, we don’t have the slightest idea about what we really want, One minute it’s social-emotional learning; the next it’s global citizenship; another time it’s “real-world” skills. Until we figure out what exactly we’re after, in terms of teaching and learning, technology will always be the proverbial hammer looking for a nail.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, John, for commenting. Some say that the nationalizing of curriculum standards in the Common Core is figuring “out what exactly we’re after.”

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